Many scholars have repeatedly claimed that the gospel of Luke aims to introduce Christianity as a harmless religion to the Roman Empire.
They also argue that the gospel focuses on religion and spirituality and has nothing to do with the political environment of the gospel. Christians believed for centuries that Jesus came to rebel not against Roman imperialism but against sin, death, and Satan. This understanding of Luke implies that Christ distanced himself from the social reality of first century Jews. While I agree that Jesus Christ’s message concerned our spiritual life, I also believe that God cared about the Jews who suffered greatly under Roman imperial power.
Religion was inseparable from politics in the first century CE. Political leaders held religious office in the Roman Empire. Emperor Augustus was considered a divine being and political leader. “His final name of Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus has an equivalent meaning in English as ‘Commander Caesar, Son of the Divine.’”1 Luke presents Jesus Christ as a nonviolent new King who resists Roman imperialism. Understanding the political environment of the gospel of Luke is crucial to understand the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise.
According to our best knowledge, Jesus Christ was born around 4 BCE.2 This year was an unforgettable and challenging year for the Jews. When Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, Jews rebelled all over the land. The Syrian legions under the direction of Rome crashed the Jewish rebellions and burned the city of Sepphoris in Galilee and reduced its inhabitants to slavery.3 Jesus grew up in Nazareth about 4 miles from Sepphoris. Those who could not hide from the Syrian legions “were killed, raped, and enslaved. Those who survived have lost everything.”4 Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth must witness this horrific act.
The Jews believed that the only way to overcome the imperial power of Rome was through God’s intervention. The narrative of the Annunciation and Elizabeth’s response to Mary’s greeting reflect God’s intervention to rescue Israel from Rome. God intervened to help the oppressed Jews through the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The Romans imposed heavy taxes on the Jews. They had to choose between collaborating and resisting the Romans.
All the Jews were anticipating God’s intervention. Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary were anticipating God to redeem them from Rome’s brutal dominion. Jesus is God’s fulfilling promise to oppressed people, not only to the Jews but also all the nations who are struggling under Roman imperialism.
The narrative of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth speaks to us about Mary’s participation in the salvation of her people. Carrying the Savior in her womb and trusting in God’s salvation gave her a chance to play an essential part in resisting Roman imperialism. Elizabeth recognizes the superiority of Jesus by calling him “Lord.” She considers him as the eschatological coming of God.
Mary’s Magnificat echoes the social upheaval and economic exploitation. The Romans economically exploited the Jews and took advantage of their natural resources. Those who were socially impacted by the Roman imperialism experienced poverty, hunger, and disease. The Jews could barely subsist from day to day. They longed for Messiah to bring some form of physical and spiritual healing. There was no way for them to improve their social life, which created resentment against Rome.
The main point of this reading is God acts on behalf of Israel. God is at work now and then. Christ’s salvation does not only concern future, but also the present time. The Magnificat should not be only spiritualized, but we need to understand its context. The Magnificat demonstrates that God is concerned with the social and political realities of the daily life of Jews, and God acts on behalf of the oppressed and against the proud and powerful. God brings down the powerful and lifts the lowly. God is God of this moment and the moment to come.
God’s salvation is present here on earth and in the coming future. According to Mary, God’s salvific action is present-already and not just future reality. Here we can understand that Jesus’ salvation starts at the moment of the Annunciation and ends at the cross. Salvation is not limited to crucifixion, but the whole life of Jesus was salvific action. God is ruling on earth as in heaven. God rules instead of Caesar. The Magnificat is inviting us to imagine how the world would look like if Jesus sat on Augustus’ throne and ruled with peace and justice. Jesus, the new King, rules on earth without Caesar’s permission. He rules not through violence, but he rules gently.
Mary’s song voices themes that appear in every culture, society, and generation. People are still anticipating deliverance from unjust rulers and unjust law. A preacher can highlight people’s everyday struggle and suffering. Preachers can also affirm Jesus’ presence in the worshiper’s efforts to feed their children, pay their bills, and have health insurance. In other words, Jesus is concerned with their social realities. The preacher can talk about God who seeks partners like Mary to advocate for the marginalized and to participate in their salvation.
Continuing the themes of Advent, Micah’s prophecy of deliverance comes with an adult dose of lament.
The lectionary leaves out the first verse which is helpful for understanding the current state of hopelessness in Jerusalem, “Now cut yourself, daughters of cutters, a siege is upon us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek.”1 Before Micah’s description of the coming king, it is appropriate to hear the distress. Tradition suggests that this fragment describes the moment when the Babylonians begin their siege on Jerusalem.The daughters of Zion are in danger of becoming the daughters of the marauding army. The leader of Jerusalem has been humiliated in his role, or perhaps incapacitated. Walled in the city as the Babylonian armies spread across the valleys beneath Jerusalem, hope begins to crack.
Hope is the partner of possibility. A siege is designed to close down possibility. With each passing day the option of survival slowly drains away. The sieging army doesn’t need to do much beside make sure supply lines continue to feed and secure the army. In a temperate climate with no second enemy, this logistical challenge is relatively easy: just set up camp and wait. As the sieging army waits, the hopes of those inside the walls begin to fracture. First the small fissures in the hope as they see the camps set up outside the walls. Then the cracks grow into a spiderweb as the storehouses grow empty. Hope is broken when finally, the sieged can conceive of only two options: death or surrender.
Social theorist Pierre Bourdieu conceives of human action as the complex negotiation of an imagination that is always calculating the possibilities for success. Only in folk tales and fairy tales do we conceive of social worlds where every possibility is equally available to every person. The truth is we do not all have equal access to the possibility of becoming a supreme court justice, or a professional basketball player, or a minister.
Bourdieu argues that all of us internalize the outside possibilities and let those internalized possibilities guide our imaginations. Every action is thus preceded by an unexamined subconscious calculation that asks, “Is that possible for someone like me?” Possibility is therefore also a question of power. “What power do I have to achieve my interests and is it enough?”
When our answers to the above questions are a solid “No,” hope wanes. But as Micah makes clear, while hope is easy to wound it is hard to kill. Though sieging armies want to limit the possibilities to two possibilities, the prophet refuses to be held captive by only two choices. The prophetic imagination has so much more to offer than just two options. Though the judge of Israel has been beaten down, another leader has been promised by God.
The prophecy admits that the sieging army will complete its task and Israel will be “given up,” but the story of God is not finished when the siege is completed. From a little town of Bethlehem will come another ruler, one in the vein of David — from Bethlehem but fit to rule Jerusalem. Micah continues to describe a time of security and peace where the leader, like David, will assume the role of shepherd of Israel. A leader who can feed his sheep. Contrast this vision, of course, with the humiliated leader in verse one who is unable to make peace as the sieging army starves the city.
If part of human experience is calculating how much power we have to achieve our interests, it is natural to also quantify what allies we can make to grow our power. The temptation then is to increase our possibilities in the world by borrowing the power of an ally. Since we cannot survive the siege, we join the siege. Since we cannot beat them, we become them. Power borrowed is better than no power at all.
The problem of course, is that our borrowed power never buys us true freedom. It only makes us a vassal to someone else’s interests. Yet, for Micah, the coming ruler is not borrowing earthly power, but is the arm of God’s power on earth. The coming ruler is God’s fullest expression of what God can do on the earth. Though the kings of Israel failed to protect the people, the coming ruler will secure the people of Israel. Though the dwelling place of Israel has been put under siege, this ruler will secure the dwelling for all time.
One of the marks of the prophetic imagination is its resilience. It refuses to be trampled. To be a prophet is to take the external possibilities and resist allowing their internalization. The outside possibilities ought never hinder our imagination of what remains possible.
Later, Christ will assure his followers, “with God all things are possible.” Within advent, a passage like this is a call back to the type of imagination that refuses to be bound by the historical moment. Values of grace, care, sensitivity and compassion seem in short supply. Advent is a time to assure the church that the wait will be honored. The promise will come true even when we don’t have the foggiest idea how.
In the meantime, as the sieged wait, they daydream about the end beyond the end. That daydreaming is no silly trifle, but a way to preserve the hope that is fracturing. It is a way to expand the story beyond the immediate so that possibility might again join hands with hope.
Mary’s beautiful song of praise is commonly called the Magnificat, from the Latin for “magnify.”1
[Find commentaries on the psalm for the day, Psalm 80:1-7, by Elizabeth Webb and Jerome Creach.]
Mary magnifies the Lord, proclaiming God’s greatness and rejoicing in God as Savior. She begins with God’s actions in her own life, for in choosing her to be the mother of the messiah, the Mighty One has indeed “done great things for” her. Elizabeth has just welcomed and honored her, saying, “blessed is she who believed.” Now she recognizes with awe that not only Elizabeth but all generations will call her blessed.
In our culture #blessed has become a meme, and “feeling blessed” makes regular appearances in Facebook posts. People tweet images or post pictures of themselves enjoying a delicious meal or an exotic vacation or a shopping spree at their favorite store. “Blessed” has come to mean living a life of privilege and comfort. Using the term has become a way of celebrating those moments when everything is going well and all seems right with the world — or at least one’s own little corner of it.
The blessedness that Mary celebrates stands in stark contrast to our culture’s attitude. By our standards she does not look at all blessed. God has chosen her to be the mother of the messiah, but in practical terms what does that mean for her? She is not from a family that can afford expensive food or clothing. She is a nobody, a peasant girl from a small village. Her friends and neighbors see her as a disgrace because she is unmarried and pregnant (see Joseph’s initial reaction to her pregnancy in Matthew 1:19). Furthermore, as she will soon learn from Simeon if she hasn’t perceived it already, being the mother of the messiah is scarcely an unmixed blessing. She will bear the unspeakable grief of watching as her son is rejected, shamed, and crucified: “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel … and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34–35). Despite all this, Mary praises God for honoring her.
Furthermore, she perceives God’s action in her life as consistent with God’s saving action in history. The Mighty One’s agenda differs radically from the plans of human rulers. Mary’s celebration of God’s strong arm recalls Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1–10. Like Mary, Hannah experienced a miraculous pregnancy. Like Mary’s son, Hannah’s son Samuel spoke God’s word. Both Hannah and Mary praise God for overturning society’s structures by bringing down the powerful and lifting up the powerless. Mary’s song does not share Hannah’s militaristic imagery, however, for Mary’s son will bless not the makers of war, but the peacemakers.
Mary sings about the God who saves not just souls, but embodied people. The God she celebrates is not content merely to point people toward heaven; God’s redemptive work begins here on earth. God fills the hungry not only with hope, but with food. Rather than being satisfied with comforting the lowly, Mary’s Lord lifts them up, granting them dignity and honor, a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation. At the same time, God shows strength by disrupting the world’s power structures, dethroning rulers, and humbling the mighty.
Clearly such saving acts are good news for the poor and lowly, but what does Mary’s song mean for the wealthy and the powerful? Is there nothing but judgment for them? Though judgment and salvation may seem like opposites, they go hand in hand. Those who stand in awe only of themselves and their own power will be judged. Yet if the wealthy and powerful can only see it, by bringing them down — by emptying and humbling them — God is saving them. When they turn their gaze from themselves and their own accomplishments, when their awe is directed to God — then there is mercy for them, too.
Both in Mary’s song and in Jesus’ ministry we see the God who loves us as we are but does not leave us as we are. Zacchaeus, for example, shows us God’s saving love in action. As a tax collector, Zacchaeus is wealthy, but he is also a scorned outsider. When Jesus invites himself to dinner at Zacchaeus’s house, the encounter leaves Zacchaeus welcomed into community, emptied of his wealth, and profoundly changed. His gaze is redirected from himself toward Jesus. He no longer sees only his own needs and desires. Now he sees those whom he has harmed in his quest for money and security. Jesus brings Zacchaeus down from his wealth and up from his shame. In the process he frees him. Salvation has come to his house (Luke 19:9).
When God empties the rich of their excess and fills the hungry with good things, the result is not social reversal — with the powerless and the powerful changing places — as much as it is social leveling. The rich and powerful are stripped of their arrogance and taught to love their neighbors as they love themselves. Thus God provides for the poor and honors the humiliated. When the arrogant are scattered and the powerful brought down, then every person has access to enough of the world’s resources, and no one has too much. Every person is treated with dignity and respect, and no one uses power to harm.
Mary’s song magnifies the Savior who loves the whole world with a love that makes creation whole. God’s saving judgment is for all of us, bringing us down from the pride that fills us with ourselves until we can’t see either God or neighbor, bringing us up from the shame that distorts our worldview and convinces us that no one — not even God — could love us. The mother of the Messiah has experienced God’s blessing. She is not #blessed. Her blessing, like ours, is a cross-shaped blessing, “a condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything)” as T. S. Eliot so memorably said, yet bringing true freedom, the priceless gift of God’s salvation.
1. Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 20, 2015.
The person of Jesus Christ — his will and voice and body — take center stage in this intriguing instance of New Testament salvific proclamation in the words of Israel’s Scriptures.
One more time now
The sermon labeled as being “To the Hebrews” is often charged with repetitiveness. At the beginning Hebrews 10 comes the assertion that the sacrifices of the law are ineffectual (10:1-4), a statement made several times already beginning in Hebrews 7 (7:19; 8:5-6; 9:9, 13-14). In this iteration of the problem, Jesus himself is brought forth to speak.
The last time Jesus had a speaking role in this drama of God’s redemption, he spoke of his stance of trust toward God on the one hand and proclamation to as well as possession of humanity on the other (Hebrews 2:12-13). While an argument can be made for the Son’s pre-incarnational presence with the Father and therefore a sharing in the other speeches of God, Hebrews 10 is the next time that the author specifically delineates the Son as the sole speaker of the Scriptural text. In the instance of Hebrews 10 as well, he is speaking to God the Father displaying an attitude of trust with the aim of redeeming creation, only this time the author can depend upon his intervening argument to inform Jesus’ lines.
Verse five begins with a dio, “therefore,” indicating that the author relates Jesus’ speech (“he says”) to the previous statements. Here he speaks in response to the ineffectiveness of animal blood with regard to sin. It is not as if this shortfall is a surprise to God. This system was a shadow of the good things that would come (10:1).
Shadows are less valuable when compared with the reality that casts the shadow, but at the same time they are helpful in that they are a forewarning — a foreshadowing, indeed — that something or someone is approaching. For the author of Hebrews, the sacrificial law is like the approaching shadow of the body of Jesus the Messiah. When he takes the place of his shadow, he is ready to speak — something a body but not a shadow can do.
The setting of his speech
Another pressing question arises with the author’s introduction to his speech: what is the setting of this speech? Its occurrence is related to his “entering into the cosmos” (10:5). Of the fifteen occurrences of “entering in” in the sermon, the other fourteen fall into two groups: “Entering into” God’s rest or “entering into” God’s sanctuary, both of which have an “on earth” and an “in God’s direct presence” component. Here the entry is into the cosmos which indicates for the author God’s creation (4:3) that became tainted by sin (9:26; 11:7, 38).
All the enterings are connected. The Son’s entering into the cosmos was followed by his entering into God’s sanctuary (6:19–20) so that others could enter into God’s rest (4:1, 6, 10, 11). This participle “eisercomai” could indicate then the cause of his speaking: “he says these things because he is entering God’s sinful world so that members of that world can enter God’s restful sanctuary or sanctified rest.”
The participle could also be an indicator of time. As a present participle, it would show that he is making this speech as he is entering the world. This would align with previous descriptions of the Son: 1) that he took on flesh and blood (2:14-18) — His entrance into the world is his becoming human — and 2) that he existed as a personal agent who could speak before he took on flesh and blood — the Son was with God before the creation of anything (1:2, 10).
Hebrews 1 may allow for the personal pre-existence of the Son, but Hebrews 10 confirms it, for if the entrance into the world is as a human member of the tribe of Judah (7:14), it would strongly imply a human birth. A newborn infant wouldn’t normally utter the words of Israel’s Scriptures at first cry. If these words are spoken by him “as he is coming into the world” they are spoken by a sentient being before he takes on the human condition from his conception. It is not surprising that commentators through the centuries have found the seeds of Jesus’ eternal divinity in the author’s introduction to the Son’s words.
The content of his speech
The author of Hebrews places the text of Greek Psalm 39:7-9 (Hebrew Psalm 40:6-8) on the lips of Jesus. The textual history here is complicated with manuscript variants in the Hebrew, between the Hebrew and Greek Septuagint, between the Septuagint and Hebrews, and in different copies of Hebrews itself. The major difference turns on one word: wtia (ears) or swma (body). Did God restore the speaker’s ears or prepare the speaker’s body? Clearly the body version serves the author’s assertions about Jesus the Messiah. Having taken on flesh and blood, his body is what brings sanctification (10:10).
The Psalm as a whole raises the juxtaposition of ritual vs. the heart. Readers might be tempted to interpret God’s lack of desire and pleasure for sacrifices as a rejection of ritual writ large. God wants one’s heart not one’s stuff. But the juxtaposition is not a simple example of either/or. David, to whom the Psalm is attributed (Psalm 40:1), cares deeply about setting up right sacrifice to God, but in this moment of having been redeemed, his primary concern is to proclaim God’s redemption. Sacrifice without testimony would have stolen an opportunity to proclaim God’s glory, but that is not to say that sacrifice wouldn’t have followed testimony.
So too with Jesus as the speaker of the Psalm. It is not that sacrifices and whole burnt offerings are bad in and of themselves, but they were not the will of God that Jesus came to enact. The author has already said that Jesus would not have been a priest on earth because, being from a non-priestly tribe (Hebrews 7:14), he would not have had any gifts to offer (Hebrews 8:4). His job — like the Psalmist — was first to proclaim God to others (Hebrews 2:12) and then to sacrifice. The blessed difference is, of course, he followed his testimony not with offering the flesh of animals, but by offering his own flesh.
The reason for his speech
The time of the shadow has now passed, the author proclaims. The Son has removed the first to establish the second (10:9). The previous instance of “first” and “last” language appeared in the author’s discussion of the covenants (8:7), so that very well could be the referent for the non-specified ordinals here. More immediately, they could refer to the pair discussed two times through the Psalm: offerings and God’s will. Jesus, by approaching, has removed the shadow, the sacrificial system, to establish the will of God which the shadow previewed.
In the next verse the author speaks of God’s will and our sanctification but notice that these are not equated. Instead, sanctification is the result of God’s will, not precisely the will itself. The next phrase clarifies; “By God’s will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus the Messiah once for all” (10:10). God’s will, then, is the Son’s embodiment. The will of God is that God the Son take on a body, offer that body, and procure holiness. In so doing, he brought the foreshadowing of offerings to an end and he began the process of holistic sanctification. God’s command to offer the bodies of animals foreshadowed the offering of the human body of God.