Text Study for Luke 1:39-55 (Pt. 3); December 19, 2021

Mary is Among the Prophets

The Lukan account portrays a great “democracy of the Holy Spirit.” We are headed toward the general outpouring of that Spirit in Acts 2. In that passage, the Spirit equips the disciple community to speak the gospel in the language of “every nation under heaven.”

Peter interprets this outpouring by quoting from the second chapter of the prophet Joel. In the last days, God will pour out the Spirit on all flesh. Sons and daughters shall prophesy. Young men shall see visions, and old men shall dream dreams. Male and female slaves shall prophesy. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

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The Spirit is no respecter of age or gender, of social status or political power, of ethnic origin or native language, of boundary or border. As we shall hear later in the Book of Acts, and elsewhere, God shows no partiality. That is a human game. Instead, the Spirit breaks all boundaries and transcends all barriers. That is the story of Acts, as the Gospel moves from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.

As a result, the early Christian community (according to Acts) held all things in common, ate their food at home with glad and generous hearts, praised God, and had the good will of all the people. They lived in a Spirit-formed community that embodied and expressed values and practices at odds with the patriarchal, hierarchical, honor/shame driven culture of the Empire. And they paid for their oddity, sometimes with their lives.

The first chapter of the Lukan gospel prefigures and foreshadows this great democracy of the Holy Spirit. An old couple in Judea recapitulates the wonder of Sarah and Abraham. Zechariah meets an angel in the Temple – Zechariah, not the high priest or a member of the Sanhedrin. Zechariah is a nobody from the hill country, and he knows it. Elizabeth has suffered shame due to her barrenness for decades but now is expecting.

Then a teenager from Nazareth gets a visit from Gabriel announcing that she was favored with the Lord’s particular presence. She will experience the impossible possibility of bearing the Son of God. None of this good news makes it to the capitol or the Temple. Instead, these two women huddle together in the hill country and shout their joy and wonder. Elizabeth expresses the surprise we should all have – Why has this happened to me?

Then Mary sings the song which sets the agenda for all of Luke-Acts, the poem tradition calls The Magnificat. It is a hymn to the democracy of the Holy Spirit, a democracy that delivers the Great Reversals of the Kin(g)dom of God. It is clear that Mary is a young woman. And in our text, she describes herself twice as a “slave” to the Lord. The Lukan author wants us to understand that Mary functions as a prophet here.

Yet, the Lukan author does not identify Mary as such. It’s not that the author hesitates to call anyone a prophet. Zechariah prophesies. Anna is a prophet. Christian prophets show up in the Book of Acts. Clayton Croy and Alice Connor wonder why the Lukan author does not call Mary a prophet as well. They identify some reasons that give us more insight into the Lukan author’s agenda and strategy.

Croy and Connor seek to make the case for the Lukan portrayal of Mary as a prophet. They explore the connection between this prophetic role and Mary’s reported virginity. They note briefly that the early church theologians did not share the Lukan reluctance to cast Mary as a prophet. And they try to account for this difference in treatment in the Lukan account.

The birth announcement in Luke 1 strongly resembles such birth announcements in the Hebrew scriptures. It is not only modeled after those announcements but actually outdoes them all in both form and content. But this announcement, Croy and Connor note, also has the character of commissioning stories in the Hebrew scriptures – such as the commissioning of Isaac, Moses, Gideon, and Samson (page 256).

In addition, the Lukan text has many features in common with prophetic call stories in the Hebrew scriptures. The Annunciation is an example of the best of all three of the above genres. “While it’s primary purpose is to announce a birth,” Croy and Connor write, “the Lukan annunciation may also intend to depict Mary as a bearer of prophetic revelation” (page 257). The fact that Mary is referred to twice in the chapter as a “slave of the Lord” strengthens the notion of her prophetic call. And her response in the Magnificat is a Spirit-endowed, prophetic response to being “overshadowed” by the Spirit.

“The question arises, then, why Luke would portray Mary as a prophet and yet fail to call her one,” Croy and Connor write. “The answer,” they continue, “may have something to do with the fact that Mary is explicitly identified as a virgin” (page 261).

They note that virginity and prophetic vocation are not connected in ancient Judaism. The only exception is the anonymous figure in Isaiah 8:3. Early church writers often saw this character as a prefiguring of Mary, but the Lukan author doesn’t make this connection explicitly. “In the Hebrew Bible virginity had no essential relationship to prophetic aptitude,” Croy and Connor write, “but the picture differs somewhat when we turn to Greco-Roman religion” (page 263).

They briefly survey a number of connections between virginity and prophetic vocation in the dominant Mediterranean culture of the first century. Virginity was associated with the purity thought necessary to be worthy of a prophetic vocation. That vocation often had sexual overtones in Greco-Roman religion, so the reproductive status of the prophet was thought to matter. To what degree does this pagan perspective affect the Lukan presentation (with possibly some pagans in the audience)?

In early Christianity, Croy and Connor note, Christian prophecy was a quite democratic endowment. It “was understood as a charism given by the Holy Spirit rather than a function determined by an institution” (page 266). It’s clear in Paul’s letters that women, for example, served as prophets in early Christian congregations. In Luke-Acts, Christian prophecy is taken as a given and demonstrated by several characters, including Jesus.

While few women are named as prophets in Luke-Acts, the text from Joel 2 in Peter’s Pentecost sermon mentions women as prophets twice. “Mary, as a prophesying servant of the Lord, can be seen as proleptically fulfilling the prophecy of Joel cited in Acts 2.18,” Croy and Connor write. “The motif of virginity, however, is absent from Acts 2” (page 267). So, what’s the story here? The early church theologians are prolific in their portrayal of Mary as a prophet, in both the Eastern and Western church. So, why not the Lukan author?

“Our hypothesis is that Luke was sensitive to the pagan overtones of associating prophecy and virginity,” Croy and Connor argue (page 270). The Lukan author, they suggest, wants to avoid any explicit suggestion that Mary experienced a sexual contact with God in the Annunciation. The Lord is not Zeus, invading the bedrooms of unsuspecting girls and spreading the divine seed hither and yon. The fact that the Annunciation results in a child, they suggest, makes this Lukan caution all the more pressing.

In addition, they suggest that the Lukan author does not want to make virginity a condition for Christian prophesying. Nor does the Lukan author want this relationship to be one of possession or assault. Croy and Connor point out that the Lukan author knows of such possibilities and describes such in Acts 16. Mary is not possessed by the Holy Spirit. “Mary’s endowment with the Holy Spirit is quite different,” they write, “she fully retains her rationality and volition. Hers is not a mantic possession,” they argue, “but a voluntary reception of the Spirit” (page 271).

Therefore, the Lukan author does not identify Mary as a prophet but rather characterizes her as such. “If it is the task of a prophet is to speak and act in ways that further revelation and redemption,” Croy and Connor conclude, “one might say…Mary delivers” (page 271).

The revelation of the Kin(g)dom of God is not reserved for spiritual savants or religious rulers. It does not happen only in temple precincts or pastoral pulpits. The Holy Spirit is not an endowment limited to the privileged few or regulated by academic or ecclesial authorities. As John reminds us, the Spirit blows where it will. Age or gender, status or ethnicity, position or power – these are not factors in determining where the Spirit works and through whom the Spirit speaks.

While the Lukan author wants this gospel to serve as an acceptable apologia that potentially persuades some privileged pagans, the author also uses it to subvert the values and structures of that pagan world. We must hear the witness of a teenager in Nazareth who for all the world simply looks like a girl in a bit of trouble. We must hear the witness of some old farts who these days would probably be diagnosed with dementia. We must hear the witness of smelly shepherds who can’t write their own names and who count sheep for a living rather than to fall asleep.

The Christian scriptures know the risks of such a democratic and democratizing Spirit. Chaos and self-aggrandizement often lurk just around the corner. Luther knew that as well and rejected the testimony and practices of the “Enthusiasts.” Yet, in our organized old-line congregations, we know that this has led to what Paul called “quenching the Spirit.” Perhaps we would do well to remind ourselves of the fact that Mary is among the prophets, to celebrate that fact, and to listen for prophetic words from unexpected quarters.

The “who” of Christian prophecy is one matter. Another matter is the “what.” More on that in the next post.

References and Resources

Croy, N. Clayton, and Alice E. Connor. “Mantic Mary? The Virgin Mother as Prophet in Luke 1.26-56 and the Early Church.” (2011).

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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