“God, make me so uncomfortable that I will do the very thing I fear.”—Ruby Dee, American civil rights activist.
Fear has been part of our humanity ever since the fall of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:10). Some fears we learn to overcome as we grow older; others linger longer, becoming at times paralyzing. We prefer to stay in our comfort zones rather than venture into the unknown to face the nearly overwhelming challenges of today: poverty, spouse or parental incarceration, salary inequality, racial profiling, political disenfranchisement, etc.
But humanity’s greatest threat is neither the menace of poverty nor that of political corruption: it is the threat to individuality, the individual power of choice.
In the United States a Black family at the White House for eight years may suggest a new and different day for American society, but inequality, poverty, and fear are still very present. Sometimes bringing these issues to the front burner creates discomfort, and we escape through dismissive language: “just another chapter of socialist class struggle.” But the true nature of humanity’s crisis is not its ethnic, socialist, communist, or imperialist bent. It is its philosophy of choice; of how much individuals are to be respected with regard to their decision-making powers, rights, and freedoms.
In the Magnificat,1 “Mary of Nazareth looks at the world very realistically. She sees clearly the contrasts between the ‘powerful’ and the ‘lowly,’ the ‘rich’ and the ‘hungry.’”2
Centuries before her, the minor prophets, while seeking to bring a change in the hearts of their people, did not waver in their denunciation of injustice and abuses of society’s more vulnerable persons (see, for example, Amos 4:1; 5:11, 12; Zech. 7:10).
Mary’s personal life compounded the difficulties she shared with the rest of her people: her nation struggled under an oppressive foreign government; her land was ruled by a half-Jew, half-Edomite puppet king of Rome and a Roman governor who wielded the real power; the governor’s forces, the empire’s army, occupied her land; the empire’s governor and the Edomite ruled with cruelty.
In her personal circumstances she lived with the recognition that she was just one more lowly member of her society (Luke 1:48); her heart was stung by the scorn of neighbors and others who doubted her story of conception through the Holy Spirit; when her Son was born, she had to cope with the terror of the Edomite king’s command to slaughter all children of a certain age just because he wanted to be sure he murdered her Baby. Like millions of refugees today, she had to flee her country, crossing the border into Egypt in the attempt to secure her Baby and offer Him the chance to grow up and live the future God had ordained for Him.
References to her “low degree” and “low estate” (see verses 48, 52) are not to be taken simply as expressions of humility: they are descriptions of her poverty. When she spoke these words, Mary was poor, pregnant, and unmarried. What is startling about her character is that in such circumstances she sings!
Why? Because from the vantage point of Gabriel’s revelation she knows that she, the lowly one, the young and fragile, pregnant, single woman, has been raised up by her God to the most distinguished of possible status: all generations will call her “blessed” (verse 48). As her cousin Elizabeth is inspired to declare, she is is the mother of the Lord (verse 43). Despised and mocked by those who do not know and understand, she is favored by God to bring the Messiah to birth. So she sings.
Moreover, her song isn’t just about how fortunate she now is. It is not “a solo aria about her own destiny, but a freedom song on behalf of all the faithful poor in the land. She sings a song of freedom for all who, in their poverty and their wretchedness, still believe that God will make a way where there is no way.”3
Confused and bewildered as she felt at Gabriel’s appearance (verse 29), Mary was willing to be the servant whose body would be God’s tool—the location of the most inconceivable of all conceptions the universe will ever know (verse 38). The option she accepted overflowed with risk, humiliation, and slander. But empowered by God’s strength despite being uncomfortable, she did the fearful thing believing, knowing it was the right thing.
Many of today’s cultures are still strongly male-dominated: women are victimized by virtue of their gender, and deprived of essential human freedoms and rights, such as the right to make significant decisions on their own.
But through His servant Mary God has already shown the world what He thinks of individual human will, specifically, what He thinks of a woman’s power of choice: Mary’s choice in conversation with the angel Gabriel is no incidental, inconsequential, or forgettable detail. It is one of the two most momentous decisions human beings from Adam to eternity will ever make.
The other? Her Son’s choice to be Messiah. She took it on her own, unassisted by sibling or spouse, by parent or attorney, by church board or city council. She chose to become the vehicle by which God’s salvation would reach the human race. She did not decide based on how special she was, for she was not. It was the decision that makes her special to all of us today.
Before it she was a girl among girls, a daughter of Adam among daughters of Adam, a poverty-stricken, fragile Jew among poor Jews, one subject in an oppressed society among the people of her nation, an oppressed minority. But the God who endowed her with the power of choice was able to show us, through His respect for her choice, what He thinks of human individuality.
People everywhere, young and old, male and female, in sacred and secular circumstances, stand to benefit from Mary’s example, surrendering ourselves to be slaves of God’s redemptive will. Mary teaches us to choose participation in God’s mission on earth, no matter how uncomfortable and fearful the consequences may be.
Mary is still a lesson for us today. Her canticle is a story of how God can empower the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized in society, whether their domination be by their fellow humans or by the tyranny of sin itself. Mary’s submission to God’s will is a call for all—women and men, youth and mature, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality or other, to pray: “God, make me so uncomfortable that I will do the very thing I fear.”
Preston Monterrey is a pastor in the Pennsylvania Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.