“The Mystery of Poverty”

Luke 1: 46-56




I did not skip over the scripture reading tonight.  We read it together.  We read it as we have done before, singing or saying the Magnificat as part of Vespers.


The Magnificat, as we have come to know this text, comes from the word “to magnify;” as in, Mary is magnifying God’s presence and purpose.  This peasant girl who a few months later would bear the Son of God then praises God the Mighty One because 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” (Luke 1:48–49, 52–53).


Scholars puzzle over her use of the past tense, even when speaking possible prophecy. Perhaps she is describing a vision, where she is looking down on time and losing her sense of before, now, and after. Visions of God can do that to you.


She does what all faithful people do; she echoes the scriptures: Moses and Miriam’s song (Exodus 15), Hannah’s song (Samuel 2), many Psalms, Micah 3:12, even though her education would have focused mostly on keeping a proper Jewish home rather than scripture study. Her lyrical words earn her a place with the Bible’s poets.



Her Magnificat reminded another preacher of the famous humiliation of emperor Theodosius the Great, the last emperor of the undivided empire, by bishop Ambrose of Milan (340–397). Now don’t try and get extra credit by nodding as if you know anything about the “Early Church Fathers,” patristics, as we call them.  You don’t, but you will after tonight. 


See, after Theodosius slaughtered 7,000 people in Thessalonika “most unjustly and

tyrannically” (Theodoret), Ambrose physically prevented him from entering his church. The bishop Theodoret (c.393–466) recorded the drama in his Ecclesiastical History (V.17-18): “You must not be dazzled by the splendor of the purple that you wear,” thundered Ambrose to Theodosius. “How could you lift in prayer hands which are stained with the blood of such an unjust massacre? Go away, and do not add to your guilt by committing a second crime.” To his credit, emperor Theodosius “submitted to the rebuke, and with many tears and groans returned to his palace.” Ambrose later restored him after thirty days of public penance.[1]


This kind of rebuke is rare.  More common in our day is that preachers of every kind, progressive and conservative, cow-tow to whatever tune the rich and powerful are playing.  Like legislatures, we are, as they say, “in their pockets.”


 About the same time that Ambrose ministered in Italy, Saint Basil the Great (330–379) served as Bishop of Caesarea in central Turkey. Like Ambrose he too spoke Marian truth to the powerful emperor Valens who tried to intimidate him. In 372 Valens sent his proxy Modestus to Caesarea, where he summoned the frail but fiery Basil. Basil dumbfounded Valens with his boldness in a famous incident recorded in his biography. When Modestus threatened Basil with confiscation, exile, torture, and death, Basil stood firm. Modestus remarked that no one had ever spoken to him so rashly, to which Basil replied, “Perhaps you have never met a bishop before.”


One of ten children born into a wealthy family, Basil experienced a crisis of faith provoked by his sister Macrina who challenged him about his worldly ambition, saying he was “puffed up beyond measure with the pride of oratory.” Basil relates how he “then read the Gospel, and saw there that a great means of reaching perfection was the selling of one’s goods, the sharing of them with the poor, the giving up of all care for this life, and the refusal to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy towards things of earth” (Ep. ccxxiii).


In his scathing sermons entitled Against the Rich Basil blasted people who hoarded wealth while the poor starved, who adorned their horses with luxurious finery while their neighbors wore tattered rags, and who let corn rot in granaries and be eaten by rats rather than use it to help the poor: “What kind of punishment, do you think, is deserved by a man who passes the hungry without giving them a sign?”


Our legislators should think about such things, spoken to those who have on behalf of those who have not.  I just read today, about the current shenanigans in Washington, that,  

in addition to acknowledging that seniors, disabled and elderly people would be hit with much higher out-of-pocket health care costs by the budget proposed by Mr. Ryan from Wisconsin, the CBO finds that by the end of the 10-year budget window, public debt will actually be higher than it would be if the GOP just did nothing…If the current Medicare system were allowed to continue, CBO found that an average 65-year-old beneficiary’s costs would be only 25 percent of what it’d be in the individual private insurance market. Under the GOP plan, those costs would jump to 68 percent.


Helping those over 65 secure health care and parsing out the federal budget is complex; I can’t pretend to know much about either. People with good intentions take widely divergent positions on how we should respond to poor people and rich corporations; but whether one should engage these matters is, for the Christian, beyond dispute. As I read the Scripture for tonight, God looks and feels biased. He seems to take sides, and not just about wealth. This text, as beautiful as it is, is also so uncompromising that it is tempting to “spiritualize” it in order to soften its blow, were we to believe her. Instead, I think we should take Mary’s poetry/prophecy at face value as a declaration… that the advent of God’s kingdom subverts our ordinary ways of doing political and socio-economic business.


This Jesus will soon say,
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”


When we invite this same Jesus into our lives, like Mary, we cannot hide it from the world any more than she could forever camouflage her swelling belly. Christ will reshape us, displacing our old lives for the new creation.  Elizabeth O’Connor[2] is right, our friends and loved ones will soon learn that we are not in step with them but are in the business of fomenting a great displacement where the first will be last, and the last will be first.[3]


This is, as Tim Perry[4] notes, unfair.  It also requires that we review who we are going to side with in this world, because God’s justice is clearly on the side of those the world forgets.


Jesus may well  have learned the carpentry trade and his Jewish faith from his father Joseph, but it is obvious to me, his mother informed his social conscience.




[1] Dan Clendenin, “Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself”  December 5, 2005

[2] Elizabeth O’Conner was a writer, poet, and Support Minister at The Church of the Savior in Washington D.C. (The current ministries and faith communities are the result of an alternative approach to “church” and church structures which is the hallmark of the Church of the Saviour).  She was the founder of Sarah’s Circle a ministry to the inner-city poor. 

[3] Evans, Jill, Pastor of The United Church of Christ in Chapel Hill SC.

[4] Tim Perry, “Blessed is She: Living Lent with Mary”, is our Lenten study book