Scripture: Luke 1:39-55
Even though Jesus’ birth is only talked about in two of the gospels, those gospels give us a real treasure-trove of stories and lessons.
Today’s text—at face value, may not ring with the “Christmas program” reverberation of
Luke 2 (“In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered…”)
nor as with Matthew 1 (“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit…”)
But all the same—there is a powerful reality testified to in today’s short verses…. a reality that both hearkens back to the Old Testament story and anticipates Jesus and his challenging, counter-cultural teachings. And it is all wrapped up in this woman named Mary, and the fact that she is called “Blessed.”
Who Is Mary?: Woman
We have to start with Mary herself. Who is she at this point in the biblical story?
She is a woman; we must begin there. And being a woman in her day and age, she is not thought to be worth much. Throughout the Old Testament story, we see women counted and valued among the property owned by a man. Even in the Ten Commandments, for instance, a wife is counted second among a list of property that includes houses, slaves, oxen, donkeys, and “anything else that belongs to your neighbor.”
In the New Testament world of Mary, women did not fare much better. While there are glimpses in Acts and other places where a woman might be able to stand on her own two feet without a man, it seems to require a good deal of wealth and power (acquired through a husband who then died) for her to do it.
Jesus’ own teaching on divorce in Matthew 5 (vv.31-32) radically limits divorce precisely because for many women divorce might as well be a death notice. Society and commerce were not structured in such a way that any woman could likely survive on her own.
Who Is Mary?: Young
To make matters worse, Mary is young. I realize that for many of us, it is hard to think of youth as a curse. But it is, in its own way…… and even today.
For example: I accepted the call to serve a church for the first time when I was 28 years old—not young, though a good deal young-er, of course. I encountered so many obstacles, because of my age, you simply would not believe it. People I met in the community would marvel and say things like: “I didn’t know you could be a pastor and be so young.” I began to wonder where they thought clergy came from—were we grown at the Vatican or Wittenberg or somewhere, only to be released into the public sphere when we reached the age of 45? Paul’s words to Timothy became my mantra: “Let no one despise your youth, but set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1Timothy 4:12 NRSV).
We “adults” have trouble taking youth seriously. We remember our own drama, and we are acutely aware of the fact we have changed a lot—even if we don’t ever really reflect on those changes.
But we quickly forget the frustration of having something important to say—and not being given a venue to speak out.
We forget the pain of having our lives controlled by others—amidst the inherent desire to chart our own course.
We forget that we had to figure out how to be ourselves, too—something many of us adults could maybe do some more work on, if we’re honest.
None of this—as the Timothy quote reveals—is unique to our place and time.
Who Is Mary?: Betrothed
Further complicating matters for Mary is that she is betrothed. We might (by analogy) imagine this means she is engaged, but it connotes so much more in Mary’s day.
Do remember that Mary is property belonging to her father, and her father struck what amounts to a business deal with Joseph’s father. There is a certain give-and-take, tit-for-tat between the families—Mary’s family will likely gain some benefit from the association with Joseph’s family, and Joseph’s family is likely promised a certain amount of money or other wealth in exchange for Mary (and yes, you heard me right, they have to be paid to take her).
As property—and as virtually a child at that—she has no say in any of this. This deal was probably struck well before she was old enough to be married—perhaps even way back when she was born—and the financial compensation perhaps even transferred to Joseph’s family right away—as an incentive to follow through on their end of the bargain (and take her as promised). Mary, of course, needs to be delivered in the proper, agreed-upon condition as well—in other words, demonstrably a virgin—or her family has violated this business arrangement.
Who Is Mary?: Not Worth Marrying
That Mary ends up pregnant was thus a big deal. It brought shame to both families. It labeled her “damaged goods,” and no longer worth marrying.
We can see this in Matthew 1:19, amidst Joseph’s attempt to “do the right thing.” He seems interested in ensuring that she can survive, but she’s just not worth it for him anymore. There’s too much scandal. Too much gossip. Too much rumormongering.
And just wait until word gets out that she thinks she’s seen an angel. What are her peers going to say then? That she is hallucinating? or making it all up? or mentally ill? It’s certainly not helping her case.
Not too far into the future, Mary will be a person scandalized and nearly destroyed. That is who she is in her world.
Yet Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:41b-42 NRSV).
I don’t know that this felt like a blessing, do you?
Blessedness in the New Testament
Let’s take a side-step here and explore what it means to be blessed in the New Testament.
The verbiage of being blessed occurs throughout the gospels, but it finds a certain concentration in Matthew and Luke’s gospels in the passage we refer to as the Beatitudes. Now, given that Matthew’s Beatitudes tend to get all the attention, and given that we’re reading in Luke right now, let’s look to Luke’s version today instead.
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.” (Luke 6:20–23 NRSV)
Coupled with these “blessed-be’s”, Luke records some “woe-be’s”:
“But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:24–26 NRSV)
And just to keep track of where Jesus is going, v.27 begins:
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies…” (Luke 6:27 NRSV)
The Beatitudes Are Not…
Now, contrary to popular belief, Jesus is not commanding us to do these things. Sometimes we preachers like to refer to these as the “be-attitudes,” as in: attitudes or realities we are to make ourselves have. But this is not what Jesus is communicating here; he is not telling us to become poor or hungry or to stop laughing or that being rich is a bad thing or whatever.
Nor is Jesus inviting us to deny reality as we experience it around us. He’s not telling us to deceive ourselves into thinking bad is good and good is bad. Biblical commentator Elizabeth Achtemeier calls that the slavery of optimism—wherein we just decide to hope that everything we perceive about the world is wrong.
In contrast, we see throughout the gospel story that Jesus is the first one to call a spade a spade.
Instead, Jesus is making a proclamation here. He announces to us (via these “blessed-bes” and “woe-bes”) something of the Kingdom of God in relation to the kingdom of men. And as with most of Jesus’ teaching, he does this not by laying out general truths, precepts, or any sort of systematic theology; but rather by contradicting the prevailing assumptions and practices of the world.
So think for a moment: what does the world assume and practice about blessing? Who do we think is well-off? Who is blessed?
Isn’t it the rich?
Isn’t it the happy?
Isn’t it those with food to eat and a roof over their heads and clothes on their backs?
Isn’t it those that are well-spoken of? Those well-respected?
And isn’t it telling that all those are in Jesus’ “woe-be” category?
To clarify again: Jesus is not saying those things are bad, or evil, or to be avoided. Instead, he’s turning the categories of the world on their head. The Beatitudes announce the availability of God’s kingdom to all. All. Jesus calls people “blessed” that were believed to be un-bless-able. This, Jesus insists, is how different is the reality of the kingdom of God from the kingdom of men.
Who Is Blessed?
That question (“Who is well off?”, or “Who is blessed?” to ask it like Jesus) has been one of the core questions we humans have asked across time and cultures. And how we answer it impacts our experience and interaction with the world around us. In the Beatitudes, Jesus so completely contradicts the prevailing assumptions that he has to insist [Matthew 5:17] that he is not actually abolishing the Law—that’s how shocking these Beatitudes were to his hearers!
Being blessed, Jesus teaches us, is not tied to these sort of conditions. He seems to be saying here that “if you are in the kingdom of God you are blessed even though you are in those positions… and you are equally blessed……” (Dallas Willard).
Being blessed (in Jesus’ teaching)—being well off (in the language we more often use)—is available to anyone who is alive in the Kingdom of God.
In the story of Mary and the birth of Jesus, Mary embodies the kind of person that society would see as un-blessable. She is completely incompatible with the category of “well off.” Which leads me to wonder……
Who in our world do we naturally assume to be well off or blessed? [pause]
And especially: Who do we see as un-blessable? [long pause]
Dallas Willard has rightly suggested that “You only understand the gospel of the kingdom of God if there is no limit on to whom you can go and say ‘Blessed’.”
Who are the un-blessable in our world? Because these (Jesus reminds us) have equal access to being “well off”—which means being alive in the kingdom of God.
Blessed are the poor
Blessed is the immigrant
Blessed is the refugee
Blessed are those identifying as LGBTQ
Blessed are the uneducated
Blessed are the drug abusers
Blessed are the drunkards
Blessed are the fiscally irresponsible
Blessed are the unemployed
Blessed are those pregnant too many times
Blessed are the who can’t get pregnant
Blessed are the abused
Blessed are the mentally ill
Does it sting a little to hear some of these? It does to me too. And it did Jesus‘ audience as well, remember. As I mentioned earlier, those hearing Jesus offer the Beatitudes in Matthew were so bothered and outraged by them that they thought he was trying to throw the whole bible away.
But the kingdom of God and its abundant life—which Jesus announced was accessible to us even now—the kingdom is not inaccessible to anyone who seeks it. The good, abundant, overflowing life of the Kingdom may be grasped by anyone—even and especially those that we too often think are too far gone.
Back to Mary
That’s the lesson—and challenge—of Mary. She was too far gone. There’s no way anyone would have called her well-off. She was un-blessable. Written off by humanity…… and God alike (or so they—and perhaps we— would presume).
Because if we really did believe the blessed life was accessible to her, we wouldn’t have written her (or any of them) off in the first place.
Mary’s story—or at least her situation—is all too common today. Through a mixture of personal choices, societal pressures, and the unjust means by which privilege is dealt into the world, there are countless among us that are written off. Hopeless. Not worth saving.
And the truly tragic element to it all is that most of them have received these labels at the hands of churches and Christians who embody a gospel closer to that of the Pharisees than that of Jesus.
There is a power in blessing. It changes both the person speaking and the one receiving—and in doing so, it changes the world.
As followers of Jesus in this Advent season—this season of reflection and preparation for the coming of the Messiah—we must ask: Is there anyone to whom we cannot go and say “blessed”?
If so, perhaps that is precisely where God is calling us to go in the pursuit of the healing that we so desperately need.
Forgive us of our sins. They are many.
We have despised your image in our neighbor.
We have conspired to demean and destroy them.
We have turned those needing your blessing away empty,
because we believed You hated them,
as we ourselves learned to do.
So we are grateful, Almighty God,
that with you there is forgiveness.
Help us turn from our wicked ways.
Reorient us to the Kingdom,
that we might discover anew
the limitless blessing available to all
who are alive in Your kingdom—
As with Jesus, may there be no limit
to whom we can go and say “Blessed!”