Commentary on Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]
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.
- Kerry L. Barger, Elohim II: Ascension of the King (publication place: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2014),136.
- John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (publication place: HarperOne, 2009),109.
- Crossan, 109.
- Crossan, 110.