Mary’s High School Cohort Taking Selfies
This American Life recently did a program on “Status Update” where Ira Glass interviews High School freshman girls on selfies. What Glass reveals is that these girls are in the midst of a continual status war disguised in remarks like “you’re so pretty…”. The girls know what is going on, that the language is simply an exchange of social capital but as High School freshman they are at the bottom looking to figure out the social landscape in order to climb to the top. One girl insightfully declares
The perceived value of these girls, by themselves and others all right before there. It is “relevance” in their first three months of High School.
American Status and Equality
Those of us who are older read this with sadness. On one hand we know that life is far larger than your “relevance” in your high school world. We know that High School will pass, but we also know that the game will not.
Americans like to imagine that “equality” is out highest ideal, our cherished goal, but we also know this isn’t true. Status runs through American culture as much as it does any other culture. We buy products to establish our status in the world. Despite the abolition of slavery we still have the term “trophy wife”.
We all know that we attain status by our looks, our money, our relational skills and our social graph. If you yourself don’t have it but you can demonstrate a public tie to someone of high status, that status is conferred to you.
Americans love to publicly exclaim that none of this matters. Our founding document claims “All men are created equal.”
Thomas Jefferson who penned this certainly believed himself to be sincere while he himself owned slaves and fathered children through them.
Mary and Elizabeth
Our text this week comes from Luke 1. The lectionary works backwards through the Luke story and this week’s text has Mary rushing to Elizabeth after Mary receives the news that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and give birth to Jesus.
Luke 1:39–45 (NET)
39 In those days Mary got up and went hurriedly into the hill country, to a town of Judah,40 and entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.42 She exclaimed with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child in your womb! 43 And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me? 44 For the instant the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.45 And blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled.”
Because American are conditioned to suppress and deny the workings of status many of us might miss the fact that this entire passage is shot through with the concerns of status and the kinds of havoc that the in-breaking of God wreaks on the world’s status conventions.
The Social Graph
If keep reading backwards in Luke you’ll discover that this story got going with Zechariah the priest. A priest, obviously, is supposed to have high status. A priest is supposed to have faith. We’re dealing with a traditional society here so status is also conferred by birth. Luke notes in 1:5 that Zechariah is a descendant of Aaron through Abijah. He is of high status. Because he is of high status his wife Elizabeth has high status too. Not only do they have high status by birth, and by vocation, but they are described as righteous following all of God’s commandments.
Status is, however, always an exceedingly complex game. We might assume that God’s favor would rest on them and be expressed in Elizabeth have numerous sons. They don’t. They are barren. Any reader of the Old Testament would immediately pick up a signal of God’s strange ways of working with our social graph. Maybe they are accursed by God. Maybe God will do something miraculous like he did with Sarah, Rachel and Hannah.
The angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah to declare to him that he will have a son, a special son. Again, we might think of the annunciation of Samson to his parents. John, like Samson, was supposed to sort of a Nazarite refraining from “strong drink”. Like the father of Samson Zechariah is doubtful. Zechariah for all of his status, for all of the public acclaim of his faith doubts the angel and so is struck dumb.
Mary in Contrast to Zechariah
The same angel Gabriel then comes to Mary to deliver to her even more amazing, but also disturbing news. While the announcement of a son to barren Elizabeth, and a special one is certainly grounds for joy for Zechariah, the announcement of an unplanned pregnancy to a sheltered engaged Jewish teenage girl, probably about the age of these High School girls taking selfies, is far more trouble causing. If things turn out wrong such a turn of events could result in her being turned out by her family, her community, into poverty, hazard and even death. This is no small thing. God himself, says Gabriel, is the author of this.
Luke intentionally tells the story in such a way as to invite us to compare her to Zechariah. According to our expectations created by the social graph Zechariah ought to be her superior. He, versed in the Scriptures, trained in the law and keeping it, serving God in the temple and in fact receiving the news in the temple where we would expect God to show up, fails the test and doesn’t believe. He can hardly accept it even though all of the news is good for him.
Mary, receives this hazardous news, something that will destroy her status in her own low status social graph, embraces it with joy and humbly submits to God’s plan in her life which everyone around her, family, friends, engaged older man Joseph, can’t help but receive not only as a reputation shattering but a life threatening as public calamity.
She Goes to Elizabeth
Mary then makes the trek to Elizabeth. We are given no information on this. How? Why? A Jewish girl of her age would not be on anything so public as instagram much less make a dangerous journey on foot through Samaria and bandit riddled passes. Maybe she hooked up with a caravan? We are not told.
On the social graph she comes to Elizabeth as an inferior. She is younger, of no status, and what little status she had, by virtue of her assumed purity and engagement to Joseph has now be threatened by the angel’s announcement. When she arrives in the house the unborn baby in Elizabeth celebrates and Elizabeth herself spews out such a stream of status defining remarks even we ought to be able to recognize them.
- “Blessed are you among women!”
- “Blessed is he child in your womb!”
- “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me?”
- “My baby leaped for joy!”
- “Blessed is she who believed (unlike my husband)…”
Elizabeth puts herself beneath lowly Mary even as the rest of the world undoubtly is about to heap scorn on Mary and trash even the meager social status she had before.
Mary will then respond what what has become known as “Mary’s song” or the Magnificat which is a song all about how the LORD messes up ours social graphs by raising up the lowing and casting down the high born, proud and mighty. This is what God does!
All of this is Luke’s introduction to Theophilus of who Jesus really is. This is all counted as “Good news”, but for whom?
America’s Idol of Equality
Americans here all of this and feel smug. We fought a revolution so that there would be no king. We have a president who is “one of the people”. It’s all about equality for is. If it isn’t equal, it’s immoral because it’s unjust.
Again, however, we trot this out as our public religion but anyone who actually pays attention should know that status rules our world. “Black lives matter” didn’t arise as a cry because it was obvious that they did. Your status determines the college you get into, the jobs you have access to, your credit score, how you feel about yourself, whether or not in fact you can come to this country. Status still determines life and death in American just like it does everywhere else on the planet.
CS Lewis in an essay noted that equality is good medicine but bad food. It is helpful to address evils and injustice but you can’t really live in it.
You can understand this with just a few moments of thinking about life. Now most good parents tell their children “We love you all the same” but no parent really wants their children to actually be the same, or equal. “Equal” as a concept just doesn’t really work when it comes to the fullness and richness of a human being. What we want is not equality but love and glory and in most cases those abound not so much in equality but in becoming what we were made to be in association with the rest of creation.
Misery: Fallen Humanity
Our problem is not that we are equal, it is that we measure human beings according to measure that are beneath us or are simply reductionist attributes.
We value Zechariah because he’s well born, a priest, a man, a law keeper. All of those are good things. Mary, who on a human scale does not have his status is praised by God not by virtue of the attributes the world reduces her to but according to her love and obedience which excels far beyond that of Zechariah. Elizabeth by the power of the Holy Spirit sees all of this and exalts her.
We will see in Jesus exactly this same dynamic. He comes not even as a priest but becomes our perfect priest. He is not valued by the status assigned to him by the world because he has little of this.
In this world your status defines just how high you can rise. Jesus’ declaration is so alarmingly democratic and inclusive that it shames all of the democratic and inclusivistic posturing we find ourselves self-righteously exhibiting today in our culture warring. Jesus’s claim and example is brutally simple. “Do you wish to be the greatest? Become the servant of all.”
We hear him and imagine this to be a fast working formula, that in fact if we do so then we will, after maybe a few years or even decades receive the accolades we imagine we have earned.
Jesus brings us up short by suggesting this in fact must go even into death, as he himself lives out as sung in the beautiful song of Philippians 2.
Now this is not necessarily a new religious idea, that the way up is the way down, but Jesus actually demonstrates it uniquely unlike every other religion. Jesus does not simply promise heaven for mere morality, he who is highest becomes the absolute lowest all the way into death and then is exalted in the resurrection. What other religion makes this claim?
Mary’s life too will follow a similar course. She will not suffer as Jesus did, although she will suffer. She will also not be exalted like Jesus did, although she has been exalted. In her life we see our own.
Mary’s path even as a miniature of Jesus’ path is scorned by the world. This path is seen as foolish, requiring a belief in something unprovable such as the future resurrection. What kind of a dupe humbly accepts what some may characterize as divine sexual child abuse. Mary is a victim and what is demanded is protest.
Humanity since the Garden of Eden has been taking it’s destiny in its own hands. Since this destiny grabbing simply reduces us to endless warfare with each other for status and goods we like to trot out ‘equality” as the solution. Are we paying attention?
What if American Could Make the World Equal
Let’s imagine the US took over the world. Abolished every currency. Killed any dissenters. Let’ s imagine we took all of the dollars and assigned the same amount to every human being on the planet. Would this solve anything? Let’s imagine we abolished borders so anyone could go where they pleased. Would this bring heaven on earth? Would such “equality” fix the world? How long would it stay fixed? Would racism cease? Would fighting cease? Would killing cease?
Our imagined “equality” is no solution no matter how radical and enforced the regime.
Jesus way is radically different and requires, much to our dismay, a belief in a life beyond the grave in a world of both order and true freedom.
The really appalling assertion is that Christians are invited to live that way in the midst of this world. This is in fact what Mary is praised for.
While everyone in the world fights for the scraps of status the invitation is absolutely universal to follow Jesus way. There is no limit on the people you can love. They are all around you. You live with them. They sleep on the streets. They work in the government. They pray to other gods or no God.
As people promised resurrection we are free to love without fear because the tomb offers us liberation into the world where our downward mobility is finally rewarded.
Elizabeth sings by the Holy Spirit and prophesies that Mary will be exalted, an exaltation that would not be visible in the age of decay. Do you believe it? Do you believe it enough to live it out?