Sunday, July 02, 2017

If You Don’t Know, Just Say So

When you don’t know the answer to something, the only truly honest response is “I don’t know”.

Some people just can’t bring themselves to say it, sadly.

This poor soul dared to pose a question on an internet forum a while back. The silly fellow had been reading his Bible (on his own, possibly) and had the temerity to come across this verse:

“As he said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!’ ”

Hooboy. Some people just know how to pick ’em.

Anyway, it led him to make inquiry of his brothers in Christ:
“… it seems to challenge the veneration of Mary. Any thoughts?”
The words “any thoughts” don’t seem particularly assertive to me, but they resulted in the following responses from three people who don’t have an answer, but can’t just say so:

“I Don’t Know” #1

One very typical school of response is summed up in the following. I call it the Blind Appeal to Authority:
“A solid suggestion is to stop protesting the Church built by Christ. Otherwise, you will continue to experience the troubles of sola scriptura and right of private interpretation. How can one truly know our Lord, if one misunderstands either oral or written Tradition? The Catholic Church is the only entity guaranteed to teach the truth about Christ, with sacred oral and written Tradition. Only the Catholic Church can claim to teach without error in faith and morals.”
(Sola scriptura, for those who aren’t familiar with the phrase, simply means “by scripture alone”. It is a foundational doctrine of the Protestant Reformation.)

I believe this response might be reasonably synopsized in the words “Shut up and believe the Church”. There’s no attempt to deal with the question. The responder doesn’t know; he believes whatever his church tells him and expects everyone else to do the same.

He also cannot leave well enough alone:
“Are you following the doctrine of those who protested it and built man-made churches? Are you interpreting the Bible written by Catholics and intended for the faithful under the infallible protection of the Catholic Church? If you’re not in the Church built by Christ for all believers, call it what you want, but it’s not acceptance ... whether a conscious decision or just by indoctrination.”
So to “protest” is not only to teach doctrine contradictory to the current teaching of what the responder erroneously believes is THE Church, it’s to even ask a question. Politely. Forgive me, but I’m not sure “stop protesting” is the best answer here. Actually, it’s not an answer at all.

He doesn’t know.

“I Don’t Know” #2

At least one guy took a shot at actually addressing the original question:
“The translation of ‘On the contrary’ is a faulty one. The accurate translation was ‘Yes, and additionally’.”
This responder also should’ve answered “I don’t know”. Because he doesn’t.

The words “on the contrary” actually come from the New American Standard Bible version of the Lord’s response. This is the translation quoted by the fellow asking the question in the first place, so I had a quick look at Bible Hub (which is an easy way to compare the work of numerous translators from many different denominations completed years apart) to see just how far off the NASB is with this translation.

And it appears the NASB is just fine. Most translations, both older and modern, render “on the contrary” as “rather”, which is pretty much the same thing. Nearly every decent English translation reads along the lines of “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” The fellow doing the retranslation here is out on a limb linguistically. By himself. The Expositor’s Greek New Testament says the word in question is ambiguous, but it also leans toward “rather”:
“μενοῦν might be confirmatory or corrective, or a little of both; the tone of voice would show which of the two the speaker meant to be the more prominent. Correction probably was uppermost in Christ’s thoughts.”
Not a single version of scripture that I can find translates the phrase “Yes, and additionally”.

So he doesn’t know either.

“I Don’t Know” #3

Okay, so we have two answers so far. Answer #1 is “Shut up and go away; you are slipping into Protestantism and in danger of the fires of hell” or something like that. Answer #2 is “Every current translation of the Bible is incorrect and that’s why you misunderstand the verse. It’s actually a commendation of Mary.”

Not much help there. Shall we give the respondents one more kick at the can?
“Do you not believe that Mary satisfied the condition?”
Answer #3, then, responds to the questioner with a question. This poor fellow is not getting a lot of help with his desire for understanding! But then our third responder actually introduces another verse that may help, which is a good thing:
“You might also consider the prophecy of Luke 1:46-48.”
Luke 1:46-48 is Mary stating that “henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me”.

Now that’s a little more on point. Why was Mary “blessed”? In allowing Mary the unparalleled privilege of carrying the Saviour, giving birth to him and raising him (though I suspect the ‘raising’ largely consisted of the Lord doing the good things he would have done naturally, sometimes even at the request of his parents, but let’s not speculate), God had done “great things” for her. What an honor indeed! In this respect, Mary was very “blessed”. At the time she was thrilled.

But this was not to be the case every moment of her life, was it.

As early as age 12, he caused her “great distress”. Mary was far from “happy” when the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem and could not be found for three days. And I doubt that Mary felt terribly “blessed” standing at the foot of the cross. There may well have been other times in between. In fact, Simeon prophesied this to her, didn’t he, when he said “a sword will pierce through your own soul also”.

I think we can fairly conclude that Mary was indeed especially “blessed”. Not blessed in every single respect or at every moment of her life, but certainly inordinately blessed in ways that no other woman ever was or will be. Looking back on her life, I guarantee she would not have had it any other way.

But even this verse doesn’t really address the issue in the original question.

This responder doesn’t know either.

A Little Reflection

It is not the worst thing in the world to admit you’re not sure — unless you’re speaking from a tradition in which the word “infallible” has been imprudently tossed around, I suppose, in which case I understand the desire not to be found clueless about the meaning of the word of God. In fact, being dogmatic when you know nothing, offering worthless help or plain making stuff up is not by any means unique. I’ve seen it done over and over again in evangelical Protestant circles too, sadly.

I can’t claim to have a perfect answer for the questioner either, so I won’t try. I would like to point out one or two things the verse does tell us very clearly, though, which may help clear the air.

This situation is quite a simple one: The woman does what lots of others in Christendom do regularly. She loses the plot. On hearing the profound words of the Lord, she burst out with a thought, the modern equivalent of which would be:

“You’re so wonderful that your mother must be wonderful too”, or
“You’re so wonderful that your mother must be delighted”, or possibly
“You’re so wonderful that your mother must be singled out for special treatment from God”

all depending on which scriptural meaning of “blessed” you care to impose on her words.

I don’t actually care which meaning we impose on her words, since her words aren’t important. What’s significant is that she’s changed the subject on the Lord, which necessitates that he graciously modify her outburst.

Gracious Modification

The Lord has been talking about the authority he has from his Father. First he establishes that, contra the accusations of some of the people, it is utterly impossible that he is casting out demons on the authority of Satan. With perfect logic, he asks them, “If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” And then he makes the practical application: If it’s not Satan’s authority, it must be God’s. He says, “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” In other words, you had better pay attention because there are serious consequences for every person in the audience.

It is at this moment that the woman bursts out with her bit of enthusiasm about Mary and changes the subject. Who knows why? We’re not told. Maybe she had a spiritual visitor of the darker sort prompting her actions, trying to deflect attention away from the Lord’s point. Maybe Satan thought a little bit of timely flattery would be distracting. Or maybe it was nothing so sinister: she may have well been nothing more than a sweet, well-intentioned woman with a big mouth and lots of enthusiasm.

But we’re not told, so a speculative analysis of what she might possibly have meant by “blessed” couldn’t be more irrelevant.

What IS relevant is the Lord’s reply: He said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” In other words, he brought the audience back to the actual point, which was Hear my word and do it, because it comes with the authority of the Almighty God. He might well have added, Your lives actually depend on it, because … well, they did.

In Summary

Whether or not the word “rather” is corrective in the sense that the Lord is diminishing the importance of Mary’s womb and breasts, or whether it confirms that Mary, too, is blessed, Mary is not the point of the exercise. Even if along the way to his point the Lord happened to affirm Mary’s unusual significance (and there is next to no reason to think that is the case), what the Lord is saying is this: Something else entirely needs our attention.

Mary may have been a little blessed, a lot blessed, or blessed in any number of different ways. It really doesn’t matter. It ain’t about Mary, folks. Never was, never will be.

The Lord says, Hear me! We ought to do just that.

Also, like the woman in the crowd and our would-be answer men, if you don’t know what you’re talking about, please stop talking.

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