Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

Annunciation to St. Mary

Sermon / Homily on Luke 1:26-38

Exegetical Notes on Luke 1:26-38

by Brian Stoffregen

THE LARGE CONTEXT -- JESUS & JOHN; MARY & ZECHARIAH

Brown ("The Birth of the Messiah") presents an "Annunciation Diptych" of the Annunciation about John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-25) and about Jesus (Luke 1:26-45, 56). The parallels of the core events are summarized below. [p. 297]
 

John Jesus
Luke 1:5-25 Luke 1:26-45, 56
Angel of the Lord appeared to Zechariah Gabriel came to Mary
Zechariah was startled Mary was startled
The message: The message:
Zechariah Hail ... Mary Favored one
Do not be afraid Do not be afraid
Elizabeth will bear you a son You will conceive and give birth to a son
You will call him John You will call him Jesus
He will be great, etc. He will be great, etc
How am I to know this?
The angel's response
How can this be?
The angel's response
The sign: silence The sign: Elizabeth is pregnant

For Brown, the form explains Mary's puzzling question in v. 34, "How can this be?" Ordinarily, if an engaged woman is told that she will conceive and give birth to a son, she would assume that a natural conception would occur after she was married and "knew" her husband. "How" would not normally be a question concerning a promised birth. They knew how conceptions normally happened.

Brown, after discounting the view that Mary was already committed to a lifetime of virginity, or that she misunderstood the tense of the angel's announcement as "you are conceiving" or "you have conceived," suggests that the literary reason for her question is to be in parallel with Zechariah's question in v. 18 and "to tell the reader how the child was conceived and hence to explain his identity." Both questions indicate the impossibility of conception. However, we might characterize the birth of John as a "semi-pelagian" miracle -- the couple took the first "step" and then God provided the miracle. The birth of Jesus was like the miracle of creation -- out of nothing, God created life. [pp. 303-309]

Throughout the annunciations and births, Jesus is always presented as the greater one. John's conception was miraculous, but Jesus' was even more miraculous.

In addition, Zechariah and Elizabeth had been praying for a child. The miraculous conception was an answer to prayer for them. I doubt that Mary had been praying to become an unwed mother. Her conception is a "surprise of creation" (Brown's phrase). It is "God's initiative going beyond anything man or woman has dreamed of" [Brown, p. 314].

Schweizer (The Good News According to Luke) suggests the same emphasis: "At the end Mary is indeed highly favored just as the angel promised at the beginning. If the virgin birth originally expressed the uniqueness of the Son of God, for the first narrator of our story it served far more to express the grace and favor of the word of God, which calls forth life out of nothing." [p. 30]

FINDING GRACE (OR FAVOR)?

The word eurisko is used in 1:30 which is frequently translated "to find." I'm not sure that "to find" is the best way to translate it. Theologically, I'm not sure we can talk about "finding" grace (or favor).

The first two (and most common definitions) given by Lowe and Nida for this word are: (1) "to learn the location of something, either by intentional searching or by unexpected discovery;" and (2) "to learn something previously not known, frequently involving an element of surprise"

It is the aspect of "unexpected discovery" or "surprise" that isn't translated well by our word "to find," which, I think, conveys more of the sense of "intentional searching."

EUREKA!

According to the legend, the ruler Hiero II asked Archimedes to find a method for determining whether a crown was pure gold or mixed with silver. One day when Archimedes stepped into his bath and noticed that the water rose as he sat down, he ran out of the house naked shouting, "Eureka! Eureka!" (= "I have found [it]" -- forms of the same verb).

If you want a sort of scientific explanation of what he "found," you can read the next paragraph. If you're only interested in the significance of this "bathroom" illustration, you can skip the next paragraph.

The way to determine whether or not a crown was pure gold was to compare its weight to its volume. If one had 1 pound of gold and 1 pound of silver (one would be very rich <g>) and submerged them in water. The silver would make the water rise higher than the gold, because it is less dense than gold. Or, if one had two crowns, of the same volume -- that is, each made the water rise the same amount. A pure gold one would weigh more than one mixed with silver.

Archimedes did not "find" this truth by searching after it -- although he may have spent days thinking about a solution to the problem. His "find" came as an unexpected surprise. It's almost as if the truth found him more than he finding the truth. It was something that was there all the time. He may have noticed the rising bathtub water hundreds of times before, but its significance didn't "click" in his brain until that "eureka" moment.

The object of Mary's "finding" is charis -- usually translated "grace," but also "kindness". Neither grace nor kindness can be "found" unless it has been given. It is similar to talking about "finding love." One only "finds" it if another is willing to give it.

This charis is para God. Para with the dative can denote the agent or source of the grace or "in the viewpoint of".

I would interpret the phrase as saying that Mary was surprised by the grace that had come from God. (However, I'm not sure that an unwed 12 or 13-year-old would "find" it graceful to be told she is going to have a baby <g>).

This interpretation is supported by a verbal form of charis, which occurs in 1:28: charatoo. This word only occurs twice in the NT: Luke 1:28 & Ep 1:6. In v. 28 it is a perfect, passive, participle = "having been graced." Who graced her? It is likely that this is a divine passive indicating that it is God who is acting = "You have been graced by God" or "God has graced you." (Better English would probably use another verb than "to grace," but it expresses the connection between vv. 28 & 30 -- which NRSV does with "favor".)

WEDDING CUSTOMS

Culpepper (Luke, the New Interpreter's Bible) relates the wedding customs on those days.

Although Mary was not yet married, she was betrothed. According to ancient customs, the marriage would have been arranged by her father. She would live at home for a year after the betrothal. Then the groom would come to take her to his home, and the wedding celebration would last for an entire week. Legally, the marriage was sealed after the engagement. Thus, if Joseph had died before the wedding, Mary would have been considered a widow. [p. 51]

Betrothals usually took place when the girl was twelve or thirteen years old.

MARY'S RESPONSE -- A MODEL BELIEVER

One theme prominent in this text is Mary's response to the (unexpected) encounter with God in her life. She puts herself at God's disposal: "Behold the Lord's slave; let it be to me according to your word (rhema)" (v. 38). This is in sharp contrast to Zechariah's response as reported by the angel in 1:20: "But now, because you did not believe my words (logoi), which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur."

Luke has used rhema in the verse just before Mary's response. Literally, "because not impossible with God will be every word." Or, in better English, "No word will be impossible with God."

Twice we are told that Mary treasured up all these words in her heart (2:19, 51).

Also in contrast to Mary, when the women report to the disciples about the events at the empty tomb, we are told, "these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them" (24:11).

There can be a significant translation issue in 8:20-21. NRSV has: "And he was told, "Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you." But he said to them, "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word (logos) of God and do it."

The boldface "but" may or may not be implied by the Greek de. "And" could just as easily be implied. If so, it could be that Jesus is describing his biological mother and brothers as people who are hearing and doing the word of God. That seems to be the character of Mary in our verses.

The word "logos" appears in our text in v. 29. Mary was much perplexed at the angel's word [logos]. Her reaction "much perplexed" (diatarassomai = "be deeply confused or troubled") is the normal reaction at seeing an angel. When Zechariah sees the angel, "he was terrified" (tarasso) (1:12). When the risen Jesus appears to the women, he asks, "Why are you frightened (tarasso), and why do doubts arise in your hearts?"

Mary's fear may have been heightened if she knew the tale of Tobit (an apocryphal book). This story tells of a jealous angel who appeared on a bride's wedding night each time she married and killed her bridegroom. Could Mary have thought that an evil spirit had come to prevent her marriage?

Schweizer (The Good News According to Luke) gives this contrasting picture: "In Mary, humanity is represented as the recipient of this life and love from God. With her quiet awaiting of God's act she is the figure of Advent, the opposite of the nervous activity of modern society." [p. 31]

Mary becomes the model of properly responding to in-breaking of God and God's Word into our world.

CONCERNING THE VIRGINAL CONCEPTION

Schweizer (The Good News According to Matthew) writes:

It was assumed of many great men at the time, from Plato to Alexander, that they had been born without human father. The fact of such a birth therefore did not single Jesus out as unique, it simply placed him in the company of all the great men of the age.

More important than the idea of Mary's virginity therefore are the points that distinguish the birth stories in the Gospels from these other accounts. In them god is pictured as mating with a woman or virgin. ...

Whether a virgin birth is possible is a question only a modern world ask; virgin birth was an accepted notion to men of the New Testament period. By no means, therefore, should a man's faith be judged by whether nor not he thinks a miracle like this is possible, the less so because the virgin birth plays such an infinitesimal role in the New Testament. It is nowhere described; only the Annunciation is mentioned in Matthew 1 and Luke 1. Neither Matthew nor Luke returns to the subject, not even in the course of the Christmas story proper. According to Mark 3:21, Jesus' mother, who thinks him mad, appears to have no inkling of the promises made by the angel. No other document, above all none of the many summaries of the faith in a formula, hymn, or sermon in the new Testament, mentions the virgin birth. ... [pp. 33-35]

In some circles, the virginity of Mary has become a benchmark for orthodoxy -- and as long as the Creeds are official statements, the "virgin birth" is the confession and teaching of our Church. However, I don't believe that this was such a major issue in the first century. I don't believe that "proving" the virgin birth is primarily what our passage is about. A much more important theme is the in-breaking of God into our world -- and God doesn't ask permission to do that! Another more important theme is the response of Mary, which I talked about above. A third more important theme centers on the political terms related to this birth.

THE COMING KING

Before the angel says anything about the miraculous conception, he has uttered an enthronement song about a new king to be born:

The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for every. There will be no end to his kingdom (v. 32).

The scandal of Jesus' birth is not so much its biological aspects but its political significance. Jesus preached about the coming kingdom, which became a threat to those in authority and power.

Jesus was not crucified because his birth disrupted biological studies, but because some people thought he was a threat to their political and religious power.

The offensive element of Jesus' birth is not the virgin conception, but that the king of the Jews would be born to such a poor family in an insignificant city at the outskirts of Israel. If a king were to be born, wouldn't it be better to have him born to high ranking, wealthy parents who could provide him with all the finest things? Shouldn't he be born and grow up in Jerusalem -- the city of God?

This offensive aspect of the birth is even more significant when we are told repeatedly that this child will be called "Son of the Most High" (v. 32) and "Son of God" (v. 35).

ALSO SON OF MARY

Sometimes we forget that Jesus, the Son of God, was also the son of Mary. Because of that, he did things that God can't do! He was born. He grew up. He died. Because Jesus, the son of Mary, was human, he rejoiced at a wedding. He wept at the death of a friend. He was misunderstood. He suffered mental and emotional anguish. He experienced physical pain. He felt abandoned by God. We can know that the "Most High God" not only knows, but has experienced everything that we experience. We also live with the hope and expectation that as the son of Mary -- a human like us -- has died and was raised from death, we, too, can expect to follow where he has led the way.

A message that I have been learning only in my later years is that it is OK to be simply a human being. We don't have to try and be something else, e.g., super-humans, demi-gods, etc. in order to be Christian. Sometimes we need to be reminded that Jesus was a son of Mary, growing up poor and misunderstood.

REFLECTIONS

The following are "reflections" from Cullpepper (Luke, New Interpreters Bible"):

1. Mary had been chosen, "favored" by God. But what a strange blessing. It brought with it none of the ideals or goals that so consume our daily striving. Today many assume that those whom God favors will enjoy the things we equate with a good life: social standing, wealth, and good health. Yet Mary, God's favored one, was blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a criminal. Acceptability, prosperity, and comfort have never been the essence of God's blessing. The story is so familiar that we let its familiarity mask its scandal.

2. If Mary embodies the scandal, she also exemplifies the obedience that should flow from blessing. Mary was favored and would bear a king, but only if she gave herself obediently in response to God's call. The greatest blessings are bound up in the fellowship God shares with us. They are not rewards separate from that fellowship. Perhaps it would inject more realism into our Advent celebrations if we recognized that the glory of Christmas came about by the willingness of ordinary people to obey God's claim on their lives.

3. The ultimate scandal is that God would enter human life with all its depravity, violence, and corruption. Therefore, the annunciation ultimately is an announcement of hope for humankind. God has not abandoned us to the consequences of our own sinfulness. Rather, God has sent Jesus as our deliverer. There is another way, a commonwealth under Jesus' Lordship that is without end. [pp. 52-53]

DID MARY HAVE A CHOICE?

At another time when I posted notes on this text, someone wrote and asked me: "Did Mary have a choice in being the 'Mother of God'?" The following is my response to that question.

Mary speaks twice in our text: (1) How will this be since I am not knowing a man/husband? (v. 34) and (2) Behold the Lord's slave/servant, let it be to me according to your word. (v. 38)

Mary's first response, as I indicated above, seems to serve more a literary function than a historical one. Historically, when told that she "will conceive" (future tense, v. 31), I would think that a more likely question would be "when?". We all know "how" conception takes place -- and, up to this point, there has been no indication that it would be a unique, abnormal conception. Luke, phrasing Mary's question as he does: "How will this be? Since I am not knowing a man" -- ("knowing" is present tense = continued, repeated actions -- I'll let you make your own interpretation of that <g>) -- indicates that Mary has no active role in this conception -- in fact, there are no humans involved in it.

To further dissect Mary's second response.

idou (comes from eidon = "to know" or "to see")

There are three ways of understanding this word:

(1) simply as a word to emphasize what follows; "lo, behold, listen carefully"
(2) a word of validation, "indeed," "truly"
(3) NRSV translates it "Here am I" -- perhaps paraphrasing, "See (me)"

doule kuriou

doulos/doule (masculine/feminine forms) denote one who is the property of another, or, in a figurative sense, one who is controlled by another, e.g., "subservient to". The genitive of kuriou indicates that she sees herself as the property of (or subservant to) the "Lord"

genoito moi

The verb is in the rare optative mood, which indicates an attainable wish. This word (ginomai) has a wide range of meanings. Generally they are related to "coming into existence" -- that is, "to become, to happen, to be". Although it is used as a synonym for "to be" (estin), it seems to carry more of the sense that what now exists is different from what was before. Thus it could be translated, "Let it happen to me" or "Let me become"

kata to rhema sou = "according to your word"

Certainly this refers back to v. 37, which literally reads either: "because every word from God will not be impossible" or "because every word will not be impossible with God" or, to paraphrase: "What God says will happen." It would seem from v. 37, that Mary had no choice in the matter -- God said it. It will happen.

We might paraphrase Mary's response to say, "Let me become what you have called me to be."

One approach we can take about Mary's answer is that God knew that Mary would agree to this "call" before the angel ever approached her.

In the epilogue of The Foolishness of Preaching, the author, Robert Farrar Capon, summarizing his purpose for writing the book:

What I have to say boils down to just one thing: I hope I've helped you fall in love with your calling again. I've been lucky. By grace -- and by the gift of having worked for several people whose favorite indoor sport was giving me a hard time -- I was sometimes limited to two choices in my ministry: I could either love my calling or bitch about it. Since bitching was a bore, I tried loving. [p. 151]

I would suggest that these are the choices for Mary -- to love and accept her calling or to bitch about it.

Another major theme of Capon's is our desire to control. Adam and Eve want to control good and evil, rather than leaving it up to God. I would say that Mary had no control over what God had chosen her to be (or could we even say "What God did to her"?) Mary, perhaps, had some control over her response to God's actions -- to be God's servant or a thorn in God's side. To respond with "Let it be" (genoito) or "Hell no" (paraphrastic meaning of me genoito, which Paul often uses, see Ro 3:4, 6 for just a couple instances.)

The questioner to my original note also commented:

Someone else wrote that Mary is by no means SUBMISSIVE in a subservient way to the will of God; she in PARTNERSHIP with God. Did Mary have a choice to reject the angel's words and not become pregnant, or did she have simply the choice as to whether to cooperate with what was going to happen anyway?

From what I read of this verse, I would disagree. Mary uses subservient terms (doule and possibly genoito) to describe herself. The idea of being partners with God smacks of Pelagianism.

I don't think that Mary had a choice. She was going to become pregnant whether she liked it or not. I wouldn't use the word "cooperate" with what was going to happen. The word that is used later in Luke 1 is "believe": "Blessed is she who has believed that what has been spoken to her from the Lord will be fulfilled" (1:45). Luther presented Mary as a model of faith. Faith is receiving what God gives.

It seems to me that the choices that she and we have are:

to be under God's control or to try and control God

to believe God's word or call God a liar

to accept what God has done or to bitch about it

Would that each of us would respond to God with, "Let me become what you have called me to be." (Although I would hate to be told that I was going to become pregnant.)

See Also:

Sermons, Bible Commentaries, Bible Analyses on Annunciation to St. Mary

Malankara World Special on St. Mary

Malankara World Special on Shunoyo of St. Mary

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