Connections 12.11.2016: The Upside Down

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Luke 1:39-56

Mary’s song is traditionally referred to as the Magnificat, because that’s its initial word in its Latin translation.

I first learned that fact during my freshman year of college. I was reading my New Testament textbook at a table in the nice air-conditioned library (I thought it was nice, but it pales next to the new one they built later) of the private liberal arts college I was attending.

I tell you that to confess that I came—and that I come—to Mary’s song as a person of privilege.

My late parents would have scoffed at that statement. They worked in textile mills. They bought very used cars. We lived in a small, two-bedroom, one-bath house. My father loved to say that he belonged to the “infamous middle class” because he was “too poor to have anything and too rich to get any help.”

But still—we never missed a meal, we always had decent clothes, and the house was warm and dry. People of power and authority posed no threat to us. I never felt oppressed or marginalized, because I never was. I never have been. I’m not.

I always have been, and still am, comfortable and secure. I always have been, and still am, privileged.

So I’m afraid that I miss some of the power of Mary’s song. Listen to this line: “(God) has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

I wonder, how would I hear that if I were poor and hungry? I wonder, how should I hear it when I’m rich and full?

Mariotto Albertinelli, The Visitation (Wikimedia Commons)

Mariotto Albertinelli, The Visitation (Wikimedia Commons)

We need to understand that Mary’s words weren’t original; she was hardly the first one to declare what some theologians call “God’s preferential option for the poor.” Hannah’s song, which is similar in theme to Mary’s, says, “Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil” (1 Sam 2:5a). The Old Testament prophets consistently preach about how the rich and proud will be brought low and the weak and poor will be raised up. Jesus quoted such words from the Isaiah scroll in his first sermon (Lk 4:18-19, citing Isa 61:1; 58:6; 61:2).

What we’re dealing with here is the great reversal that God is bringing about. The Bible’s consistent message is that God’s goal is an upside-down world. The coming of Jesus was, is, and will be the crucial act in that unfolding drama.

One of 2016’s biggest television hits was the Netflix original series “Stranger Things.” The storyline involved an alternate reality called “the Upside Down,” which was not a good place for those who found themselves there.

Mary’s song declares that God’s “Upside Down” will be wonderful for the lowly and poor, but not for the rich and powerful.

So what should we do? Francis of Assisi, who was rich, applied the words Jesus’ spoke to another rich man—“Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor” (Lk 18:22)—to his life and did exactly that. Maybe some of us should, too. But most of us won’t.

So again, what should we do? And how can we do it without being condescending? How can we be full without being full? How can we be rich without being rich? How can we be privileged without being privileged?

Some interpreters say that all this talk about the poor being lifted up and the rich being brought down is eschatological—that is, only God can make it happen, and God will only make it happen when Jesus returns and the new heaven and new earth come to pass. In the meantime, they say, the church presents the witness of a different reality without trying to change society. Other interpreters say that, while the kingdom’s ultimate fulfillment is in the future, the kingdom of God was present in Jesus and is present in the church, and the church’s witness includes trying to influence society for the better, particularly in its attitudes, policies, and practices related to the most vulnerable among us.

I guess we all have to decide for ourselves.

As for me, for some reason, I keep thinking about that time when some of Paul and Silas’s opponents called them “these people who have been turning the world upside down” (Acts 17:6)….

Discussion

1. Why do you think Mary went to visit Elizabeth? Why do you think she stayed with her for three months?
2. Some consider Elizabeth and Mary to be prophets. Why might someone say that? What do you think of that conclusion?
3. What reason does Elizabeth give for saying Mary is blessed? What does that say about what it means for us to be blessed?
4. What other themes do you see in Mary’s song?

Reference Shelf

The episode also is a sort of crux in the flow of the narrative. There are two birth announcements, two birth stories, and two childhood stories (both about Jesus), but only one story of the two mothers getting together. Mary’s Magnificat, at first glance, would be naturally paired with Zechariah’s Benedictus, except that Zechariah prophesies after John is born, and so that might make a better parallel to Simeon’s predictions while the baby Jesus is in the temple, or to the much shorter song of the angels just after Jesus’ birth. Some commentators, impressed by the structure of three paired stories, call this one a transitional episode. Others see it as more pivotal, as it merges the two story lines, puts the two mothers on stage together, and thereby previews for the reader how Jesus and John will relate. Even more important, Elizabeth and Mary are the first examples of roles that will be enormously significant for Luke-Acts. Luke uses them to set the standard for what is about to come.

Elizabeth has already been introduced to us as a member of a priestly family, the wife of a priest, an elderly barren woman, and a person of conspicuous virtue, righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord. She is now six months pregnant. Would it not make sense for Mary, the young unmarried girl, to seek advice from her older, wiser, godly kinswoman? Other texts suggest such behavior: Uzziah, elder of Bethulia, remarks that the people of his town were accustomed to asking the godly Judith for advice (Jdt 8:29); Proverbs 31:26 praises the ideal wife for being a wise teacher; and Lady Wisdom herself invites anyone to her school to learn insight and maturity (Prov 1:20-33). Luke turns the tables in this scene, however, because Elizabeth praises Mary.

When Elizabeth first hears Mary’s voice, the baby “leaps”— described as an objective event, not as something Elizabeth felt—and then she is filled with the Holy Spirit. John’s leap is first of all his testimony to Jesus, as he is overjoyed to be in the presence of the Lord. Second, it is Luke’s sign to the reader that Gabriel’s prediction that John would be filled with the Spirit in utero has been fulfilled (1:15). Elizabeth’s reception of the Spirit, followed by a great cry, signals that she is speaking prophetically, although Luke chooses not to use the word “prophesy.” She first blesses Mary, and then interprets what is happening to them both. When Judith returns from saving her village, Uzziah the elder says, “Blessed are you, O daughter, beyond all the women of the earth, and blessed is the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth” (Jdt 13:18). Luke echoes this in Elizabeth’s two lines: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” who Luke under- stands to be the Lord. “Why should the mother of my Lord come to me” honors Mary and the child she carries, and is the first narrative hint that Mary has already conceived. Verse 45 also praises Mary for her faith in what was promised; the praise of believing Mary is also a critique of doubting Zechariah. “Blessed is she who believed” could also describe Elizabeth herself, since it is God who revealed to her that Mary was pregnant with God’s Son.

Elizabeth is thus the prototype for the Lukan prophet, speaking by the inspiration of the Spirit, pointing to God’s mighty acts of salvation offered to those who believe. She is the first character to call Jesus “Lord” and the first woman to offer a beatitude in the Gospel (the second comes at Luke 11:27). She is without question a noteworthy character; however, Mary, the younger kinswoman, overshadows her.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 41-42.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra and father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin). A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. You can visit and communicate with him at MichaelRuffin.com. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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