By Aubry Smith
“He who is mighty has done great things for me”
Since moving to the Middle East several years ago, I have often marveled at Luke’s account of Mary receiving her commission from God to bear the messiah. The culture I now live in is much closer to Mary’s than my own American culture, bringing into sharp relief her faith and obedience in the face of scorn and shame.
Mary’s story begins in Luke 1:26, with Gabriel’s announcement of God’s favor upon her. Then he declares, “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31–33). Mary is naturally curious, as she seems familiar with the biological realities of child-bearing. She is a virgin; how can this happen? When Gabriel explains that this miracle will take place by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary responds, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (1:38).
In the Middle East, a person’s place in the community is their primary source of identity. This is very different from our individualistic culture, in which our identities reside in who we are by ourselves. A Westerner might introduce themselves with their first name and what they do vocationally, but I often learn a Middle Eastern woman’s tribal affiliation, her oldest son’s name, and her placement within her entire extended family before I might learn her first name! This cultural reality gives utmost importance to the idea of public reputation: a person’s actions reflect on their family or even on the entire community, bringing either honor or shame to the people around them. Sometimes a person who brings shame is even killed in order to restore the group’s honor. During Mary’s time, at least some Jewish understandings of the law regarding adultery reflected this worldview (see John 8:2–11).
Mary will soon be explaining to her entire clan—and the man she is supposed to marry—that this child she carries is the product of the Holy Spirit. More than that, her child will be the Promised One who will inherit an everlasting kingdom, the One whom Israel has been awaiting through years of oppression and exile. Mary, a young poor girl from a small village, will be the mother of the messiah? It is almost certain no one will believe her. If she is not stoned to death, she could be cast out of her community, divorced by Joseph, and scorned by all who knew her. Apart from her people, she would hardly be considered a person.
Mary’s response to Gabriel is one of the most poignant vignettes in all of Scripture, showing a life bent toward faith and obedience to God. With humility and little fanfare, Mary accepts both the honor God gives her as well as the shame that will come upon her. This is no small surrender. For a modern Westerner, being thrown out of our family and community would be extremely painful, but we could survive. Our identity as an individual would make it possible to move on, get a job, and forge a new life. For an ancient Near Eastern girl, exile could be a fate worse than death. Apart from her family, she would have no home, no income, no prospects, no identity. When Mary says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled,” she is surrendering all of her life to God’s purposes, trusting in his vindication and his sustaining hand.
With the side-by-side narrative of John the Baptist’s similarly foretold birth, Luke masterfully contrasts Mary’s response with Zechariah’s. Zechariah was an older man, an honorable priest serving in the most honorable place on the planet: the temple. These attributes gave him elevated status and honor in his community. After Gabriel announces the impending birth of John, Zechariah’s response is not one of faith and curiosity, but one of doubt and questioning. In contrast, Mary is a young girl of no status in a country bumpkin village in Lower Galilee. Yet she receives God’s word to her in complete trust.
Luke’s narrative provides another contrast: While Elizabeth’s pregnancy will restore her honor among her community (1:25), Mary’s vindication will have to wait. Their stories collide when Mary visits Elizabeth in her final months of pregnancy. The Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth, and she begins blessing Mary and her baby as her own baby leaps for joy within her. Indeed, Gabriel had said that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born (1:15), and even as an unborn child he is proclaiming the presence of the messiah. In verse 45, Elizabeth declares, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Mary’s response to this blessing is her outburst of worship now known as the Magnificat. In Luke 1:46–56, Mary “glorifies” the Lord (a term that means to give honor), and she rejoices that God is achieving divine reversals in this world: though she is humble she will be called blessed for all generations; those who are proud are scattered; rulers are conquered, while the humble are exalted; the hungry are filled, and the rich are starving. Mary’s song is her anthem of God’s redeeming honor for the shamed of society.
Few of us would think we are like Mary. We have not been asked to abandon our reputations, our livelihood, our entire identities in order to follow the Lord. Or have we? Later in his Gospel, Luke records Jesus’ teaching: “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it” (Luke 17:33). A life abandoned to God in trust should be the pattern for followers of Christ, not the exception.
Mary yielded her life completely to the work of God no matter the cost, and all generations will truly call her blessed.
1 Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.