Luke 1.26-38; 46-56

Lady Madonna

(Songs of the Season – III)

Third Sunday of Advent

OK boomers:  take out our number two pencils and get ready for today’s Bible quiz.  Here’s your question:  how many Beatles’ songs can be found in the Magnificat, the Song of Mary we heard from the New Testament this morning?  Whether through direct quote, allusion, suggestion or inference, how many are you able to name?  You may be surprised.

A few years ago, Newsweek carried a cover story about the women of the Bible.  Taking its cue from a book titled Bad Girls of the Bible which I believe our church’s Bible Study group read not too long ago, the article starts out with Mary Magdalene, and examines some of the more powerful female personalities we encounter in the scriptures.  Included in the discussion were Sarah and Hagar, Rahab and Deborah, Judith and Tamar, and especially appropriate to this time of year, Elizabeth, and Mary the mother of Jesus.  Yet what interests me about many of the studies of biblical women is that while most of them are celebrated for being actors, or actresses, upon the scriptural stage, Mary the mother of Jesus is celebrated more for being acted upon rather than for acting.  That is, Rahab rescued the Hebrew spies, Deborah and Judith led Israeli armies against their enemies and triumphed gloriously – for that matter, so did Miriam, the sister of Moses.  But Mary’s claim to fame seems to be that she quiescently accepted Gabriel’s annunciation.  Indeed, as the Newsweek article suggests, “for many, [Mary] is an alabaster figure.”  But is she really?

I understand how people might believe this at first blush.  What was Mary’s response to the preposterous news that she was going to have a baby without ever having been with a man?  It appears to be a comparatively passive, “Let it be to me according to your word.”  There’s the first answer to your quiz, by the way: “Let It Be,” Paul McCartney’s direct and deliberate quote from the first chapter of Luke.  Yet a closer look at the song of Mary reveals a very different picture of Jesus’ mother, one not nearly so benign or resigned.  Writer William Barclay calls Mary’s words “a wondrous hymn which speaks of the revolution of God.”  George Caird, an Oxford don who specializes in the gospels, sees in the Magnificat a “manifesto of a revolution…”  The song of Mary?  You call this a manifesto?  “You say you want a revolution?  Well, you know, we all want to change the world…”  (2)  Actually, there is something to this.   And I’d like to look at Mary’s song this morning by starting in the middle of Luke’s gospel and working backward until the writer himself takes us to Mary’s song.  And as we do this, let’s lift up again a few key phrases in the passage:  “God has shown strength with his arm, and has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; God has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; God has filled the hungry with good things, and has sent the rich empty away.”

When we read the gospels, one of the things we want to pay attention to is that when one of the writers, when Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, tells a story about Jesus that none of the other three tells, it’s a red flag that announces that this story is integral to the writer’s telling.  I’d like to look at three stories unique to Luke and see what they might tell us about the song of Mary.  The first is a story from Luke 7, when Jesus had dinner at the home of a Pharisee.  Just as the meal was about to begin, a lady of the night, a streetwalker, one of society’s pariahs, entered the house, and without saying a word, opened a flask of prohibitively expensive ointment and washed Jesus’ feet.  The Pharisee was appalled, partly because of the rudeness of the interruption, partly because of the affront of having a harlot stroll into his house, and partly because of the waste of ointment.  In the Pharisees’ eyes, this poor woman and all those like her could do nothing right, no matter how hard they tried:  “All the lonely people – where do they all belong?” (3)  But instead of rebuking her, Jesus said to the Pharisee, “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house, and you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet and wiped them with her hair… you did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment.  Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but the one who is forgiven little, loves little.”

The second passage unique to Luke is one we heard just a few weeks ago, the familiar story of Zacchaeus the tax-collector, a profession as reviled in his day as the harlot’s.  When Jesus entered Jericho, he received a hero’s welcome, and naturally it was assumed he would stay with one of the local dignitaries.  But instead he chose to stay with Zacchaeus, and as a result the crowd whispered nasty things about Jesus behind his back:  “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner,” they said to each other out in the parking lot.  Jesus’ choice was clearly a rebuke to the high and mighty, the pure and the pious alike, but to Zacchaeus it was evidence of the mercy and compassion of God’s anointed.

The third and final story I want to lift up is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.  Remember that Lazarus was a man of extreme poverty who was fed the measly scraps from the rich man’s table.  At the end of their lives, we find the rich man in Hades with the flames licking around him, and Lazarus comfortably in the embrace of Abraham.  The rich man begged Abraham to let Lazarus bring even just one drop of water, anything to relieve his anguish.  But Abraham said, “Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish.”

These three stories, told by Luke and no one else, are examples of three different kinds of justice.  In the story of the Pharisee and the harlot, it was the woman whose need for Jesus brought her mercy while the Pharisee, the church elder, was laid low:  this is Jesus’ expression of moral justice – as Mary sang, He shows mercy on those who revere him, but he scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts.  The story of Zacchaeus reveals the favor Jesus showed to the most despicable kind of person in the community, the Taxman, (4) while the so-called respectable people were scandalized by Jesus’ actions:  this is Jesus expression of social justice – again, in Mary’s words, He exalts those of low degree, but he casts down the mighty from their high places.  And the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, who suddenly find their status reversed, is a Jesus’ expression of economic justice – He fills the hungry with good things, but the rich he sends empty away.

In each of these we hear the direct echoes of the song of praise Mary sang when she learned she was with child:  “His mercy is on those who revere him (the woman who was a sinner)… he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones (the Pharisee), and exalted those of low degree (Zacchaeus); he has filled the hungry with good things (Lazarus), and the rich he has sent empty away (the rich man).”  The character of Jesus’ ministry was, in deed and in effect, sung by his mother before he was even born.  The Magnificat was, in many ways, Mary’s prophecy of the work of God in Jesus Christ.

The picture Luke presents is one of a complete inversion of the status quo:  the mighty are cast down, the hungry are filled, the proud and arrogant are humbled.  It is a conscious echo of Hannah’s song of praise after learning that she was finally going to have a baby after years of barrenness.  I say conscious, because remember it was Hannah’s son, Samuel, who grew up and anointed David to be king, the same David who, as Luke reminds us pointedly, is of the same house and lineage as Mary’s soon-to-be-delivered child.  And it is this inversion that makes Mary’s song so revolutionary.  I recognize this is not the message we have come to expect at Christmas time, the message of upsetting the cultural equilibrium and overturning the accepted social order.  For many of us, Christmas in church is a kind of spiritual cocoon where we can escape, even if only for an hour, from the world’s push and pull, to find a few moments of peace and sanctity in order to prepare ourselves for the Savior’s birth.  But then Luke leaps into that nice pastoral picture with his big muddy boots and says, Guess what?  That birth you’re so looking so forward to is going to insist on enriching the poor and impoverishing the rich, it’s going to ask you to reach out and touch society’s lepers and be infected with the grace they bring you, it’s going to invite streetwalkers into your house for dinner, and oh by the way, it is only your salvation that hangs in the balance.  Luke does not permit us that little cocoon we’re searching for this time of year; in fact, he says that if that big bad world out there beyond the church windows is not part of your Christmas song, then you’re probably singing from the wrong hymnal.

Perhaps Mary is not that alabaster figure after all.  Perhaps she is even more revolutionary than the all the armies of Deborah, Judith and Miriam put together.  Perhaps her ways are wilier than Rahab and Tamar.  Numerous composers have used the Magnificat as settings for oratorios and cantatas, with music that is both inspired and majestic, yet always with the touch of reverence and piety.  But maybe the Fab Four from Liverpool were closer to the mark in singing about the Lady Madonna (5), whose deliverance after being shunted out to the barn certainly made for a difficult, if not to say, a hard day’s night (6), although, comforted as she was by the shepherds and magi, we find she was not without a little help from her friends (7).  And as any percussionist will tell you, it is usually the drummer who propels the music of any ensemble, so perhaps it wasn’t just the magi who followed a Starr.  Or at least that’s what we hear in the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Paul, George and Ringo.

Amen.

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