Commentary Luke 1:39-45 (46-55) Part 2
Two extraordinary women, who, according to 1:36, are kinsfolk, come together, the one sojourning with the other for three months. Both are pregnant! The one, Elizabeth, is married to a priest and like her husband is "advanced in years." She already knows, as a result of the revelation that her husband experienced in the Temple, that she will give birth to a boy who is to be named John. The other, Mary, is a virgin who is engaged to be married to Joseph. She too knows that she will give birth to a boy who is to be named Jesus.
Both are women of faith. Elizabeth poses a contrast to her ancestor Sarah, who in her old age had difficulty believing that she would have a child and even attempted to assist God in making the divine promise come true by getting a son through her slave woman, Hagar. Elizabeth conceals herself for five months after her conception and quietly celebrates her loss of reproach among her contemporaries as a result of her pregnancy. Her husband, Zechariah, stands in contrast to Abraham. As a priest he must know the story of Abraham's visitation and the promise of a child in his old age. Yet he cannot believe Gabriel's annunciation, even though he is experiencing it in the Temple before the sanctuary of God's presence—and as a consequence is struck mute.
Mary, a virgin who has become pregnant by the mystery of God's Spirit generating a new human being within her womb, is willing to become shameless for the sake of fulfilling God's will.1 "Behold the slave- woman of the Lord," is her response to the angelic annunciation. On the one hand, she lives within the code of honor/shame society. She submits herself to her "Lord's" will and therefore acts in accordance with the honor that is expected of women. On the other hand, by accepting this divine pregnancy in her state of virginity, she will also lose her honor within her society. Her willing collaboration with God to give birth to a divinely-ordained child is a momentous irregularity, and from every perspective it will make her disreputable. Accordingly, it is no wonder that Mary leaves Nazareth and journeys to "a city of Judah" where Elizabeth lives. How could her fellow Nazarenes and perhaps even Joseph be expected to understand? She needs the love and encouragement of another woman, perhaps even an older woman. And what better woman than Elizabeth who also is pregnant but wondrously pregnant in an age beyond her child-bearing years!
Mary is not disappointed. For Elizabeth, recognizing the effect that Mary's greeting has on her fetus as a divine sign—the fetus had leaped in her womb!—responds with a joyful affirmation of Mary's pregnancy. "Filled with the Holy Spirit," Elizabeth returns Mary's greeting with a shouted benediction: "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And what is this that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" What greater affirmation could Mary experience in her apparently—at least in the eyes of her society—disgraceful condition! To be acknowledged as "the mother of my Lord" is a great distinguishing honor. Elizabeth concludes her hymn eulogizing Mary by pronouncing a second benediction on her:
Blessed is she who believes that there will be a completion to those things spoken to her from the Lord.
Elizabeth's benediction also conveys the encouragement that Mary will need during the forthcoming months as she lives with her shamelessness before her son is born.
Elizabeth will give birth to a son who will become an apocalyptic prophet and more especially God's forerunner. As such he will be the final prophet of Israel, or, as Jesus distinguishes him in 16:16, "the end of the Law and the Prophets." Elizabeth, therefore, may be honored as Mother Israel whose son culminates the history of the Old Testament people of God.
Mary, on the other hand, will give birth to a son who, according to Gabriel's announcement, "will be great and called the Son of the Most High." Moreover, "The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end."
Gabriel's divine promise will be fulfilled ironically as Mary's son is enthroned on the cross and rules as Lord by his resurrection from the dead. Accordingly, Mary may also be honored as Mother Israel, whose son will constitute the New Israel.2
In response to Elizabeth's benediction Mary does not hesitate to express her faith that "there will be a completion to the things spoken from the Lord." She sings a hymn, the Magnificat, that surprisingly employs the aorist3 tense to convey the realities of the salvation that her son will actualize. She characterizes herself in a manner similar to Hannah, the mother of Samuel.4
My soul extols the Lord and my spirit began to be overjoyed at God my Savior because he looked upon the humility of his slave-woman. For behold, from now on all generations will bless me.
Elizabeth has blessed her twice. In the future all generations will bless her, for her present shamelessness or dishonor will be transformed into world-wide benediction.
The Magnificat appears to have two strophes. The first, 1:46-50, conveys the basis of Mary's exultation and confidence. Because Elizabeth has blessed her, her spirit can begin to exult in God, for Elizabeth's benediction is an indication that God has looked upon the lowliness of his slave-woman.5 Her confidence is founded on "the Mighty One who began to do great things for me" and on "his mercy (that extends) to generations and generations to those who fear him." It is God's power and mercy that will accomplish the anticipated social, economic, political, and religious revolution that Mary sings about in the second strophe of 1:51-55. As certain as she is bearing "the Son of the Most High" in her pregnancy, so equally certain will be the transformation of the social construction of reality.
He began to make strength with his arm. He began to scatter thoroughly those (who are) arrogant in the thoughts of their hearts. He began to depose the mighty ones from thrones, and he began to exalt the humble. He began to fill the hungry with good things, and he began to send the rich away empty. He began to come to the aid of Israel, to remember mercy, even as he said to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever.
Herman C. Waetjen
1. See New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1981), pp. 43-48. 2. In Acts 1:21-26 Matthias is chosen by lot to take the place of Judas as the twelfth "Patriarch" of the New Israel before Pentecost occurs and the disciples/apostles begin to fulfill Jesus' command to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (1:8). 3. The aorist tense is the past tense in Greek. All the verbs that Mary employs, except the verb "extol," are in the aorist tense, and they are probably to be interpreted as ingressive aorists, verbs whose action has already begun in view of the reality that Mary's fetus represents. 4. See 1 Sam 2:1-10. 5. Perhaps it needs to be said that "slave-woman" is the literal meaning of the Greek doulê.