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Luke 1:39-55 Biblical Commentary:
LUKE 1. A DIPTYCH
Farris characterizes this chapter as a diptych (a pair of hinged panels revealing two related pictures) with the birth of John the Baptist on one side and the birth of Jesus on the other:
• Parallels between the two panels include the angelic announcement of the births (1:8-17, 26-33), the angel’s “Don’t be afraid” (1:13, 30), objections by Zechariah and Mary (1:18, 34), and the angel’s response to the objections (1:19-20, 35-37).
• Major differences include the contrast between Zechariah’s unbelief (1:18) and Mary’s belief (1:38)—as well as Jesus’ superiority over John, as demonstrated by the fact that Elizabeth was only aged when she gave birth to John, while Mary will give birth as a virgin to Jesus (Farris, 290-291).
Luke 1:36 identifies Elizabeth as Mary’s kinswoman or relative (Greek: sungenis), but we don’t know their exact relationship. We usually think of John as Jesus’ cousin, but that is based on 1:36, so our knowledge of their relationship is inexact. Given the age difference between Elizabeth and Mary, it seems likely that Elizabeth is a generation older—perhaps Mary’s aunt.
These stories are shot through with Old Testament allusions:
• The annunciation to Zechariah, his unbelief, and the subsequent birth of John closely resemble the annunciation to Abraham (Genesis 18:1-10), Sarah’s laughter (Genesis 18:11-15), and the birth of Isaac (Genesis 21:1-7).
• The birth of John to barren Elizabeth resembles the birth of Samuel to barren Hannah (1 Samuel 1).
• Mary’s song (vv. 46-55) is modeled on Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1-10).
LUKE 1:39-45. BLESSED ARE YOU AMONG WOMEN
39Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah, 40and entered into the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42She called out with a loud voice, and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44For behold, when the voice of your greeting came into my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy! 45Blessed (Greek: makaria) is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord!”
“Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste” (v. 39). Mary is the heroine of this story, but it is she who journeys to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth—perhaps because Elizabeth’s pregnancy preceded Mary’s by six months and she would be great with child—perhaps as a gesture of honor by the younger woman to her elder—perhaps to escape wagging tongues in Nazareth.
This visit is unusual. A pregnant woman, particularly an unmarried pregnant woman, would ordinarily be cloistered and would not travel.
“It happened, when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, that the baby leaped in her womb” (v. 41). Still in the womb, John is filled with by the Holy Spirit (1:15), and thus is able to recognize Jesus, also in the womb, and to begin his work of preparing the way of the Lord (1:17, 76; 3:4).
“Blessed are you among women” (v. 42a). This is an expression that meant, “You are blessed above all women (Hendriksen, 96).
In that society, a woman’s status depended, in significant measure, on her ability to bear children. Being blessed among women would usually require bearing many children. However, bearing a child who would grow up to be a distinguished person would also bring honor to the mother.
It is unusual that Elizabeth would express honor at Mary’s visit. She is an elderly woman in a culture that honors older people. Mary is young, so she is the one from whom we would expect deference. Also, Mary became pregnant while unmarried, and it is possible that she is not yet married at the time of this visit. The typical visit of an unmarried pregnant girl to a relative would be for the purpose of reducing the visibility of a shameful pregnancy—although there is no hint of that in this Gospel. It is Elizabeth, following in the tradition of ancient Sarah, who appears to deserve honor. Mary has done nothing to deserve honor, except that she believes that “there will be a fulfillment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord!” (v. 45)—but it will be quite some time before the full implications of that will be revealed.
All four Gospels establish Jesus’ superiority over John. In the Synoptics, John announces Jesus’ superiority at Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:11-12; Mark 1:7-8; Luke 3:16-17). In the Gospel of John, the announcement is part of the Prologue (1:6-9). Luke is the only one to tell this story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, which establishes Jesus’ superiority even while the babies are in the womb. The Holy Spirit fills both John (1:15) and Elizabeth (1:41), and inspires their testimony about Jesus.
“and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (v. 42b). These were Moses’ words to the Israelites—the blessing, in that case, being contingent on their obedience to God (Deuteronomy 28:4). Mary is being obedient (1:38), and her blessing, like her baby, grows out of that obedience. Elizabeth is not offering a blessing, but is simply acknowledging the blessing that God has bestowed on Mary.
“the mother of my Lord” (kurios) (v. 43). The baby is the source of Mary’s blessedness. She is to be the mother of the Lord (kurios).
The New Testament frequently uses kurios to speak of Yahweh (Matthew 1:20, 22, 24; 2:13, 15; Mark 13:20; Luke 1:6; Romans 11:34, etc.). It also uses kurios to apply to Jesus various Old Testament references to Yahweh (Mark 1:2-3; Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13; 1 Corinthians 1:8; 2 Corinthians 3:15-18). New Testament writers obviously intend to equate the Lordship of Jesus with the Lordship of Yahweh—and that is appears to be what Elizabeth intends here.
Later, John will humble himself before Jesus just as Elizabeth humbles herself now before Mary (Matthew 3:14).
“For behold, when the voice of your greeting came into my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy” (v. 44). Elizabeth is six months pregnant (v. 36), so it would not be unusual that she would feel her child move in her womb. However, she interprets the movement as a leap of joy in recognition of Mary’s baby.
“Blessed (makaria) is she who believed” (v. 45). Mary’s belief brings her blessing. The Greek word used for blessed is the same word that is used in the Beatitudes (6:20-22)—a word which implies a blessing based on a right relationship with God. Mary believed, in contrast to Zechariah, who did not believe and was thus struck mute (1:20). During her pregnancy, Elizabeth has been living with Zechariah, who because of his unbelief has been unable to speak. Now she receives Mary, who does believe, and is thus able to sing a joyful song.
The angel has appeared both to Zechariah and Mary, announcing to each the birth of a baby. Both children are miracle babies. Elizabeth is too old to have a baby, and Mary is too young—and is also a virgin.
Elizabeth’s child will be born first, but Mary’s child will be the greater of the two. John will spend his life serving Jesus—making ready the way of the Lord Jesus—making his paths straight (3:4). In her Magnificat, Mary will acknowledge how God “has looked at the humble state of his handmaid… and has done great things for me.” He “has put down princes from their thrones, and has exalted the lowly” (vv. 48-49, 52).
After the resurrection, Jesus will say to Thomas, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed” (John 20:29). Mary believed even before seeing the fulfillment of the angel’s promise, and thus is worthy of blessing.
While it is an honor for Mary to be chosen as the mother of the Lord, the honor is not unalloyed. Her baby is “set for the falling and rising of many in Israel,” but “a sword will pierce through (Mary’s) own soul” (2:34-35). The woman who will cradle her newborn in a feeding trough will also see her son die on a cross.
LUKE 1:46-55. MY SOUL MAGNIFIES THE LORD
“My soul magnifies the Lord.
47My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior,
48for he has looked at the humble state of his handmaid.
For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed.
49For he who is mighty has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50His mercy is for generations of generations on those who fear him.
51He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52He has put down princes from their thrones.
And has exalted the lowly.
53He has filled the hungry with good things.
He has sent the rich away empty.
54He has given help to Israel, his servant, that he might remember mercy,
55As he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and his seed forever.”
“My soul magnifies the Lord” (v. 46). Mary’s song is known as the Magnificat because of the first words in the Latin translation of this verse (Magnificat anima mea Dominum––My soul doth magnify the Lord).
The parallels to Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1-10) are quite strong (Hannah was the mother of the prophet Samuel):
• Hannah’s song began, “My heart exults in Yahweh! My horn is exalted in Yahweh.”
• She spoke of reversals: “The bows of the mighty men are broken. Those who stumbled are armed with strength” (1 Samuel 2:4) and “He raises up the poor out of the dust. He lifts up the needy from the dunghill, To make them sit with princes, and inherit the throne of glory” (1 Samuel 2:8).
• In her ending verses, Hannah celebrated the fact that the Lord “will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to his king, and exalt the horn of his anointed” (1 Samuel 2:10). Mary’s song follows much the same pattern.
The parallels would be stronger yet if it were Elizabeth who sang Mary’s song. Both Hannah and Elizabeth were barren, and prayed for their wombs to be opened. Both took great joy in their pregnancies and the subsequent births of the children. Some scholars have suggested that Mary’s song is really Elizabeth’s song, but there is little to justify that opinion. In the best manuscripts, verse 46 identifies the speaker as Mary, and verse 48 describes Mary better than Elizabeth.
Elizabeth is an old woman (1:7), and some scholars believe that Hannah was also old. However, the only scriptural evidence that Hannah was old is the comment, “As (Yahweh) did so year by year” (1 Samuel 1:7). This is offset by the fact that she is not called an old woman and also by the fact that “she conceived and bore three sons and two daughters” after Samuel’s birth (1 Samuel 2:21).
It is worth noting that Zechariah, after recovering his voice at the birth of his son, will be filled with the Holy Spirit and will sing his own song (1:68-79)—a song that parallels Hannah’s and Mary’s songs. Mary is granted the privilege of the first song, however, because she believed, and Zechariah did not. It will be only after the promise is fulfilled that Zechariah will sing—only when he can see by sight rather than by faith.
In the first part of her song, Mary celebrates the blessing that she received from “God my Savior” (v. 47). A Savior is important only to a person who needs saving. While we all need salvation, the lowly and hungry (vv. 52-53) best understand their need of a Savior. The more comfortable we are, the less needy we feel. The more affluent we are, the more likely that we will look for happiness in some new possession or experience. The more successful we are, the more likely that we will celebrate our achievement instead of seeking God’s help.
“for he has looked at the humble state of his handmaid” (v. 48). Mary is lowly in two senses:
• First, she has a humble spirit that stands ready to respond to God’s call without reservation (1:38).
• Second, she occupies a humble station in life—a woman in a patriarchal society—a young person in a society that venerates age. Her child will be born into this humble station. His first home will be a stable—his first crib a manger. As a man, he will say of himself, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (9:58).
“For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed. For he who is mighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name” (vv. 48-49). As a Jewish woman, Mary can look back across the centuries and remember men and women whom God called into service. Abraham and Sarah! Isaac and Rebecca! Moses! Gideon! Deborah! Every child knows their names and their stories. Now Mary’s name will join theirs. People will revere her for her special place in God’s plan. Kings and presidents struggle to be remembered well, but God reached down to this simple girl and elevated her to a place of greatness. He has conferred on her an honor that she did not seek and a privilege that she could never earn. “Holy is his name” (v. 49).
“His mercy is for generations of generations on those who fear him” (v. 50). Mary could have emphasized God’s power instead of God’s mercy, but she recognizes that God is using his power to implement his mercy.
“He has shown strength with his arm” (v. 51a). At verse 51, Mary’s vision broadens from her own blessings to the blessings given to Israel (v. 54) and “to Abraham and his seed forever” (v. 55). “These descendants include Gentiles as well as the Jewish race, as can be seen in God’s promises to Abraham (see Gen. 12:3; 17:4-5; 22:18). Reference to God’s promises to Abraham is also made by Zechariah following the birth of John (see v. 73)” (Evans, 27).
Mary celebrates Godly reversals. “He has scattered the proud” (v. 51b). “He has put down princes from their thrones. And has exalted the lowly” (v. 52). “He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty” (v. 53). “He has given help to Israel, his servant” (v. 54). God’s choice of Mary to be the mother of the Lord is proof that these reversals have already begun. In fact, they began many years earlier when God chose Abraham.
Liberation theologians have sometimes used these and similar verses to justify violent revolutionary action on the part of the church, but that was not Mary’s intent. Mary is celebrating what God has done and is doing—God’s action, not man’s action—God’s saving grace. Mary would be shocked to learn that people have used her gracious words to advocate violence.
Godly reversals are good news for the dispossessed and disenfranchised, but not to the wealthy and powerful. Most of us hear them as good news, because we do not consider ourselves to be wealthy or powerful. However, most First World people enjoy a standard of living that seems impossibly rich to the rest of the world. We live in homes that are palatial, not only by the standards of the Third World, but also by the standards of our parents and grandparents. We drive ever-larger and more luxurious cars. We seldom miss a meal. We need to hear the Magnificat as a warning shot across our bow. We may be the ones in danger of being brought down from our comfortable places. If we are sensitive to the needs of the lowly, the hungry, the homeless, the disenfranchised, and the prisoner, perhaps we can escape the judgment of this text.
“He has given help to Israel, his servant, that he might remember mercy, As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his seed forever” (vv. 54-55). Throughout Mary’s song, she describes God’s activities in the past tense. “For he who is mighty has done great things for me” (v. 49). “He has shown strength with his arm” (v. 51). “He has brought down princes from their thrones” (v. 52). “He has filled the hungry” (v. 53). “He has given help to Israel” (v. 54). We can attribute her use of the past tense, in part, to the fact that she is looking back upon centuries of God’s relationship with Israel.
However, Mary’s use of the past tense also demonstrates her confidence that God’s promise is true. She is not yet the mother of the child who will be great and who will be called the Son of the most High (1:32), but God has promised it and she believes the promise.
The author of Hebrews defines faith as “assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Mary is a person who possesses that kind of faith, and it is that kind of faith to which God calls us. The richest blessings go to those who believe God’s promise—who walk in faith.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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