Mary chooses to say ‘Yes’ (part II)
As you read the following familiar (sometimes almost too familiar to really be heard) scriptural passage, I want to challenge you to hear the narrative—not as the prelude to a Christmas play, but in its original narrative context. It was meant to challenge the original readers with a model of faithfulness in Mary that is second to none, other than that of her future child.
26In the sixth month (of Elizabeth’s pregnancy) the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
29But she was very confused by his words and reasoned intensely about what sort of greeting this might be.
30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I haven’t slept with a man?”
35The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the holy one to which you give birth will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.”
38Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it happen to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
If we take the narrative context of this passage seriously, what is God asking this young woman to put at risk? What costs would she have almost instantly calculated as she faced this challenge/opportunity to more fully join God’s wild march through our human history? Here are five of the significant risks/costs she faced:
1. Mary is being asked to give up her only real cultural power, privilege, and security as a young woman in her patriarchal world. In her world, in her family, and in her town, the greatest source of security, power, and privilege a young Jewish woman of marriageable age (14-18?) could have was her desirability as a marriage partner to some desirable male. Mary is a bright and practically-minded young woman; she would know that taking this step would make her very undesirable to most any man that she and her family would find desirable. She would instantly be aware of this cost.
2. More specifically, Mary’s family has already entered into a “binding engagement” with a desirable man. She would instantly calculate that saying “Yes” means that this desirable and observant Jewish man would now find her no longer desirable. He would break the binding engagement due to “adultery.” She knows that Joseph is a faithful believer and this will be his expected and even necessary response. (The Gospel of Matthew tells us that this was Joseph’s response.) So Mary is not just being asked to risk being considered desirable for marriage in general in her culture, she is also being asked to risk “the bird in hand.” She is being asked to give up her “guaranteed by binding engagement” marriage partner.
3. The frequency with which Mary quotes and responds to quotations and allusions from the Hebrew Bible indicate that she is from a very observant Jewish family that takes their place among God’s Jewish people very seriously. This young woman would instantly calculate the cost to her relationship with her family as they are crushed by the news that she is pregnant. And, she is pregnant by someone other than the man to whom her family has legally and religiously committed her. The guaranteed dowry that her family probably is counting on will be lost, but more importantly, the prestige as a “righteous family” in their town will likely be severely trashed. And, just to put this into some perspective, imagine yourself growing up in a seriously conservative Christian family today, and as a teenager entering into this discussion with your parents: “I’m pregnant….No God did it.”
4. Perhaps not quite as certain, but there is historical evidence that Mary’s home town of Nazareth was intentionally settled by a number of people whose mission was to establish a religiously and politically conservative and nationalistic enclave in the part of Galilee that was in danger of being increasingly Hellenized (paganized in their view) by Roman occupation and Roman economics. It seems likely that some of Luke’s readers would know this and that the narrative is also communicating a huge community cost for Mary. She is failing the very mission for which her town now exists. It is incredibly costly to “fail” a tight and committed community that sees itself with a specific mission for God, church, and country.
5. Perhaps most difficult of all, Mary is being asked to give away a part of her future son’s security and privilege in their society. It is one thing to decide to risk your own well-being; it is quite another to decide to risk that of your child. Mary would instantly see that she is also being asked to give up the religious/social status of her future child. Later Joseph saves both her and her son from the worst of this, but at this point she has no reason to expect this to occur. In fact, she has every reason to expect it not to occur.
Since the Rabbinic materials we have are from later dates and from a specific school of thought, it is always risky to say we know exactly how a given community would have reacted during the 1st century AD of Judaism. However, it seems likely that a son born to a woman who has violated a binding engagement would be a mamzer (illegitimate). If so, he would be barred from special assemblies for worship and political decision making. So would his children and grandchildren (her grandchildren and great-grandchildren), as the more conservative application of Deuteronomy 23:2 would be put into effect: “Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of their descendants shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”
To sum up: This text presents us with a young woman who chooses to risk privilege, power, and security in a manner that ranks right up there with Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Joshua, Nehemiah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Let’s not water it down by treating this as some naïve young woman who is predestined to say yes. In Mary we have a model of risky and courageous faithfulness that should challenge us all.
Is the Holy Spirit pushing you to risk some of your security, privilege, and power? Was it worth it for Mary in spite of all the risks and costs? Perhaps it will be for you, as well.
As always, if you have any questions or thoughts about this post, or if there is another topic you’d like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment or question. I always enjoy hearing from you.