The events depicted in the Gospels occur in a certain place and a certain time. The announcements of the angels, the visions, the prophecies offered by characters in them, the actions and statements of Jesus, and later the miracles of the Book of Acts and the inspired writers of the epistles…all of these are written in the language of their time. I don't just mean that they are written in Koine Greek. I mean that the vocabulary, images, symbols, historical references to names and places are steeped in the grammatical and historical context of the times.
Any close inspection of the Gospels will confirm this fact - there are scores of references to historical personages (Caesar Augustus, Herod, Quirinius, Caiaphas), specific times (fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, etc.) and locations that put these accounts very much into historical context. Unless we choose to ignore these historical details (a woefully common tactic of Biblical interpretation), we are forced to look at these as historical documents, which means interpretations of them are inadequate unless historical context is consulted.
For this reason, when we read the Gospels, we should not start by asking, "What does this mean to me?" as has been done in countless home Bible studies. Instead we should first ask, "What did this mean to them, to the people to whom these words were first spoken?"
And one of the most direct ways to find out what some event in the Bible meant to 'them' is to carefully read the accounts of how people in the Bible react to what happens to them. For example, Jesus came to John to be baptized by him. John said that it should be the other way around, but Jesus insisted that John baptize Him. Instead of asking what this means to us, let's start by seeing what it meant to John, since he is much closer to Jesus in blood, language, and culture. After all, Jesus was talking to John, not to us (though we get to listen in), so John's interpretation of Jesus' words gives us a chance to put ourselves for a moment into the historical context and get a better idea what it 'meant to them'. John's interpretation is that Jesus' decision to be baptized in the Jordan meant that He was 'lamb of God who bears away the sin of the world'.
Let's leave that account aside for now, this article is not about that encounter between Jesus and John at Jesus' baptism, but rather it is about Jesus and John's first encounter with one another 30 plus years earlier while both were in the womb.
Elizabeth had conceived John miraculously and then after that her cousin, Mary, had conceived Jesus in an even more miraculous fashion. Mary visited Elizabeth and John leapt for joy in her womb. Elizabeth recognized the significance of the moment and blessed Mary and the fruit of her womb.
Mary responded with a song/poem in which she gives her interpretation of the event. Before we look at how she interpreted the event, the incarnation and her cousin's (and unborn nephew's) endorsement of it, let's stop for a moment and think about her possible interpretations -- we're so familiar with these stories that we forget that they were surprising at the time because they could have been quite different. Mary could have reacted to the incarnation by saying something about, well, the doctrine of the incarnation. She could have talked about the hypostatic union of the divine and human natures in her child. Some might claim that she would have talked about systematic theology at this point, but that she did not do that because she lacked the education to do so. That is not necessarily the case: according to ancient tradition, Mary was born and raised in Sepphoris which is likely to have had a fairly cosmopolitan culture with plenty of Greek and Roman influences. Sepphoris was by no means a backwater. Further evidence of this can be found in the life of Jesus, who appears to have been knowledgeable about classical culture, quoting Aesop and Aeschylus. What he would have been exposed to while growing up, Mary also would likely have been exposed to, because He was raised by her. Apparently classical thought was in the air in the eastern section of Lower Galilee.
Instead of giving a short discourse on systematic theology, Mary might have described the incarnation in non-theoretical terms. Her future adoptive son St. John did that when he said that God 'tabernacled amongst us'.
But she didn't do that, either.
She could have gone devotional instead of theological, and sung a hymn about the surge of religious emotion she felt deep in her heart. She does a little bit of that, but it certainly is not the main focus. Nor does she focus on personal salvation and eternal life in heaven. In fact, I can discern no explicit reference to a heavenly afterlife in her song.
Please don't misunderstand me: in my view, any of these responses would have been legitimate, and the theoretical theologies, personal devotions, and musings about Heaven which have been written about the incarnation over the past two millennia since then are worthy responses. But they weren't Mary's response, and Mary's initial response should be not set aside, but rather studied deeply as a very valuable tool to help us interpret this historical event in its original historical context.
Mary focuses instead on God's covenant with the nation of Israel and with the social, political, and yes, even economic implications of what was announced to her:
"46 And Mary said: "My soul exalts the Lord,
47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
48 "For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
49 "For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name.
50 "And His mercy is upon generation after generation Toward those who fear Him.
51 "He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
52 "He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble.
53 "He has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty-handed.
54 "He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy,
55 As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and his offspring forever.""
(Lk. 1:46-55 NAS)
To those who are steeped in later Marian devotion and in abstract Christian theology, Mary's reaction is shockingly Jewish, shockingly because historically Christians have woefully under-emphasized the Jewish character of Jesus and the New Testament writings about him.
To those are steeped in forms of Christianity which take an other-wordly tilt, Mary's reaction is shockingly political and economic. Fully a third of the text is explicitly dedicated to socio-political change, and it is very likely that these explicit statements signal a similar interpretation to some of the rest of the song. For example, given the social message of verses 51-53, it is likely that the reference to Mary's 'humble state' in 48 also has a social meaning, which means that 'the Mighty One has done great things for me" also refers to an upending of the social order. What about her reference to Abraham? Abraham's life included numerous confrontations with political and economic tyranny, including his mistreatment by Pharaoh, his mistreatment by Abimelech, and the rescue of Lot from imperial capture.
One might argue that the statements are timeless, that God is always, in some spiritual sense, scattering the proud, etc. The problem with this is that Mary's meditation emphasizes that what is happening to her is the final fulfillment of a promise long-deferred "to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring…". Not that this is the normal pattern of history, or even of some spiritual realm, but rather that this an event which has finally come to (as her son repeatedly said in his public life) 'this generation'.
It should come as no surprise that it appears as though Mary's political philosophy had a substantial influence on Jesus' thinking. She clearly had an influence on him (as the miracle of the wedding at Cana illustrates), and perhaps even more so as Joseph is not mentioned in the Gospels after the incident at the Temple when Jesus was 12 years old.
If you have read any of my articles about Jesus' economic discourses (here, here, here, and here) you already know that there is a consistent geographical pattern to Jesus' commentary about economic matters: he has no direct confrontations about wealth while in his home region of Galilee -- all of his confrontations with wealthy people occur when he is in Judea, particularly in, or in close proximity to, Jerusalem.
Interestingly the pattern precedes Jesus in that his mother conformed to it as well. Her conversation with the angel Gabriel, while she is in Galilee, contains no explicit economic commentary. She waits until her visit to her cousin Elizabeth in, yes, Judea:
39 "Now at this time Mary arose and went with haste to the hill country, to a city of Judah,
40 and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth."
(Lk. 1:39-40 NAS)
Jesus reserves his confrontations with the wealthy ruling class for when he was in geographical proximity to the capital, but this is not the only pattern in which he imitated his mother. His message also is reminiscent of hers. A careful reading of Jesus' early Sermon on the Plain shows prima facie evidence of the influence of his mother:
21 "Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh….
24 "But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.
25 "Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep."
(Lk. 6:21-25 NAS)
Sermon on the Plain
filled the hungry with good things
who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied
sent away the rich empty
woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full
woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry
Mary had good cause to see God's decision to choose her as bearer of the Messiah as having socio-economic implications, because she had good cause to see herself as a member of an economically exploited class.
First, we see the nativity account opens with an act of economic exploitation:
"And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed."
(Lk. 2:1 KJV)
The remittance of the tax itself is not the only cost imposed on the young couple: there is also the considerable compliance cost of mandatory travel from Galilee to Bethlehem with lost wages, and the associated travel expenses.
These factors likely contributed to the couple's economic hardship. And there is indeed evidence that the couple were economically challenged, at least at that point in their lives.
Mary's economic class is indicated by her purification offering. This does not of necessity indicate great poverty. As I have argued elsewhere, Nazareth was not a poor village and Joseph had a relatively lucrative profession as a skilled artisan. However, they were probably quite young and starting out together in life, less well-established economically. And as I have pointed out, they had just been forced to make a long expensive journey for the purpose of paying the heavy Roman tax.
21 And when eight days were completed before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.
22 And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord
23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, "Every first-born male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord "),
24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, "A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons."
(Lk. 2:21-24 NAS)
The law to which Luke refers is below, and does not require serious poverty to receive the exemption. It is not even entirely clear that it refers to not being able to 'afford a lamb.' That is a somewhat interpretive translation. The Hebrew reads 'MaZa', which usually means 'find' or 'get'.
7 'Then he shall offer it before the LORD and make atonement for her; and she shall be cleansed from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, whether a male or a female.
8 'But if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, the one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering; and the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean.'
(Lev. 12:7-8 NAS)
However, even though the poverty aspect can be, and has probably been, exaggerated, there clearly is an economic element to this. Even if the Hebrew of the Torah does not require an economic privation as a condition to substituting doves for lambs, that was nevertheless likely the accepted view at the time and so is the most defensible interpretation of this detail of the text. Joseph and Mary were sufficiently non-wealthy to qualify for the exemption, as indicated that they exercised it, giving two doves, not a lamb. But, then again, in a very real sense, they did end up sacrificing their prized lamb to the temple elite thirty-three years later.
It is almost certainly not merely coincidental that when Jesus confronted the moneychangers and animal sellers at the temple as an adult, he singled out dove-sellers, those who preyed most upon the non-economic elite.
And Jesus entered the temple and cast out all those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves.
(Matt. 21:12 NAS)
And they came to Jerusalem. And He entered the temple and began to cast out those who were buying and selling in the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and the seats of those who were selling doves;
(Mk. 11:15 NAS)
…and to those who were selling the doves He said, "Take these things away; stop making My Father's house a house of merchandise."
(Jn. 2:16 NAS)
I think it more likely than not that Jesus' ire towards this group was influenced by his own family's experience, as his very own young mother had been forced to pay the unjust premium price to the money changers in order to buy her doves. For more on this, see my essay on the moneychangers here.
When all is taken into account, it appears that Mary saw the conception and birth of Jesus as having a strong socio-economic aspect, which she may have associated with the Judean political economy, as it appears that her son did. Further it appears that her approach to the exploitative economic system to which she had been subjected influenced her own son's economic message. Furthermore, the specifics of Jesus' confrontations with the moneychanger are consistent with knowledge of the ways in which that system exploited his own mother's financial vulnerability.
And history proved her to be correct. The economic order was uprooted, entrenched elites were deposed. To see how, keep reading this series as we unfold the rest of this story.