The Filled Hungry and Empty Rich

DECEMBER 2008: ESSAY

by Michael Andres

We all want God in our life. We are hard-wired that way. We want God to make something of our life, to do something important with us, to make a difference in our lost, dark, and empty world. So, we may ask, with what kind of people does God choose to dwell? What are the characteristics of the people God favors to carry out his plan to heal, redeem, and rescue?

The epicenter of God’s dwelling with humans is the Incarnation, so let us seek our answer there. Let us explore Luke 1:39- 52. Perhaps Christ’s birth narrative will help us answer the question: into whose life does he incarnate?

In this familiar passage, Mary “hurries,” she skips over, to visit Elizabeth her relative, who was childless and old, but now is with child (39). Does this sound familiar? She is one in a long line of childless women in the Bible, like Sarah and Hannah, who against all odds have their fortunes reversed. Not the natural way of things, this shows God’s supernatural work in them. The baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps at Mary’s greeting (41, 44). Even an embryo cannot withhold praise for the divine Jesus.

Elizabeth asks, “But why am I so favored?” (43). This is a haunting question. Elizabeth is a woman. She is old. She is an insignificant nobody under the thumb of the Roman Empire. Yet she was favored, and she can hardly believe it! So whom does God favor? With whom does God come to dwell? This is our Christmas conundrum.

In response to this question and to the good news of new birth, Mary sings a song (46), the Magnificat (Latin, “to glorify”). And here we have much to learn from this pregnant, unwed teenage girl from rural Galilee. Here Mary has a Christmas message for everyone on the margins: for the young amongst us who have no idea why they’re on this earth; for the elderly who feel trapped in their slowing bodies; for those who are not popular, whose voice seems not to count and whose absence goes unnoticed. Mary also has a sobering Christmas message for those in authority: for those who have it all, who call the shots; for those with money, and resources, and power; for the religious leaders like me, those who “matter” in the church; and for those whose Christmas is sparkling like gold.

Mary, sounds like any good Reformed theologian, starts her song, centers her melody, and ends her lyrics with the glory, supremacy, and extravagant mercy of our almighty Creator and Redeemer. Her inner being bubbles over in spontaneous worship of Yahweh, her covenant Lord. She glorifies the Lord–gives him highest weight and honor. This is no religious duty; she finds joy in her rescuer (47). And as is typical of the Hebrew style of poetry, in whose form Mary expresses herself, the eruption of praise is followed by the grounds for it.

Mary has reason to praise and glorify God because he has been “mindful” of her (48-49). She may be another powerless pregnant teen from a tiny town in the boondocks of a forgotten country in an insignificant region of the globe. She may be a million miles from cosmopolitan Rome and a million shekels short of being a millionaire. But the omniscient Lord of the universe has noticed her. She has been on his mind. And in an ironic twist of historical fate, she, humble Mary, not a legion of Roman generals or an imperial city full of aristocrats, will be called blessed for generations and centuries. Indeed, it is “Mary” that has provided a name for millions of children ever since, not “Tiberius.”

Then Mary sings of a great reversal of fortunes–the proud are scattered, rulers are brought down, and the humble are lifted up (51-52). Mary announces that the hungry will be filled with good things (53). The ‘hungry’ refers not only to those literally starving, but to all those who are needy, to those desperate for sustenance, to those who know first-hand their deep dependence. This verse echoes Psalm 107, which was a liturgy for Israelite religious festivals, and also speaks of a reversal of fortunes. Probably the best interpretation is that this Psalm refers to those coming out of the exile (Ps. 107:3) who cry out in distress. God has mercy, leads them out, satisfies their thirst and “fills the hungry with good things” (Ps. 107:4-9). Mary’s song also connects with that of another newly impregnated mother, Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10, esp. 4-8), where God raises the poor out of the ash heap. This is all good news for the powerless and voiceless, those who lack resources and healthcare and finances. God will reverse these fortunes. God will lift the destitute out of the ash heap if they will but trust and glorify him.

Now for a verse that will not be on any Hallmark card: God “sent the rich away hungry” (53). This is a sobering statement. We may not feel rich, but we know that we live a lifestyle that uses more energy, raw material, and outsourced labor than the average person in any other nation on earth, ever. We own more, have larger houses, have more money in the bank than over 90% of the world. We are wealthy indeed. So we ponder Mary’s message to us. Who does God favor? With whom does he dwell?

Of course this is just the birth narrative: it simply paves the way for the disturbing yet inviting life and teaching of Jesus. Just look a little further in Luke and the theme of Mary’s song continues in the humble lives God uses again and again.

Luke 2 gives further confirmation of the lowly state of Jesus’ parents. Under the political domination of Rome, Joseph and Mary are forced to travel for the census. In verse 24 we find that Joseph and Mary sacrifice pigeons and doves, a sign that they are poor. The shepherds, meanwhile, are not in warm, cozy first-century condos but are living in the fields. They smell like livestock, need a shower, and are, therefore, a far cry from being like a CEO of some large Roman corporation. In Luke 3 we meet the weird cousin, Elizabeth’s kid, who lives in the boonies and eats bugs, telling people to share their tunics and food. He also was not exactly living the lifestyle of the rich and famous. Next, in Luke 4, in the first words of Jesus’ ministry, he explains that “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19). Not surprisingly, following this first sermon, in Luke 5, Jesus heals those who are on the margins.

Moving deeper into Luke’s narrative, Luke 6 records the sermon on the plain, where Jesus preaches such things as,

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. (Luke 6:20-21)
But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep. (Luke 6:24-25) Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back. (Luke 6:30)
And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, in order to receive back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. (Luke 6:34-35)

The implication of Jesus’ birth, life, and teaching as recorded in Luke, and as extolled by Mary, is inescapable. God did not incarnate himself into the life of Herod, nor of the self-important religious leadership, nor among the Pharisees, nor with Caesar or among the wealthy. God in flesh, the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Son, was revealed first and foremost to the poor, the young, the old, and the lowly. This is the theme of Mary’s song: God comes to dwell with those whose humble lives are not crammed with self-importance and stuff. He incarnates among the truly humble. This is the melody of theMagnificat, it is the ultimate reversal of fortunes. It is the meaning of Christmas.

Now fast-forward to the typical American Christmas. It would seem to be more “Christian Dior” than just plain “Christian.” It’s about gold, frankincense, and . . . still more gold. Christmas has turned into “amass for Christ.” Or Christ-mas (“more” in Spanish). This goes beyond the old adage about how some try to take the “Christ” out of “Xmas”. This is no attempt to rearrange the letters of “SANTA” to spell “SATAN.” Satan hasn’t taken over Christmas, Sam’s Club has! This is a wholesale takeover of Christmas by Walmart, Ronco, Matell, Fischer Price, Best Buy, Levi’s, The Gap, Target, ebay, etc. We pay our homage to these in our mall cathedrals with unequaled religious zeal during this season.

It’s not that these things or places are evil; it’s just that they have nothing to do with Christ’s incarnation amongst the poor and humble. They say nothing about our desperation for God. We have to be honest with ourselves. If an alien from outer space came and observed us and attempted to interpret our Christmas rituals, would that alien deduce something like, “God incarnates with those whose humble lives are not crammed with self-importance and stuff”? A preoccupation with shopping, spending, buying, and accumulating can be antithetical and lead toward the wrong side of the “filled hungry / empty rich” fence.

Christians are often of split minds about this time of year: on the one hand we have the “winter family holiday” and on the other hand we celebrate Christmas. There is Santa right there in the middle of the nativity set. There is much personal struggle. How much of the culture do we allow to be a vehicle for our Christmas celebration? We find ourselves tugged in different directions. At a Christmas morning service we say our prayers, sing our carols, and listen to a sermon only to then go home and rip into the avalanche of neatly wrapped presents. We want both the authentic Jesus laid in a manger and the kitschy bobblehead Jesus on sale at the local department store.

Some of the trouble is that it is easy to begin thinking that a joyous Christmas can be bought by purchasing a perfect, sparkling, golden Christmas. Yet the frenzy of Christmas accumulation leads many to amass debt and buy beyond their financial limits. The average employed American now works more than 47 hours a week in the struggle to keep up with mounting bills, including Christmas invoices, causing tremendous stress. These are not exactly humble, receptive, uncluttered lives, dependent on God, through which Jesus can dwell and work his rescue plan for the lost world.

From a “feed box” to a “death cross”: this was Christ’s trajectory in life. And if we think he lived, suffered, and died so that we can lead a lifestyle of comfort and excess, then we can just keep racking up those credit card bills. But if Mary’s Magnificat is inspired scripture, if God really does come to dwell with those whose lives are not crammed with self-importance and stuff, then perhaps we are at a point where we can celebrate a God-centered, and therefore simplified, Christmas. Maybe this Christmas we can give lavishly to that little, vulnerable, soft-skinned babe in the feed box whose humble existence can be spied among the weak and vulnerable who live in the “stables” of our communities yet today.

The bobblehead, commodified Jesus is not a savior who forgives and grants true shalom. Mary reminds us that we worship a God who is merciful to Abraham’s children. Ours is a God of grace, who forgives even our economic sins. We need to heed Mary’s song and begin our Christmas celebration by glorifying, magnifying, and worshipping our almighty and incarnate Redeemer, who lifts up those who are humble and fills those who are hungry. Our celebration should be characterized–through our words, rituals and symbols–as a God-centered, Christ-saturated sacred festival. Our celebration and lives need to be uncluttered, simple, receptive, modeling our desperate need for God. Then Christ may indwell and work through our lives, too, even as he worked through Mary’s quiet existence.

How practically can we celebrate a non-consumer Christmas and honor Mary’s song? It is not easy. We are not called to a vow of poverty. But we are invited to follow Jesus’ anti-coveting, consumption restraining, resource divesting life and commands. Perhaps we can even enact the reversal of fortunes of Mary’s song and Elizabeth’s life by inviting persons of lesser means–people who are powerless or on the margins–for a hearty Christmas feast, while keeping things simple for ourselves. Perhaps, like Mary, we can demonstrate that the kingdom belongs to the poor and the humble, and that they are ‘blessed’–a celebration of the First Advent that looks forward to the Second Advent.

Michael Andres is associate professor of religion at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa.