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

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.’”

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“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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Keep on Living — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Friends, I’m going to talk about suicide. If that causes you distress, then please stop reading and be good to yourself. If you want to continue, please know that I have what I hope are some encouraging words here. Because of the topic, I would not preach this sermon at a worship service, since people present would not have the freedom to stop listening if they needed to do so. Thus, this is one of those sermons that can be written but perhaps not spoken.

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I have always opposed the death penalty. Except for myself.

I have sometimes viewed failure as a capital offense — for me. When I look back at the first time I seriously considered ending my life, it was at a moment of big personal failure. I had clearly demonstrated — at least to myself — that I was a useless, worthless, piece of refuse. The reasonable response, my befuddled brain told me, was to put an end to the stupidity and spare the world the burden of dealing with me.

I can smile now at the melodrama and grandiosity, the self-absorption and self-pity, that I know was part of such a moment. But I cannot discount the life and death reality of that moment, clouded as it is in the mists of memory. Whether I was being “realistic” or not was hardly the point. I came far closer to ending my existence than is safe for anyone to consider.

This comes to mind for several reasons. I am finishing my tenth annual “death march” from the anniversary of my first spouse’s untimely death on November 20th to my own birthday on December 19th. I have become accustomed to morbid reflections on my mortality and am not nearly as put off by them as I once was. But I am also reminded that convicting and sentencing myself for the capital crimes of personal failure was not a one-off event.

I didn’t realize until I went through it just how common are thoughts of suicide in the community of those who lose a close loved one. I did indeed feel the pull to join Anne in moving to the New Life. I did wonder what precisely might be left for me now that life as I knew it was over. I did long for a way out of the pain and suffering of bereavement. Once someone that close to me had died, death was less of a stranger and more of a companion, a sort of friend of a friend.

Most of all, I was sure I had failed her — all consoling counter-assertions notwithstanding. I couldn’t reconcile my continued life with her sudden death. I had not kept her alive, so why should I keep me alive? My failure was fatal to her, why not to me as well?

I didn’t live with those thoughts every waking moment. The fantasies of self-annihilation were usually fleeting. But there were enough episodes of concrete plans and opportunities, of near misses and false starts, that I knew I had to be very careful for a while. And I had to refocus on another path back to life.

While my situations hardly mirrored those of Mary at the Annunciation, I am in awe of her response. I think that I might not have been so willing and able to choose to live in the new reality that faced her. Yes, there was all that happy talk about a son who would be the Savior. But there was going to be one hell of a shitstorm, to adopt the current vernacular, for Mary along the way. Whether she had failed or not, that’s how she would be viewed. I might have thought that sufficient grounds to carry out my self-execution.

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But not Mary — “Let it be to me according to your word.” Mary did not merely choose life. Mary chose to keep living in the new reality not of her own choosing. Her response to “failure” (and let me be clear, she did not “fail” but would have been treated as if she did) was to keep on living — for her child, for her people, and for the world.

I just listened to the latest episode of the On Being podcast. Krista Tippett talked with Jennifer Michael Hecht under the title, “We Believe Each Other into Being.” I remember Hecht and her work on doubt from nearly two decades ago. You can listen to that conversation here: https://onbeing.org/programs/jennifer-michael-hecht-we-believe-each-other-into-being-on-being/. Be sure to listen to the end as she reads two beautiful and poignant poems that deal with suicide.

“Your staying alive means so much more than you really know or that anyone is aware of at this moment,” Hecht says during the conversation. “But we’re in it together in this profound way, and you can take some strength from that.” She argues that people can be reminded in healthy ways of the communitarian impact of taking one’s own life and that this can be a curb to reduce such self-fatal responses.

In addition, she pleads with the self in pain to consider and respect the future self who will never have a chance to live if one ends it all. The conversation caused me to reverse that thought. I want to express my gratitude to my earlier selves (and all who supported them) who chose to keep on living in those dark hours of despair. I am especially grateful to that troubled young man who stepped back from the precipice and stumbled through the disasters he had created. I don’t want to punish him now. I want to thank him for letting me live.

That’s true for all those other men (who were me, and the people who supported them) who have made similar choices for me in the last forty-odd years. Of course, I differ with Jennifer Michael Hecht in how those choices came about. I was rescued repeatedly by the interventions of a compassionate God who either spoke to me directly or sent people with the message.

“No, don’t do it! You are not a failure. You are not a useless, worthless piece of refuse.” Hearing a voice like that in the dark can peculiarly focus one’s attention. “You are beloved in the midst of the pain, sorrow, failure and fear. So keep on living, and we’ll see what we can make of this mess.” I am certain that I would not have made such a choice on my own. But I could follow instructions.

Let it be to me according to your word.” One of the few places I dare to connect with Mary is here. She responds with courage and hope. But that courage and hope have been poured into her along with the life of her child. She is pregnant not only with a baby but with expectation that the darkness cannot overcome the light. She responds to these gifts with brave faith, and I’m not at all in her league in that regard. But she knows the source of her hope and accepts the life she’s given.

Hecht and Tippett both refer to Camus’ opening line in The Myth of Sisyphus. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” he wrote, “and that is suicide.” I read those words as a college sophomore, but as a typical sophomore, I didn’t finish the book. So I never got to Camus’ conclusion. He paints a picture of Sisyphean courage and even good humor in the face of life’s absurdity. Every time the boulder rolled back over the protagonist, Camus argued, he got himself up, dusted himself off, and began again.

For Camus, that was the source of meaning in life. Sisyphus was made of sterner stuff than I by far, and so was Camus. I could not find personal or communal meaning in simply asserting that life was meaningful. That seemed like trying to erect a building with no foundation. I am grateful that my younger self was not allowed to surrender at that point. I am grateful that God demanded that I would seek a foundation that works.

“Let it be to me according to your word.” That’s the foundation. Choose to keep on living another day. Do it for your future self — who will undoubtedly thank you. Do it for the community of those who find you far more valuable than you find yourself sometimes. Do it for the cosmos that needs all hands on deck in order to make sense of things. Do it, if you’re like me, because the Creator and Giver of life finds you to be of infinite worth and has plans to use you for remarkable good.

Keep on living. Thanks!

Text Study for Luke 1:26-38, Pt. 2

2. The Impossible Possibility

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With God, all things may be possible. We could easily miss the scriptural connections in this phrase. It takes us back to Genesis 18 and the story of Sarah and Abraham. The couple is visited by three men as they are camp under the oaks of Mamre. During the conversation it becomes clear that the visitors are, somehow, God.

They bring the promise that Sarah will bear a child even though “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” Sarah perhaps finds the whole idea a bit ridiculous and laughs out loud. The men respond, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” This question is rendered in the Septuagint as, “Is any promise impossible for God?” Some manuscripts of Luke pick up the echoes of this verse in a small addition to the Greek text. That scribal enthusiasm makes it clear that readers had the Old Testament story in mind as they read the Annunciation account.

Sarah, understandably, laughs at the ludicrous suggestion. Mary trusts in the promise she has heard. Nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.

Nothing, Mary hears, is impossible for God. That does not mean, however, that all things may be easy. I think we do a disservice to Mary, to our listeners, and to the Gospel when we make this a simple “trust and obey” story. The stakes for Mary here are literally life and death. She responds not only with obedience but with courage and determination.

“Mary, in the annunciation, becomes the patroness, of all who are called by God to do impossible things,” Rick Morley writes. “Of those who become embarrassments to their family and communities on behalf of God. She reminds us that the godly thing isn’t always the prim-and-proper thing. Sometimes when we answer God’s call, we become a laughingstock. Or, even worse,” he concludes. “persecuted.”

David Lose looks at how Mary’s life was utterly derailed and disrupted by this announcement and the events that followed. “Do we think God is done interrupting people’s lives to use them for the health of the world,” Lose asks, “or might we imagine that God is still doing things just like this? Further, might we look around at the people in our congregation and see them as those persons who are also favored by God and through whom God plans to do marvelous things?”

I wonder if Mary ever wished that things could “go back to normal”? Did she ever wish that she could go back to being a teenager in a no-name village in a Galilean backwater? We live in a time when people are nearly overwhelmed with the desire to “go back to normal.” We wonder that out loud at almost every turn. When will things get back to some semblance of normality?

“Back to normal” was not an option for Mary. There was no putting the toothpaste back in the tube on this one. Gabriel’s announcement to Mary has all the classic marks of gospel. It is news that will irrevocably change the world, both present and future. It has yet to be accomplished, but there’s not doubt it will happen. And the news turns the status quo upside down and inside out. Is it any wonder that Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid”?

In what ways is the Holy Spirit coming upon us and disrupting our lives with the good news of Jesus? We cannot and will not “go back to normal” after the pandemic, even as we get excited about vaccine reports. We have been through too much, seen too much, lost too much. Can we look forward to what we have gained, what we have learned, what we want to keep from this Covid-time? Have we been used by the Spirit during this time in ways that are both disruptive and delightful? These are questions worth asking now.

“What I want is to invite our people to take a moment to contemplate that God is at work in them and through them,” Lose continues. “Further, I want to help them imagine one concrete place they can make a difference — where God may be at work in them — between now and Christmas. And once they’ve had a chance to contemplate all this, I want to invite them into the joy of faithful response.” This perspective can take us again, for example, to thoughts about the “obedience of faith” that Paul mentions in the second reading.

It may take some time to answer such questions – perhaps more than an hour, or a day, or a week. Along with Mary, we may need to ponder what sort of greeting this might be for us. “Mary models the kind of reaction we should have to divinity’s disturbance in our lives,” Karoline Lewis writes. “She wonders and ponders. She questions and considers. She answers in awe. And Mary’s reply to God’s call understands that fear is characteristic of our response to God when God disrupts our lives.”

How true indeed. But we see that fear is not the final response from Mary. It is worth remembering the old English proverb here. “Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. No one was there.” Let it be to us according to the Word.

If you use the Magnificat as the psalmody for the day (or choose to read the Annunciation and Magnificat as a whole piece), the disruption moves beyond Mary’s personal situation. Her obedience of faith has social and economic dimensions. Here is a prophecy of the coming Jubilee year. Remember that Jesus declares in chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel that he is bringing that Jubilee in his proclamation and ministry. Here all the inequities of established life are upended. And (with a preview of the first lesson) all this happens because God is faithful to God’s promises “to Abraham and his children forever.

Liturgically, this is an opportunity to sing the Annunciation and Magnificat using the setting from Holden Evening Prayer. I never miss an opportunity to do that. More to the point, what happens to Mary will happen to all of us, to all the world, to all of Creation. Nothing is impossible for God. Thus, even in this time of restriction and retreat, we can and must look for the impossible possibilities the Holy Spirit is bringing about.

References and Resources

Frederick, John. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-romans-1625-27-5.

Hultgren, Arland. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-romans-1625-27-3

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-126-38.

Lewis, Karoline, https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/marys-response.

Lose, David. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/favored-ones.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Metger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1975.

Morley, Rick. http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1218?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=gutsy-faith-greater-than-the-angels-a-reflection-on-the-annunciation.

Powell, Mark Allan. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-126-38-3. Sigmon, Casey Thornburgh. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-2-samuel-71-11-16-5

Text Study for Luke 1:26-38, Pt. 1

On the fourth Sunday in Advent, we prepare to “turn the corner” into the Christmas season. We hear Mary’s words of obedient faith. And we pray that the same kind of faith might come to birth in us. I think of the words of my favorite Christmas carol, “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“Oh, holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”

That is always my Christmas prayer.

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1. The Call of Mary

We “begin” a fourth time in Advent – from the birth pangs to the gospel to the witness and now to the divine creation out of nothing –heading toward the actual birth. As Levine and Witherington note in their commentary, “The one miracle greater than that of a postmenopausal woman conceiving is that of a virgin conceiving.” When Mary wonders about the mechanism of this miracle, Gabriel’s answer in verse 35 echoes the language of Creation.

In Genesis 1, the Spirit hovers over the face of the deep and brings order out of the chaotic waters. In Luke’s writing (remember that “Luke” wrote both the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles), the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary here and to the disciples in Acts 1:8ff. In other places in Luke, the verb for “overshadow” is used to indicate the coming of judgment and the great reversal at the end of the age. Perhaps this is a nod toward the reversals mentioned in Mary’s song, historically called the Magnificat.

Malina and Rohrbaugh note that the word for “overshadow” has an additional and deeper meaning. “Further,” they write, “the Greek verb translated ‘will overshadow you’ is used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible to describe God shielding and protecting (Ps. 90:4; 139:7; Prov. 18:11). Mary is thus described as empowered and protected by God…” (page 288).

This text is often called the Annunciation, the announcement to Mary of the pregnancy of her cousin Elizabeth and her own entry into the family way. Commentators note, however, that this text has much more the flavor of a prophetic call story than that of a birth announcement. Levine and Witherington remind us that “Mary” is just a translation of the Hebrew name, “Miriam.” Miriam is the first of many women in the Hebrew Bible who participate actively in and then sing about God’s triumphant salvation.

Mary wonders what sort of greeting she has received. We might wonder what sort of prophet we encounter here. “The evangelist Luke does not exalt Mary as a goddess, or as a mother, or even as a woman,” Mark Allan Powell writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “He thinks she has a more important role, as the ideal Christian. In the Third Gospel, Mary becomes the model for Christian discipleship, the person who all people, men and women alike should emulate, especially if they wish to follow her son.”

This ideal Christian moves from terrified to incredulous to obedient – all in the span of nine verses. The word the NRSV translates as “perplexed” would be better translated as “terrified,” according to Levine and Witherington (page 34). This makes more sense of Gabriel’s words of calm and comfort to the young woman. Any prophetic call worth the bother should begin with terror at the prospect of seeing the Lord of the universe face to face. Mary finds herself in line, for example, with Isaiah and his vision in Isaiah 6.

In the middle of the text, we have both the naming of Jesus and the description of his role and mission. Jesus, the new Joshua (“Jesus” is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew/Aramaic name “Yeshua”), will lead God’s people into the promised land of God’s blessing. He will be the Son of the Most High, the Son of God. He will be king of Israel and heir of David. He will claim and fulfill the royal promises and messianic hopes of Israel, including those found in our first reading from 2 Samuel 7.

Notable as always is the title “Son of God.” Remember that the Roman emperors claim this title as their own – on coinage and statues and official proclamations. “Son of God” is not only about origin and descent. It is about authority and mission. Mary is the first, in Luke’s account, to hear the good news of Jesus and, quite literally, to bear that news to the world.

Mary assents to this prophetic and apostolic role. It’s worth looking at that assent in detail. Karoline Lewis notes this rapid transition in Mary’s vocation. “Any sermon on this text worth its weight will somehow create, expand, and eventually resolve, to a certain extent, and as much as is theologically possible, the tension between “How can this be” and “Let it be with me according to your word,” Lewis writes in her 2011 workingpreacher.org commentary.

“Here am I,” Mary says. Again, I find us in the divine throne room with the prophet Isaiah. “Here am I,” he declares, “send me.” It is conceivable (pardon the pun) that either Isaiah or Mary could have refused the call. God rarely kidnaps people into prophecy. In the face of this impossible possibility, Mary accepts her calling and opens herself to whatever may come.

“Here am I,” Mary says, “the slave of the Lord.” The NRSV translation softens the term Mary uses. It is the Greek doule, not diakone. The word literally means “female slave.” Commentators note that this text has often been used to exalt a kind of passive submission as a virtue. In this way, the assumptions of enslavement are underwritten and encouraged. In a time when more women and children are enslaved globally for the purposes of sex trafficking than ever before in human history, such a reading is troubling.

Levine and Witherington provide some help in this regard. “Alternatively, Mary’s self-designation can function as an ironic indicator of both personal freedom and complete devotion,” they write, “the only master Mary has is God, and she willingly places herself in divine hands…” To be a slave of God is to be free from every other master, which is to be truly and fully free to be what God has created us to be.

The description, they continue, also associates Mary with other “slaves of the Lord” in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles: Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Saul, David, Zerubbabel, Paul, and James. “Mary thus situates herself,” Levine and Witherington conclude, “among kings, prophets, apostles, and evangelists.” Mary is, for Luke and for us, a model of the “obedience of faith” we will find in the second reading for this Sunday.

Lewis suggests that preaching on this text “will move us from the absence of God (1:34), to the presence of God (1:35), to the fulfillment of the promises of God (1:36)….Somehow, someway,” she concludes, “a sermon on this text will negotiate the radical transformation…from peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to mother of God, from to denial to discipleship.” With God indeed all things are possible. With Mary as our model and inspiration, perhaps we too can consider our prophetic callings, no matter how humble our circumstances or spirits.

More on this text tomorrow…

References and Resources

Frederick, John. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-romans-1625-27-5.

Hultgren, Arland. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-romans-1625-27-3

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-126-38.

Lewis, Karoline, https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/marys-response.

Lose, David. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/favored-ones.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Metger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1975.

Morley, Rick. http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1218?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=gutsy-faith-greater-than-the-angels-a-reflection-on-the-annunciation.

Powell, Mark Allan. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-luke-126-38-3. Sigmon, Casey Thornburgh. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-2/commentary-on-2-samuel-71-11-16-5