Commentary on Luke 1:26-49
There are three themes I want to explore in Luke 1:26-55: God’s activity, kingship, and status.1, 2, 3
Perhaps one of the most striking aspects of this text is that the Virgin Mary does not have a problem. She is not seeking God’s intervention in her life. She is not barren. She is not without a husband. Yet, she is the one whom God chooses to bear God’s son.
Indeed, God is the main actor in this passage. God sends Gabriel with a message, God gives attention to Mary, God chooses the name — Jesus, which means “God saves” — God designates this Son as a king, the inheritor of the throne of David, and the one who will rule over an eternal kingdom. God’s Spirit and power will bring all of this to pass.
In today’s passage, Mary is promised a son who will be given the throne of David and whose kingdom will last forever. This promise is firmly rooted in the Old Testament. Kingship is an important biblical theme that begins with creation where God is established as the creator of all that is, as the one whose image is stamped upon humanity, and as the one with authority to both give the garden to humanity and to require obedience to God’s laws. After the rebellion in the garden, the creator-king chooses Abraham and his descendants, Israel, delivers them from slavery in Egypt, and brings them to the new land where eventually Israel demands a king.
The king is one “whom the Lord your God will choose” (Deuteronomy 17:15). Israel does not choose her own king but rather one is chosen for her by God. Saul, the first king, proved unfaithful and disobedient. So, God chooses another king, David, who will be described as one after God’s own heart. In 2 Samuel 7, God covenants with David to “establish his throne forever” (verse 13) through his descendants.
This promise is reiterated by the prophets in some of Israel’s most difficult times. Isaiah reminds Israel that although Assyria created provinces close to Jerusalem, the promise that God will establish the throne of David is still true (Isaiah 9:1-7). Even when it seems that exile might break the promise that God has made to Israel, Jeremiah declares that God’s covenant with David will be unbroken (Jeremiah 33:21) and that there will come a time when a ruler will return and “execute justice and righteousness” (33:15).
When the angel declares that Mary will have a baby known as “the Son of the Most High,” it is immediately clear that this is a Son of God (cf., 2 Samuel 22:14 where the parallelism shows the relationship between lord and Most High). The baby born to Mary will be given the throne of David. Just as God chose the king of Israel, so now, God designates Jesus as the one who will be his Son and who will inherit the throne of David forever, just as he promised to David and reaffirmed through the prophets so many centuries before.
But this raises the question of what kind of ruler this king who is the Son of the Most High will be. This question leads us into another theme of this passage: a theme of status and its reversal.
When the Virgin Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel, Mary was likely a young woman in her teens, not yet married but having entered into a contract to be married to Joseph, who is described as a descendant of David (verse 27). She lived in the town of Nazareth, a small town in rural Galilee, certainly not a place at the center of things. This opening description immediately alerts us to questions of status.
Gabriel, the angel who described himself as standing in the presence of God (verse 19) and who already gave an announcement to Zechariah the priest is sent to a young virgin with no stated family connections in a rural backwater. This young woman of low status in a male dominated society is the person that God has favored, to whom God is present (verse 28). Mary wondered what this was all about, and the angel continued with the message.
This virgin in a small rural village, whose marriage had not yet been consummated, would give birth to a son. His name will be Jesus, he will be great, he will “be called the Son of the Most High,” he will be given the “throne of David,” he will reign, and his kingdom will not end (verses 31-33). Mary rightly asks how this could be possible since she is still a virgin, and the angel tells her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and that the power of God will make this possible.
Mary herself recognizes that this favor from God, the attention that she receives from God is a reversal of her status and fortunes. When she responds in praise to God, she sings about the regard that God has towards her “low estate” (verse 48) and about the “great things” that God has done for her (verse 49). She will go on to indicate that this is not surprising because one of the things that God does is to reverse the fortunes of those who are proud and those who are mighty.
In the place of those who always thought of themselves as better or stronger, we see those who are lowly lifted up and those who are hungry filled up while the rich go away into a hunger they have not known before. Jesus will be the Son of the God who lifts up those of low status and feeds the hungry people. Jesus will be the Son of the Savior who gives attention to a lowly virgin in a rural backwater. Jesus will be the Son of the Savior who uses power to remove the proud and mighty from their places of power and pride.
1This interpretation is indebted to the works noted below.
2Bartholomew, Craig G. and Goheen, Michael W. The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.
3Green, Joel B. Luke, NICNT, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
There is no miracle as grand as birth. As we prepare for the coming of your son, Jesus, create in us new life. Transform us so that we may reflect the light of your son, and become beacons of goodness, kindness, compassion, generosity, honesty, patience, and peace, for the sake of the one whose name brings deliverance and life to all the world, Jesus Christ, infant king. Amen.
My soul proclaims your greatness ELW 251
My soul gives glory to my God UMH 1983, NCH 119
Joy to the world ELW 267, H82 100, UMH 246
Signs and wonders ELW 672
Thou shalt know him when he comes Mark Sirette