Formations 12.06.2015: The Cost of Poverty

Luke 1:41-55

af25_1_120615_aAbout forty workshop participants in Lebanon, Pennsylvania recently learned valuable lessons about the realities of poverty by taking part in a simulation called The Cost of Poverty (or COPE).

In the COPE simulation, participants are matched together at random and given roles based on real-life poverty scenarios. These ranged from large families to single-parent households. Some included members dealing with mental or physical health issues or substance abuse problems. Also assisting are volunteers representing various social institutions such as schools, banks, and the courts. The simulation is divided into four fifteen-minute segments, each representing a week in which participants have to accomplish certain tasks like arranging daycare or finding transportation to a doctor’s appointment.

Jan Wessell, who has assisted in several COPE simulations, reports a change in attitudes as the workshop progresses. “It was interesting watching the room as time went on,” she says. “The momentum really changed. Everyone was really energized the first week. But that just went down and by the end everybody was just going through their paces.”

Other participants remarked that the system made it easier to look for benefits than for work. More than one even confessed to considering doing something illegal to improve their situation.

What does The Cost of Poverty have to do with Christmas? Perhaps we should ask Mary. When the mother of Jesus hears Elizabeth’s greeting, she praises God for God’s saving works toward Israel. The themes of justice and reversal found here are echoed later as Luke depicts a Jesus deeply concerned with those on the margins of society, and especially the poor.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, we do well to remember and reflect on the history of God’s saving works. In particular, Mary’s Magnificat draws our attention to the biblical trend of depicting God on the side of the weak and powerless, mindful of those whom most people tend to overlook.

John Latimer, “Poverty Simulation Is No Game,”, 16 Nov 2015


• What do you (or does your church) do on behalf of the poor around Christmas?
• How might awareness of the needs of poor or distressed families and individuals open our eyes to the meaning of Christmas?
• Mary anticipated a great reversal in which the poor are exalted and the rich are brought down. What might this look like if it were to happen in our world?
• For whom would this be good news?

Reference Shelf

The Magnificat

The hymn of praise that appears in Luke 1:46-55 traditionally has been called the Magnificat after the initial word of the first line of the Latin translation: Magnificat anima mea Dominum (“My soul magnifies the Lord”). This is the best known of several psalms that are found in the first and second chaps. of Luke, all of which are related by virtue of their hymnic structure: the Benedictus (1:67-79); the Song of the Angels (2:13-14); and the Nunc dimittis (2:18-32). The format of the hymn is structured around a series of couplets that are gathered into four separate sections: introduction (vv. 46b-47); first strophe (vv. 48-50); second strophe (vv. 51-53); conclusion (vv. 54-55). Although the Song of Hannah in 1 Sam 2:1-10 serves as a model upon which the Magnificat is constructed, numerous OT allusions occur throughout the verses….

The Magnificat is a hymn of praise and thanksgiving in honor of the salvific acts of God. It focuses upon the theme of divine justice—the low are exalted, the mighty are felled, the Messiah is the agent of this supreme reversal of fortunes. The first section of the song describes the mercy that the Lord distributes to the impoverished of society; the second section praises the divine justice that God exacts upon the mighty on behalf of the lowly. In each instance, the covenant of faithfulness between God and the elect of God is demonstrated, both with respect to the individual (Mary) and with respect to society (Israel).

Clayton N. Jefford, “Magnificat,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 541–42.

Mary Gets the Last Word

Mary’s words are drawn from a range of LXX passages. Like her son, she can “begin with Moses and all the prophets” and rattle off the themes of God’s salvation: mercy to the poor, judgment on the wealthy; honor to the humble, confusion to the proud; faithfulness to the promises made to Israel through Abraham and the patriarchs. These, of course, are also the essentials of Jesus’ message in Luke: “Blessed are you poor/Woe to you who are rich,” etc. And like Jesus, Peter, Stephen, and Paul, Mary takes the first opportunity after her inauguration into God’s plan to offer a speech laying out the plan of God in relation to Israel, to Jesus, and to her own role. Like all those men, she is first called by God, then goes on the road, and then stands and delivers the gospel. The only thing they do that she does not is heal someone, and one could argue that the life growing inside her should count as a miracle as much as any other in Luke-Acts.

Mary, then, is even more than Elizabeth the prototypical prophet, the first example of the heroic protagonist that will carry Luke’s story along. The careful reader will notice that Luke never qualifies this positive image of Mary. In 8:19-21, Jesus does not indicate that the crowd around him is his true family; instead, he says that his mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it, as Mary has done in this first chapter. In 11:27-28, Jesus does not deny that his mother is blessed, but explains why: not because she gave birth to him and raised him, but because she heard God’s word and guarded it in her heart (2:51). Luke uses Mary to set a pattern for the kind of hero we are to expect.

More than that, as Tannehill notes, Luke uses Mary and her song to begin the characterization of God. God is Lord, Savior, Mighty One, Holy. God takes careful notice of a girl in Galilee, choosing her out of all the families of the earth to make her a blessing to all the earth. God disperses and unseats the powerful, but lifts up and fills the poor. God stands by God’s promises. Mary voices the authoritative, authorial point of view: this is the God of the Gospel of Luke, whose actions are often couched in the “divine passive” and who is not often directly described. Mary’s song inscribes God in more concrete (and in the end, more reliable) terms than even Gabriel. The angel gets the first word, but his God will put Jesus on David’s throne to rule over Israel forever; when has that happened, either in the narrative or in the witness of any of Luke’s readers? Mary gets the last word: her God will use Jesus to bless the poor, undo the rich, and be faithful to the promise to Abraham (“I will make of you a great nation; I will make your name a blessing; all the families of the earth will be blessed by you”).

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 44–45.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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