Not All Blessings are Equal
In these early days of our journey with the Lukan author, we preachers have the opportunity and the responsibility to remind listeners of themes and emphases that will persist throughout the Lukan account. One of those themes is the importance of the witness and ministry of women. Another is the theme of reversals. Yet another is the nonviolent and yet resistant nature of the work of disciples. Still another is the nature of discipleship as the Lukan author understands it. We get all of these themes and more in our reading for this week.
Scholars recognize that Elizabeth’s cry in Luke 1:42 is an echo of Judges 5:24 (NRSV) – “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed.” They also hear in this outcry an echo of Judith 13:18 (NRSV) – “Then Uzziah said to her, ‘O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all other women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to cut off the head of the leader of our enemies.’”
“Though interpreters, both ancient and modern, have heard Judg 5:24 and Jdt 13:18 as echoes,” Brittany Wilson writes, “they often emphasize only the continuity between Jael, Judith, and Mary, overlooking the obvious point of discontinuity—namely, that Jael and Judith are blessed for killing enemy commanders whereas Mary is blessed for believing the words of the Lord and bearing a son” (page 436). Wilson looks at Elizabeth’s declaration through the lens of discontinuity between Mary and Jael/Judith.
“According to Luke, Mary’s peaceful servanthood foreshadows the life and death of her son,” Wilson writes, “who overcomes violence through peace. Indeed,” she continues, “Mary ushers in a new age, in which women are called most blessed for their acts of peace rather than for their acts of violence” (page 438). This theme of peace is a major focus for the Lukan author and one which we can encourage our listeners to watch for in future readings. More on that below.
Wilson traces the historical background of the interpretive connection between Mary, Jael, and Judith, the access the Lukan author had to the texts and the way the author used both the Book of Judges and the Book of Judith in the Lukan work, and the extensive textual and linguistic echoes from Jael and Judith in the Lukan account.
Wilson also notes that, based on the structural analysis of Richard Bauckham (who finds a chiastic structure in Luke 1:5-80), verses 39-45 are the central and pivotal verses in the first chapter of Luke. Remember that ancient writers relied a great deal on the structure of a text to indicate emphases as well as connections. It may be that Luke 1:42 is, therefore, the center of the center of this first part of the Lukan account.
What is the connection that the Lukan author wishes to make between Mary, Jael, and Judith? “Jael and Judith are, in fact, the only named women in the entirety of Israel’s writings, both canonical and noncanonical, who kill a person with their own hands and are then exalted for assisting the people of Israel,” Wilson notes. She observes that as literary figures or images, “Jael and Judith are remembered mainly for their dismemberment of Israel’s enemies” (page 442).
Jael, Wilson notes, acts as a “mother” toward Sisera before driving the tent peg through his temple. As Danna Nolan Fewell writes, Jael is “the woman who mothers Sisera to death.” Judith is more seductress than mother but is no less “blessed.” Wilson notes that, in fact, the story of Jael serves as the template for the story of Judith, so the similarities in the stories are intentional and quite obvious. But how does Mary fit into this trio?
“Of the trio of biblical women called ‘most blessed,’ Wilson continues, “it becomes apparent that Mary’s faithfulness to Israel stands in stark contrast to her pugnacious predecessors” (page 447). Most obvious in this contrast is the lack of physical violence in Mary’s story. Even the theme of motherhood is a contrast since Mary’s motherhood will give life rather than take it. “Of course, Jael and Judith bring life to Israel through establishing temporary peace,” Wilson notes, “yet the manner by which they achieve this peace is drastically different” (page 448). Rather than engaging in violence, Mary puts herself at risk of violence by placing herself in a precarious social and personal position.
As in the stories of Jael and Judith, the “victory” Mary embodies is proclaimed in a song (well, two songs in the Lukan account). Wilson notes that the songs in the Jael and Judith stories recount and celebrate both the acts of violence and the defeat and death of the enemies. Neither Elizabeth’s song nor Mary’s song has that violent aspect. And Mary’s song ends with the prayer for mercy on the enemies, not execution.
Mary is not called blessed for doing violence but rather for being willing to hear and to obey God’s word. “Instead of being portrayed as a woman warrior,” Wilson concludes, “Mary is presented as a woman disciple, a peaceful hearer and doer of God’s word” (page 449). Therefore, Mary is displayed as a role model for disciples in the Lukan account – one who hears the word of the Lord and does it. “Responding to God’s word, through both listening to and acting on that word,” Wilson writes, “is an essential aspect of discipleship in Luke” (450).
Wilson notes the passage that came to mind for me immediately in this reflection. “While [Jesus] was saying this, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’ But he said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’” (Luke 11:27-28, NRSV). Here, on the lips of Jesus, is the Lukan description of the essence of being a disciple. These verses contrast Mary’s “natural” relationship to Jesus with her conduct as a prototypical disciple.
Wilson then moves to a third intertextual echo in Elizabeth’s cry. Deuteronomy 28 lists the blessings and benefits of obedience to the Lord. In particular, we can hear the echo of Deuteronomy 28:4 (NRSV) – “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your livestock, both the increase of your cattle and the issue of your flock.” The blessings come from hearing the Lord’s commands and carrying them out.
Jael and Judith listened to the command of the Lord as well and acted. Their actions, however, were violent, while Mary’s response is not. “The peaceful act of listening to the Lord creates a marked contrast with Judith and Jael’s actions,” Wilson notes, making the dissonance all the more jarring” (page 453). The emphasis on peace is a Lukan theme. The word for “peace” appears in the Lukan account at least four times as often as in the other Synoptics.
Wilson describes how this emphasis works out in the later chapters of the Lukan account. “Advocating healing rather than killing, Jesus’ actions stand in stark contrast to his disciples’ misperception that peace can be achieved through the sword,” she argues. “At the point when the disciples’ use of the sword could most easily be justified [during Jesus’ arrest in Gethsemane], Jesus still emphatically rejects violence, knowing that he is to die a violent death by the hand of those determined to bring about his demise” (page 454).
It may be worth noting in both the Advent and Christmas texts the prevalence of “peace” and the centrality of peace to the coming Kin(g)dom. We only have to listen to the song of the angels to hear this emphasis on peace. But we don’t have to wait for that song to hear this emphasis and know its important. “At the outset of the Gospel, Mary’s radical obedience to the Lord foreshadows her son’s radical obedience,” Wilson writes. “Both mother and son reject violence,” she continues, “Mary not only embodies peace because of her act of discipleship; she embodies peace by carrying within her very womb the savior who brings peace to the world” (page 455).
Then comes the question which has driven Wilson’s essay from the beginning. “Since Mary’s faithful discipleship ushers in her son’s peaceful reign,” Wilson asks, “why does Luke provide textual linkages to the two most violent women in all of Israel’s sacred writings?” (page 455). On the one hand, these linkages show a continuity with the women who save Israel from their enemies. She is the latest in a long line of those who reverse the dynamics of gender, political, and economic power that seek to keep people in bondage.
In spite of that, there is the discontinuity. Since the Lukan author uses this discontinuity, we are reminded that the Lukan author could assume a deep and intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (probably in their Septuagint translation) on the part of the Lukan audience. “To the attuned hearer who catches the scriptural references and who already knows the story of Jesus,” Wilson proposes, “the irony practically pops off the page” (page 455). This irony demands that such an attuned reader would think about the discontinuity.
“Luke envisions Jesus’ story as the continuation of Israel’s story,” Wilson writes, “yet he revisions the continuing story in surprising and sometimes startling new ways” (page 456). The Lukan author challenged the first listeners and readers to hear and process those revisions. The author challenges us in the same way, Wilson argues. “From now on,” she writes, “those who are called blessed follow not the way of violence but the way of peace. Like Mary,” she concludes, “believers are to hear and act on the message of peace proclaimed by the fruit of her womb – Jesus Christ, the prince of peace” (page 456).
References and Resources
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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