Using the Back Door
The Gospel of Luke is a “dual process” document. When we read and interpret the account, we must look for multiple meanings and purposes in any and all of the texts. For example, the Lukan account is an apologia designed to make the Christian movement less threatening to Imperial authorities and more palatable to potential Gentile converts. It is also a “hidden transcript of resistance” that seeks to challenge and subvert the values of Imperial ideology and culture.
The Lukan author has a particular passion for the poor and an eye toward the wealthy who can be part of the movement under the right behavioral conditions. The author elevates the role of personal agency in repentance and renewal and highlights the work of the Holy Spirit in individuals and communities more than any other gospel account. The Lukan gospel is an invitation to hear and a call to do.
The Lukan author lifts up the ministry of women and makes them appear unduly subservient. The Lukan gospel affirms the absolute continuity between the Jesus movement and the vocation of biblical Israel. And this gospel tempts Christians to supersessionism in ways that are both surprising and shocking.
The Lukan author seeks to encourage a subversive and transformational movement without getting everyone killed in the process.
Thus, as we read and interpret the Lukan account, we need to attend not only to what is said, but also how, when, and by whom something is said. The Lukan author conveys as much or more by narrative structure, style, and tactics as the author does by the content of the narrative itself. If you find the Lukan gospel to be at times confusing and contradictory, that means you are paying close attention. That’s what happens when a theologian tries to satisfy several goals at once, and not all of them complementary to one another.
Lois Malcolm deals with some of these textual tensions in her chapter of the 2010 book, n Transformative Lutheran Theologies: Feminist, Womanist, and Mujerista Perspectives. In this chapter Malcolm seeks to understand and explicate Luther’s commentary on the Magnificat and to show that Martin Luther sees Mary as a model of witness and faith for us. In the process, she helps us to see the importance of the Holy Spirit for Martin Luther (and for us who bear that tradition) in spite of the reputed Lutheran allergy to experience and embrace of the work of the Spirit.
As Malcolm points out, Luther was critical both of the Augustinian mysticism in which he was formed as a monk and the “enthusiastic” emphasis on the Holy Spirit demonstrated by some members of the later Reformation community. Luther’s understanding of the work of the Spirit was rooted in Romans 8:26 and the assurance that the Spirit intercedes for us in our weakness.
This work is always the work of creation – and particularly creation out of nothing, as was the case in the Genesis account. Thus, the Spirit makes something out of nothing, brings life out of death. “It is here,” Malcolm writes, “in the midst of life’s struggles and not in our higher strivings and aspirations, that the Spirit works in the strange garb of sin and suffering, showing us a God who is continually turning to those lost in sin and death in order to create new life out of nothing – life out of death” (page 167).
With this understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, it is not surprising that Luther would find a powerful text in the call of Mary and her response in the Magnificat. Before we come to that assessment, however, Malcolm leads us to listen to feminist critiques of this understanding.
For one who has been told for a lifetime and culturally that she is, in significant ways, “nothing,” this reduction to “nothing” before being newly created sounds like the same old stuff. “Rather than opening into transformation and a new beginning,” Malcolm writes, “this conversion story simply reenacts this woman’s story of a cultural unraveling she knows only too well – more like sin than the freeing act of divine mercy” (page 168).
Malcolm invites us to keep this critique in mind as we hear Luther’s commentary on the Magnificat. Malcolm observes that Luther looks at Mary’s experience of God seeing her at the lowest point. It is at this point that Mary experiences, in Malcolm’s terms, both mystical exaltation and prophetic witness.
Luther attributes three insights to Mary in her experience. First, she teaches us that the Spirit creates out of nothing and reaches us at our lowest points. Second, the Spirit is not a one-size-fits-all experience. Instead, God brings down the mighty and raises up the powerless. “Those in affliction hear words of comfort,” Malcolm writes, “those who are self-satisfied – and oppress others – hear words that terrify them” (page 168).
Third, Mary’s experience teaches us that how God sees things and how we see things are quite different. God looks into the depths of human misery to raise us up. We humans look at what is above only to fall down. This is, as Malcolm notes, the real difference between the Theology of the Cross and the Theology of Glory. “Because we cannot create what we desire,” Malcolm notes, “as human beings we tend only to love or desire what we find attractive or appealing. By contrast,” she continues, “as Luther pointed out in the Heidelberg Disputation, God’s love always creates what it desires” (page 169).
God sees Mary in the depths of life and calls her to the heights of faith, hope, and love. She puts her trust, according to Luther, not in the gifts but rather in The Giver. She loves God for God, not for what God will produce. She can do that by the Spirit’s power because she is loved “for nothing” rather than for what she can produce. This love, which is the fruit of faith given by the Spirit, is the only source of real peace for the believer.
The Magnificat begins with that mystical experience of God’s unconditional regard, but it does not end there. The result of that experience is Mary’s “prophetic witness to God’s great transforming work of justice in history” (page 171). This witness issues forth at precisely the moment when Mary is at her “lowest,” just as the great work of Life issues forth precisely when Jesus dies on the cross.
“The Magnificat does not tell a tale of God meeting a prideful sinner,” Malcolm writes, “Rather, it tells a tale of God meeting a woman whom society has seen as insignificant and giving her a new status…as well as a new sense of agency in God’s coming reign…Far from recapitulating the dynamics of her previous life,” Malcolm argues, “Mary was transformed and entered a new beginning” (page 173).
Yet, there is more going on here, Malcolm believes: “this tale of Mary’s mystical exaltation and prophetic agency is not merely a tale about a reversal of power” (page 173). Instead, it is a story of how God regards the lowly, the one who is “nothing,” and creates Life out of the nothing. Merely reversing the roles in the drama of power changes nothing. Instead, Mary bears witness to the God who seeks to dismantle the drama of power itself.
I noted earlier that as we read and interpret the Lukan account, we need to attend not only to what is said, but also how, when, and by whom something is said. That is certainly the case with the Annunciation and the Magnificat. The content of the song is radically subversive and a threat to the established powers and structures of the Empire. How does the Lukan author maintain that hidden transcript without blowing up the whole project in the first chapter?
I think it matters that the content comes in a song rather than in a manifesto or speech. Songs have a way of slipping in the back doors of our awareness and making changes in our feeling and thinking before we are aware of those changes.
One of my favorite musical settings of the Annunciation and the Magnificat is in Marty Haugen’s Holden Evening Prayer. This is beloved by thousands of worshippers. The music in these sections is beautiful. I wonder how much impact the words have because our minds and hearts are focused on that music while the Spirit is doing work in the background and under the surface? Quite a lot of work, I think.
I think it matters that the content comes with the voice of a woman. I wonder if the Lukan author uses the deep misogyny of the Roman patriarchal system against itself. Perhaps the author relied on the tendency of some readers to discount the testimony of a woman simply because she was woman. Thus, that testimony might not have been regarded consciously as a threat even as it worked once again in the background of thinking and feeling.
I’m not suggesting that the Lukan author discounted that testimony in the same way. Here is one of those places where we have to discern the dual process of the Lukan account. The Lukan author may be using the realities of the culture to undermine and subvert the values of that culture. It’s analogous to the power these days that political humor has to reach people when diatribes fall on deaf ears.
Hang on to this proposal as we go further into the Lukan account. Think about it, for example, when we read the parable of the Insistent Widow in Luke 18. Perhaps the Lukan author understands that in his culture, women could get away with things that men could not. That required faith, courage, and the willingness to exploit the opportunity.
Where might there be places where we can wedge our witness into the cracks in our own culture?
References and Resources
Malcolm, Lois E., “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists” (2010). Faculty Publications. 275. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/275.
Wilson, Brittany E. “Pugnacious precursors and the bearer of peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1: 42.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.3 (2006): 436-456.
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