Gospel scholars tell us that Mary’s canticle of praise (the Magnificat) was most likely a song or prayer used in early Jewish Christian worship. It is a song or prayer of longing that envisions a dramatic reversal: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (1:51–53). .
The overthrow of the wealthy does not come about through the rising up of the oppressed in revolution, but through the advent of a lowly, humble child, who is born in humility, if not poverty, and who, throughout his ministry, demonstrated what Gospel scholars call a preferential option for the poor. When he defined his ministry in the synagogue at
, he declared that his mission was to bring good news to the poor and set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18–19). When he said that he had come to declare “the acceptable year of the Lord,” he was referencing the year of Jubilee, which was Torah legislation that required, every fiftieth year, for all the land in Nazareth to revert back to its original owners. It was legislation that sought to curb the natural growing disparity between the rich and the poor that occurs in all economic systems. Jesus pronounced beatitudes or blessings on the poor, the hungry, and the persecuted, and he pronounced woes or judgments upon the wealthy and well-fed (Luke 6:20–26). He told stories like the rich man who finds himself in Hades and the poor beggar who is carried off to be with Abraham (Luke 16:19–31), and stories about banquets and dinners where the guests are “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:7–24). He embodied this gospel to the poor by healing the sick, casting out unclean spirits, touching lepers, welcoming sinners, sitting down at the table with outcasts, and dying on a cross rejected and cursed. Such is the gospel, the good news according to Luke. Israel
Scripture scholar Richard Vinson observes that in Mary’s Magnificat the hard words are spoken to us: “We must face the truth: we are the bad guys in this story . . . If God chooses the poor, we are doomed. If God scatters the rich, the proud, and the powerful, we will be dust in the wind.”
Mary, herself, is an example of God’s compassion: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant . . . for the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:46–49). Mary is the quintessential example of God saving the poor and lifting up the lowly.
How did Western Christianity miss this? And we certainly have missed it. Prominent Christian leaders on both the right and left speak of salvation in very private, narrow terms. Norman Vincent Peal and his legacy of positive thinking expressed God’s salvation in very individualistic language. Much Western spirituality today, both Christian and non-Christian, focuses on self-help and emotional fitness. Those on the right made salvation mainly about the afterlife, about going to heaven when we die. This is the legacy of the fiery evangelists like Billy Sunday and Billy Graham.
I believe that both of the above components, in their more sensible and balanced formulations, are part of God’s salvation. I believe that the spiritual life in God we nurture now continues after death, and I believe that God cares about our psychological and emotional wholeness. But neither of these components were primarily what Jesus had in view when he announced the good news of the
. Jesus envisaged a new kind of world; a world that he embodied in his ministry to sinners, to the poor, to the marginalized, to the blind, broken, battered, and beaten down. kingdom of God
When our spirit becomes infused with the Divine Spirit, the Spirit of the living Christ, then we, too, long for a new world, a more equitable world, a more just world, a world of peace and nonviolence, where all (not just the 1 percent, or 20 percent, or even 80 percent, but 100 percent) have enough of this world’s resources and spiritual resources to live a flourishing life.
Maybe you have seen the cartoon that pictures God looking somewhat distraught, saying, “I think I have lost my copy of the divine plan.” When we look at the state of the world, I’m sure God will forgive us if we find ourselves wondering if God ever had a plan. We have seen the holocaust, and the genocides of
Rwanda and . We have seen the horrors of Bosnia Hiroshima and , the killing fields and purges of evil tyrants. Our own nation has amassed enough weapons of mass destruction to destroy the world several times over. Countless people have suffered untold misery as a result of war, injustice, oppression, and exploitation. Nagasaki
But that isn’t the whole story. There is a brighter side. We, who believe in resurrection, surely believe that evil will not have the last word. There are pockets of resistance. Not resistance, though, through fight or flight, which are the world’s methods. Resistance, rather, through courageous nonviolence, as incarnated in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We have witnessed Gandhi, King, Romero, and Mandela, and there are millions of people on this planet living quiet lives of love and heroism in the pursuit of peace and justice. Bishop Tutu has said that these heroes are often among the poor and disenfranchised: “When you go into informal settlements and meet up with people in shacks who, living in such dehumanizing circumstances, it’s really always such an incredible experience. What you see is the humanity, the humanness, the dignity, the capacity to laugh, the capacity to love, to rear children, in circumstances that by right ought to make all of that impossible.”
This Christmas, we will spend time with our church family, with our friends and loved ones, and we will enjoy the food, fun, and fellowship that mark the season. We will be deeply grateful for the relationships that enrich us and for the material resources that sustain us, enabling us to live flourishing lives. I hope, that at some point, we will allow our hearts to cry out to God for all the people on our planet who do not have adequate material and spiritual resources. I hope that our gratitude for all that has been given to us (by luck of the draw, not by merit or worthiness) will be punctuated by moments where we allow ourselves to ach for all those who suffer from disease, malnutrition, oppression, and injustice.
May God, the All-Compassionate one, fill our hearts with empathy and move us to do what we can do, where we live, to bring us a little closer to a world put right and made whole.