Word of the Week
December 18, 2021
Sumballō: Processing Life’s Surprises
But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
Luke 2:19 KJV
Just when you think you have life figured out, something happens to jostle your comfortable picture of reality. The doctor calls to say, “Your lab results raise some concerns.” Or a letter arrives asking you to join a missions outreach in Austria for six weeks. Perhaps your daughter calls on FaceTime to announce, “You’re going to be a grandmother!”
Getting the news takes only a moment, but it may take a while to work out the full implications of something so significant.
We hear the Christmas story with the privilege of hindsight. We know what will happen to the baby in the manger. But Mary only knew that she had just gone through the painful process of giving birth, and now a bunch of excited shepherds had barged into the improvised birthing center, chattering excitedly about a sky filled with angels announcing the birth of a Savior.
Mary knew about angels. Gabriel had visited her nine months earlier to launch this adventure. Her husband Joseph had received his own visit, and her relative Elizabeth had already birthed an impossible baby in response to an angelic visit.
Now after months of pregnancy and days on a donkey, these men claim that the angels are back in force.
No wonder she needed some time to process it all. Things were happening fast, and the Gospel of Luke says, “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Would you like a glimpse of what was going on in Mary’s mind? We can understand her better by looking at two Greek words in this verse: “kept” and “pondered.”
“Mary kept all these things”
The Greek word used here for “kept” is suntēreō, a word that occurs only three times in the New Testament. The underlying idea is to keep something safe, to preserve it.
- When John the Baptist condemned Herod for taking Herodias from her husband and marrying her, the king jailed him. Herodias would gladly have lopped off his head immediately, but Herod was afraid to massacre a prophet of God, so he “kept him safe” (Mark 6:20).
- Jesus used wineskins to show why he didn’t follow the Jewish traditions of fasting. He pointed out that you don’t put new wine in old, brittle wineskins because the process of fermentation would burst the skin. All the wine would leak out. Instead, you used new, supple wineskins to hold fresh wine, so that both can be “preserved” (Matthew 9:17).
Mary wanted to remember all the details of this amazing night, so she stayed focused, tucking away the words of the shepherds so that she could “ponder” their significance when things had settled down. And that brings us to the second word.
“And pondered them in her heart.”
The Greek word used here for “ponder” is not what you might expect. The word sumballō stems from two Greek words meaning “to bring together, to throw together.” A quick survey of the six New Testament uses reveals a wide range of meanings.
- Jesus said that a person should count the cost, just as a king should be sure he is strong enough “when he sets out to meet another king in battle” (Luke 14:31). It describes two armies thrown together in battle.
- When Peter and John were hauled before the Jewish Council, the leaders “began to confer with one another,” struggling to decide how to handle these unexpectedly bold followers of Jesus (Acts 4:15). They were throwing ideas back and forth, debating the options.
- The philosophers in the Athens marketplace “were conversing” with Paul (Acts 17:18). You can imagine the lively discussion, with arguments bouncing back and forth.
- Apollos, fresh from his seminary training with Priscilla and Aquila, went to Corinth, where “he helped greatly those who had believed” (Acts 18:27) by powerfully refuting their Jewish opponents. Again we see someone catapulting into a debate.
- Paul, traveling to Jerusalem, left his companions on their ship and walked to the next port. Luke reports, “He met us at Assos” to continue the journey (Acts 20:14). There is no conflict this time, only two parts of the traveling party rejoining each other.
How does that help us understand what Mary was doing?
All these verses describe multiple people in motion, often in settings of conflict or debate. But Mary was doing all of this “in her heart.” No one else was involved.
I believe that Mary’s mind was filled with thoughts and emotions that crashed into each other. The first part of the evening had been eventful but ordinary. Just a young woman straining to deliver a baby, as millions of other women have done. She was undoubtedly exhausted, ready to settle down to care for her child and get some rest.
But abruptly the supernatural breaks in. Shepherds arrive with stories of angelic hosts. It was all wonderful – no denying that! But terribly unpredictable. The mundane and routine is punctuated with unplanned outbursts of the miraculous.
What are you supposed to make of it all? And what happens next?
Mary didn’t try to make a snap evaluation. Instead, she imprinted each part of the night in her memory so she could come back to it later. And she did return to it, pondering what God had done and waiting for Him to make His plans clear.
We often share Mary’s dilemma. We know that God has sought us and saved us, preserved us and protected us. But life still surprises us with unexpected joys or pains. Sometimes God steps in dramatically; at other times life seems to go on without His intervention.
On the days when God seems unpredictable, we can rest in His character. And, like Mary, we can be unhurried in seeking answers to all our questions. We can save up the unexplained fragments of our reality and trust the Lord to make it clear in His timing.
You may notice that I have gone beyond the raw data when I have tried to reconstruct Mary’s thoughts. I realize that I am speculating a little, but Luke chose a word that usually involves collisions, sometimes passionate ones, between people. It is an unusual word to describe one person’s meditation, and I am imagining what might be going on in her mind that would justify such a word.
Speculation is not a sin as long as you realize what you’re doing. Perhaps Mary’s thoughts were much more theological and contemplative than I am imagining. But I believe it is legitimate to suggest that she was bringing things together mentally, trying to make sense of it all, when it didn’t automatically fall into a neat pattern.
Q – I have recently heard a teaching on Mark 6:5 which stated that the Greek word “sick” meant the people who were healed were somehow comatose so that they could not practice unbelief to resist the miraculous healing. Searching a number of lexicons and translations has not verified this. Am I missing something?
A – When Jesus visited his home town of Nazareth, he encountered a solid wall of rejection. As a result, he “could do no miracle there except that He laid His hands upon a few sick people and healed them.” The Greek word for “sick” is arrōstos, which seems to cover all kinds of illnesses. In Matthew 14:14, Jesus ministered to a large crowd, healing all the sick he encountered. And in 1 Corinthians 11:30, Paul said that some people were sick because they were abusing the Lord’s Supper. Neither of those verses makes sense if you assume the people were unconscious.
I think the teacher you heard is simply trying to explain how some people in Nazareth received healing when the vast majority got no benefits from Christ’s presence. His theory is that they were unconscious, so they couldn’t hinder Christ by rejecting him. That’s theoretically possible, but it makes more sense to me to say that there were a few people who were willing to trust Jesus as a healer, despite the obstinacy of the majority.
Jesus came to earth “in the fulness of time,” according to Galatians 4:4. Next week we will consider this phrase and explore some of the factors that made it the perfect time for Him at arrive.
©Ezra Project 2021