25 May 2019

Mary’s Song, Jesus’s Mission: Exploring the Matrix of Jesus’s Personal Faith

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Christmas, Exegesis, Faith, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds, Judith, Luke, Salvation, Septuagint, Women

Mary/Miriam the Singer

Did your mom, maybe your dad, sing to you when you were young? You know the songs, while being rocked to sleep at night or while you were going down the road in the LTD station wagon? They are songs that never cease playing in our hearts and our minds.

Jews were a singing people. The ancient Psalms filled their hearts and heads. We know that Jews in Jesus’s day also sang hymns preserved in Judith, Tobit, the Canticle of the Three Jews in the Greek version of Daniel. They sang a collection known as the Psalms of Solomon and at Qumran we have learned there are numerous other songs that shaped the faith and life of faithful Jews. Jesus grew up in the midst of a singing people.

Jesus’s home was like so many typical Jewish homes being filled with lyrics and music. Luke tells us that Mary sang songs just like her biblical namesake the Prophet of God (it is a horrific tragedy of the English Bible that many disciples do not know Mary is named after one the three deliverers of Israel, Miriam). I am as certain as I am here today that Mary did not sing this song only one time. Nor is it likely this is the only song Mary sang to Jesus and his sisters and brothers. Rather Mary’s song is representative, or characteristic, of what Jesus and his sisters and brothers heard from the lips of Miriam. The early church sang Mary’s song and it known as “The Magnificat.”

Mary/Miriam the Hopeful, Faith Filled Jew

Mary was born and bred a hope filled, faith filled Jew. She was nourished on heartbeat of the Hebrew Bible. She poured her hopes and dreams into the names of her children because the song was already in her heart.

As any student of the Bible knows, names were not randomly picked out of a baby name book. They were explicitly picked by God and sometimes parents to make a statement. Names expressed something, they expressed the hope and faith of the parent they wished to see enacted in their son or daughter.

I know my own daughters names were prayed over before chosen. Rachael is God’s lamb full of joy and love and her sister Talya is the Lord’s rain/dew that blesses the earth. These names were chosen on purpose. Have you noticed what Miriam (named for a prophet) and Joseph (named for the savior of world and father of two tribes) named their kids. Notice this “pattern” in Mark 6.3. These names we so frequently read them as if they are mere data points.

Jesus = Joshua the salvation of the Lord … btw we know that “Jesus/Joshua is a very common name for Jewish boys. Every mom dreamed that her son would be the “Lord’s Salvation.”

James = another tragedy of the English Bible, is Jacob who is quite literally “Israel” himself (God changed his name and the word “Jacob” frequently is a stand in for “Israel” in the Hebrew Bible) and is the patriarch of the Twelve Tribes

Joseph = named for dad and the patriarch who saved the world

Judas = named after Judas the Maccabee, the hammer of God, who delivered Israel from the Seleucid Empire

Simon = was the brother of Judas the Maccabee who continued to lead the Maccabean Revolt

Notice anything about these names of Jesus’s brothers? These names say something about Mary and Joseph. The names reveal their faith. Their hope for Israel has not vanished in the slightest.

Mary/Miriam’s Israelite Song

Mary/Miriam’s hope fills her song. Scholars have noted that “Miriam’s” song is so Hebraic, so “Old Testament,” it is just so Israelite. And it is. Mary, like her son, grew up drinking deeply the Hebrew Bible, and Second Temple Judaism, through song, music and even dance. It is that faith that filled her heart and led to the names of her sons. Mary taught her sons and daughters to dream of the salvation of Israel. Mary dreamed of the final renewal of the covenant with Israel. She dreamed of deliverance for Israel. She sang that hope in what Richard Horseley called, “revolutionary songs of salvation.” (Remember two of her sons have names connected to the Maccabees!)

This song by Mary sets the agenda for Jesus’s life and ministry in the Gospel of Luke and the church for the book of Acts. There is a Miriam at the creation of the old Israel coming out of Egypt, and there is a Miriam at the beginning of the renewed Israel that will emerge from its long exile … the prophet who gave birth to the Lord’s Salvation (I am convinced that Luke regard’s Mary as a prophet just as her namesake was).

Mary/Miriam’s New Yet Old Song

Rarely is there a purely original song. People have influences. KISS paved the way for every 80s glam band. Metallica covers Turn the Page (Bob Seager). Disturbed transforms Simon & Garfunkel (Sounds of Silence). Five Finger Death Punch does Bad Company. Kid Rock takes ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Johnny Cash, hop hop and mashes it all up. Mary’s song is like that.

What did her song sound like. What new, but old, song flowed through Jesus’s mind as he mingled with the lepers, the prostitutes, the poor, the traitors (tax collectors), brought a thousand bottles of wine to a wedding … Jesus has the Hebrew Bible in his “soul” via his Mother.

My soul [ or “I”]magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior … he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant …” (Lk 1.46)

The most obvious root here is that of another young mother who dreamed dreams, Hannah from 1 Samuel 2.1-10 but the thought is ubiquitous in the Hebrew Bible.

for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant …” (Lk 1.48)

Miriam/Mary places herself among the lowly. This taps into the fundamental identity of Israel as being the lowliest of nations. Israel was so lowly they were victims of state sponsored terrorism against their baby boys (just as the occasion of the birth of her son would bring state terrorism to mothers in Judea). Thus Deuteronomy says,

The Lord did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the Lord loves you …” (7.7-8, NLT)

Ezekiel stressed that God “loved” Israel because no one else would. Ezekiel sees Israel as an unwanted and exposed infant girl, not boy, whom the Lord saves in that graphic allegory of Ezekiel 16. God chooses the lowly, the aliens, the nobodies to be the special objects of grace, mercy and hesed. God’s own “chosen people” are chosen precisely because they were aliens, nobodies, and as uncared for as little boys killed at birth and little girls abandoned in a field. Jesus never forgot the songs of his mother and was always proudly among the unwanted of the world.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (Lk 1.48)

Elizabeth, in the narrative context, called Mary/Miriam “Blessed are you among women” (1.42). In Jesus’s day many stories were in the air and treasured by Jews. Sadly, Protestants typically do not know these stories today. One was of another woman who risked everything to be a servant of the Lord. Rather than young like Mary, she was an old widow. Her name was Judith. When everyone seemingly had no trusting faith, this widow steps forward to be the instrument of God’s salvation. She delivers Israel from the hands of Holofernes and she too leads Israel in a magnificent new song that is preserved in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint. Because of her astonishing faith, and like Mary risks it all, she is to praised.

Then Uzziah said to her [Judith], ‘O daughter, you are blessed above all other women on earth … Your praise will never depart from the hearts of those who remember the power of God” (Judith 13.18)

Achior cried out “Blessed are you in every tent of Judah” (Judith 14.7)

The Hope of Israel, as Paul would call salvation, pulses in Mary’s heart.

He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud …” (Lk 1.51)

It is impossible not to hear the Psalms in Mary’s song. And perhaps this is why they were so treasured by her son. Texts like Psalms 18.27; 89.10 and a dozen more come to mind.

you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm” (Ps 89.10)

But what is it that God has done? What is it that Mary poured into Jesus, James, and Jude’s heart (the last two have epistles in the NT)? What did salvation look like? She sang what salvation looks like.

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good thing,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to
our ancestors, to Abraham and to
his descendants forever
” (1.52-55)

Mary had heard these kinds of lyrics all of her life, but it was that other young mother, Hannah that she echoes so closely.

Yahweh makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor
” (1 Sam 2.7-8)

Surely anyone familiar with the story of Jesus recognizes these lyrics in his teachings in word and deed.

1) the powerful are brought low, the low are lifted high (v.52). A great reversal is what salvation brings. This is all through Jesus’s teaching in Luke. There was a Rich Man who saw Lazarus the lowliest of the lowly. We know what happened. Mary was pouring Jubilee theology into Jesus in her songs.

2) the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty (v.53). This is also Jubilee. This is also Exodus. This is also reversal. This is not pie in the sky gnosticism. This is salvation that meets the hurting and out of whack world exactly where it needs, in the flesh and blood of reality. So Jesus tells all kinds of stories of a Jubilee banquet (Lk 14.15-24) in which the poor, the lame, the blind are brought to the table they would routinely be excluded from. He tells a story of man who builds a huge barn to hold his “money” only to loose his life. He tells story of a scholar of the Bible who walks away from the greatest treasure because he refused to give his goods to the poor. It is impossible not to hear the Psalms in Mary’s song.

3) Salvation is an both act of mercy and faithfulness to the promise to the ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Israel (v.54-55). Why did Mary name her sons Jesus/Joshua, Jacob and Joseph? They represent the hope of the Promise “to his servant, Israel.” Salvation is not from Israel but of Israel.

To put this in terms we normally use, Mary says that salvation comes because of the Old Testament and on Old Testament terms not contrary to it or in spite of it. Jesus did not forget this. Lazarus is “carried away to be with Abraham” (Lk 16.22). And Abraham tells the rich man if he wants to know salvation then he needs to listen to Moses and the prophets (16.29-31). This theme permeates the preaching recorded in the book of Acts.

The Song of Jesus’s Heart

Mary/Miriam’s song reverberates throughout Jesus’s life and the church as Luke tells the story. Mary’s song became treasure buried in the heart of Jesus, James and Jude (James is clearly an advocate of the lowly in his short letter).

It is not a stretch to say that Jesus’s ministry would not be what it was had it not been for his Mother singing the songs of Israel to him. In fact the lyrics in Luke 1.46-55 set the agenda for the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. While Matthew defines the Gospel of Jesus in terms of Israel by opening with a genealogy; Luke defines the Gospel of Jesus in terms of Israel via the Songs that Mary/Miriam sang.

Today we need to hear her song again. It reminds us that the Gospel is not a message merely of what happens when we die. The Gospel is a message that says death will no longer rule the world even for the least of these.

Mary’s song reminds us that the mission of God was the mission of Jesus and ought to be the mission of the church. We bring good news to the lowly, a message that changes the world.

And finally Mary’s song reminds us that it is simply impossible to have either Jesus or the “New Testament Church” without being the “Israel” and part of the family of Abraham, Isaac and … Israel (Jacob).

Mary’s song is one we need to remember all year long.

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