Bible: Two blessed mothers in Israel
December 4 — Luke 1:26-38; December 11 — Luke 1:38-56
What was Mary thinking, on what seemed like an ordinary day as she went about her household duties feeding the animals or spinning wool? How should a girl in everyday clothes and a dirty apron relate to a stranger who greets her like royalty and promises that her son will become a king of Israel and reign forever?
Why didn’t she tell that angelic visitor to slow down and please let her get married first? Good girls do not get pregnant on these terms; has Gabriel ever heard of an honor killing?
As proof that times are changing and God is on the move, the stranger tells her that this will be a Spirit-inspired conception — whatever that means. Furthermore (and this is news to Mary), her previously infertile relative Elizabeth, long past menopause, is now six months pregnant. Well, if you put it that way, OK. “Here I am, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
With the angel gone and Mary surrounded by the gossiping villagers of Nazareth, she must have panicked. Elizabeth! Perhaps her old, pregnant aunt could understand her plight. So Mary “went with haste” (1:39), walking the 60-70 miles up to the hill country of Judea.
And then, a second miracle —the Spirit tells Elizabeth what is happening! She confirms what Mary herself can only dimly imagine: a poor peasant girl is destined to be blessed among women — a mother in Israel ranking above the other Miriams and Deborahs and Judiths from the past.
Only after Elizabeth confirms what has happened is Mary able to “magnify the Lord” (1:46-55). It is a beautiful song of praise, but not entirely original. Mary draws from Hannah’s song in 1 Sam. 2:1-10. Here Hannah, a barren woman now newly pregnant, praises God who “raises the poor from the dust” and “makes them sit with princes.”
Having found a mother in Elizabeth, Mary stays with her for three months, comforted and supported through weeks of morning sickness and periods of doubt and confusion.
After three months, Mary leaves and returns to Nazareth (1:56). But Luke leaves me with several questions. First, why would Mary leave right before Elizabeth was about to give birth? Why not stay to help her bring another God-inspired baby into the world?
Second, where was Joseph all this time? Did he even know she was pregnant? What were those three months like for him?
Of our four Gospels, only Luke recounts this very female story. Note verse 1:3, where Luke “investigated everything carefully from the very first.” Matthew writes about Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s point of view, and Mark and John omit it entirely.
But highlighting two lower-class women fits the theme of reversals running through this Gospel. Luke is passionate about “bringing down the powerful” and “lifting up the lowly,” about “filling the hungry with good things” and “sending the rich away empty” (1:52-53).
And in a heavily patriarchal culture, the author tells numerous stories about women. Using the technique of “doublets,” Luke often links a story about a man with a story about a woman.
The first chapter illustrates this with Zechariah (1:5-23), Elizabeth and Mary. Though Luke lifts up all three “lowly” Palestinians, the women trust more faithfully than Zechariah, who was more suspicious of the angel than was Mary. (See also the doublet of Simeon and Anna in 2:22-38.)
As you read, look for specific examples of Luke’s theme of reversals, as well as another theme he stresses: the active presence of the Holy Spirit.
Reta Halteman Finger is retired from Messiah College, teaches Bible part-time at Eastern Mennonite University and has written Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts.
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