The Magnificat and the Great Reversal

The song “O, What a Beautiful Morning” on my recording (Siri’s choice) of Oklahoma, takes 2:35. The fragment of that same song included takes about 36 seconds, just long enough to introduce the theme and then move on.

For Advent this year, I’ve been thinking about the Birth Narrative as told by the gospel according to Luke. It occurred to me some time this year that if the gospels were written from back to front, as is the general view of scholars. then by the time Matthew and Luke got to telling about the birth of Jesus, they had already told about his death and resurrection, about his teaching and his healing. If that is so, I thought, then they would be free to introduce the main themes in their gospel accounts in the way they tell about the birth.

Sing it, Gordon.

Then it occurred to me that if you were going to compose an orchestral overture for a Broadway musical, you would first give your attention to the songs you had written for it. That is when I started timing “O what a beautiful morning” and the fraction of the overture that introduces “O what a beautiful morning.” The song is a little over four times as long as the introduction in the overture. How about that?

One of the prominent themes of Luke’s gospel is the reversal of fortunes theme. He is quite explicit about it. In his famous Sermon on the Plain, he offers four blessings and four cursings—perfectly matched. Luke 6: 21 and 25 say, “Blessed are those who are hungry now; you will have your fill. Alas for you who have plenty to eat now: you will go hungry.”

It is a major theme in Luke. These are not idly chosen verses. So following the Broadway musical metaphor, it seemed to me that we ought to expect to see this theme introduced in the Birth Narrative.
And it is. It doesn’t take much looking at the Magnificat to see those themes introduced there. But in writing the Magnificat, Luke has more in mind than just introducing the theme. He is also locating Jesus at a particular place in the history of Israel and to do that, he introduces the character of Hannah, the mother of Samuel. [1]

Hannah and Mary

The situations of Hannah and Mary could scarcely be more different. Hannah desperately wanted a child and prayed ardently for one. [2] Mary was quietly going about her business, married to Joseph, but not yet living with him. Absolutely not “expecting” in either sense of the word. Nevertheless, God grants both Hannah and Mary sons and both express their thanks to God. But what kind of God is this?

This is a God of the slash. [3] The conditions before the slash are overturned or reversed after the slash. Look at these three examples.

Hannah says “The childless wife has borne seven/While the mother of many sons is bereaved.” Notice the pattern. You can read the slash as “nevertheless.” Mary says “God my Savior… has looked upon the humiliation of his servant/. Yes, from now onwards all generations will call me blessed,”

Hannah exults that “The bows of the mighty are broken/While the feeble are girded with armor.” Mary says that God has “pulled down princes from their thrones and raised high the lowly.”

Hannah says “The sated have hired out for bread/While the hungry are fattened on food.” Mary says “He has filled the starving with good things/ [and] sent the rich away empty”

These three comparisons establish the common principle that Luke sees God as a “reversal of fortunes” God. We would expect, then, to see that pattern expanded in Luke’s gospel and we do. We have already seen the “blessings and cursings” in Luke’s “sermon on the plain” in Chapter 6.

This set of contrasts between rich and poor, as well as between Then and now, are characteristics of Luke’s preaching, so I will content myself with only one example. In Luke 16, he tells the story about “the rich man” (otherwise unnamed) and the beggar, named Lazarus. “Now,” the rich man is living large and Lazarus lives in misery. “Then” the rich man is tormented in the fires of Hell, while Lazarus is comfortably in Abraham’s lap. Here is Abraham’s explanation.

Abraham said, “My son, remember that during your life you had your fill of good things, just as Lazarus his fill of bad. Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony.

Luke 6:25

The words in bold font establish the Now and Then contrast I mentioned, although from the standpoint of the speaker, they are reversed. When Abraham ways “Now,” he is referring to a time we call “Then.” Still, the meaning is clear and it is what we would expect from a reading of the Magnificat

There is an urge to explain this story in some other way. As it appears, we find it offensive. We want the rich man to be guilty of some particular flaw, something that we could understand as a Ticket to Hell. But Luke doesn’t give us one. Any more than Mary found some specific fault in “the sated [who are forced to] hire themselves out for bread.” Any more than the princes who have been pulled down from their thrones.

Logically speaking, we ought to wonder what the sated had done wrong that they had to work to earn a loaf of bread. [4] But we don’t. Similarly, we might wonder what the princes had done wrong that they had to be pulled down from their thrones. But we don’t. And Luke has no more interest in the sins of the rich man than we have in the interests of the overfed and the ruling elites. Luke’s Jesus is interested in Now and Then.

You already had yours.

I admit that I have trouble with this emphasis. I admit that I take comfort from the absence of this emphasis in Mark, Matthew, and John. And, oddly enough, I take comfort in keeping clear in my mind that Jesus says, in Luke’s account, what he says. Keeping that clear in my head seems, somehow, the right thing to do.

I think, myself, that Luke presupposed a zero sum economy, in which whatever the rich have was stolen from the poor. Whatever power the princes have, is deployed against the powerless. If it were possible to have an economy where all benefitted (not equally, of course) or a polity where power is exercised for the benefit of all (not equally, of course), we might wonder how Jesus would address that issue.

I do. But I know better than to look for help from Luke. Especially not at Christmas.

[1] And that isn’t all Luke does with the story of Hannah and her son, Samuel. I think that story lies behind several elements of the story, including the “presentation” of Jesus at the Temple in Chapter 2.
[2] The prayer was so “ardent” that the priest, Eli, accused her of being drunk.
[3] More formally, a “virgule,” but I didn’t want to get close enough to a virgule birth to tempt anyone.
[4] It is possible, of course, that they were loaf-ers.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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