The voices of the prophecies in the first chapter of Luke are like a song of freedom, like a Negro Spiritual. Was that how they thought of the coming of the Messiah – some kind ofNelson Mandela/ Martin Luther King liberator-figure? Probably so, but there was another important aspect which the “Song of Mary”, recorded uniquely in Luke’s Gospel, powerfully evokes . It’s like the catchy riff of a rock song to which the whole Gospel melody periodically reverts. It’s the bit that gets stuck in your head! It’s the song of a God who turns everything upside down.
Like Hannah before her, Mary characterizes her Lord and God as the God of inversion, the One Who turns things upside down. Listen to the song:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
There are some interesting phrases here, that are somewhat overwhelmed by the familiarity of the whole. The agenda is, quite simply, a socio-economic revolution, where “the hungry” are filled with “good things” and “the rich” are “sent away empty.” If this is the agenda of the coming Messiah, it suggests a social activism at its most radical.
And yet, there’s clearly more to it than that. This social activism is rooted in the action of the God of Israel who “performs mighty deeds with his arm.” In one sense, it is the old prophetic rebuke against the Haves lording it over the Have-nots.
But doesn’t God want to bless his people? Surely if you deny that then you are taking away the stock-in-trade of half the preachers on the God Channel? Oh Lord, won’t you buy me aMercedes Benz? Really? “Blessing” is not just money, sure, but isn’t it a synonym for “success”? Well, it is not success per se that God decries, whether measured in monetary or in other terms. It is the spirit of success. It’s the dangerous spirit of self-creation that is so much the opposite of quiet trust in God. It’s the principle of self that destroys us completely from within, like that proud vicious alien that bursts out of the hapless astronaut in the film Alien. Remember that awful scene? (If not, skip it).
The themes of wealth, materialism and stewardship, and the contrast between rich and poor, are always centre-stage in Luke’s Gospel. He tells us, quite flatly, that wealth is likely to be a problem. We see this not just from what Mary says God can do to the rich, but from many other passages within Luke. Consider chapter 6:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man.
“Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.
The same pattern of inversion is clearly here once more, and this time on the lips of Jesus himself. We can try to tame the passage by saying that it is about an attitude or a ‘spiritual poverty’ rather than our literal state, but those are not the terms in which Jesus frames his message, and we should be naïve if we were to admit no “consolation” in being rich now, or if we should claim that the literal deprivation/excess axis is not likely to have some correlation with a ‘spiritual’ one. And there is more.
Consider some further passages: “For whosoever exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted” (14:11). Are not the physical expressions of money (luxurious homes, clothes and cars, for instance) ways of ‘exalting ourselves’? Just how easy is it to deny ourselves when we have the ﬁnancial means to achieve something we really want? And would such a denial not be an example of humbling ourselves?
Another very similar-looking passage: “every one that exalts himself shall be abased; and he that humbles himself shall be exalted” (18:14). So concludes the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. It is not speciﬁcally a parable about riches, but the same theme of inversion is very much in evidence, and it is a theme with obvious application to our relations with material things. And ﬁnally: “he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that serves . . . I am among you as he that serves” (22:26,27).
What does a servant spend his money on? What money does a servant have to spend? What demeanour and what pride does a servant have? These are highly relevant questions for personal examination. So what may we conclude from this quick survey of the inversion theme in Luke? At least this: that it is easier and better to learn the ways of God in a humble state than in a state of excess. It really is the case that less is more. The model would seem to be: poverty now, riches later.
One of the books that really impacted me as a young Christian was entitled Rich Christians in An Age of Hunger. Even the title suggests a rebuke! More recently, I was given a book for Christmas –that annual festival of excessive consumption- entitled The Hole in the Gospel. The hole, according to the writer, is located right here, in our self-serving Westernized mis-interpretation of these passages. It’s a cover-up of Watergate dimensions. We need rather to ask personally how literally this teaching ought to be applied.
I have to keep two facts in mind. The first is that, in terms of wealth and privilege, I and perhaps 99% of this blog’s readership, belong to richest strata of the world’s population. The fact is that I’m rich.
The second fact is that, being rich, unless I take this passage fairly, on the chin, that I will be “sent away empty.”
What do I do about it?