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This article represents the author’s personal view. It accords with Bible Society’s values, but is not intended to express our position as an organisation.
Was Mary really getting political when she sang, ‘He has brought down rulers from their thrones... He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich empty away’?
Mary’s song in Luke 1.46–55, known as the Magnificat, is a joyful outpouring of praise to God for everything she expects him to do through the gift of her son. If we assume she knew that this baby was the Messiah promised by God in the Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament), we can also assume that she, like most other Jews at the time, expected him to be a political saviour – a deliverer who would drive the Roman overlords out of the land and usher in a new golden age as king of Israel.
The words of the angel Gabriel to Mary had reinforced that belief: ‘The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’ (Luke 1.32–33). Gabriel’s message echoes the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 9.7, which says, ‘Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and for evermore’ (ESV).
‘Throne’, ‘reign’, ‘kingdom’ and ‘government’ – these are political words, and the references to David give them added potency. David was a warrior king who conquered powerful tribes to take control of the land of Israel and unite his nation within it. So, based on Gabriel’s message, it’s not surprising that Mary would expect her son to be like King David and ‘bring down rulers from their thrones’.
Isaiah 9.7 also suggests, though, that the King-Messiah will uphold ‘justice and righteousness’. Another messianic prophecy, this time brought by Jeremiah, says something similar: ‘The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land’ (Jeremiah 23.5). Justice involves caring and providing for the poor, even at the expense of the ultra-rich, and this is what Mary is commending when she sings, ‘He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.’ It’s interesting that in John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000, the story ends with Jesus escaping from the crowds who are ‘about to come and take him by force to make him king’ (John 6.15, NRSV). Filling the hungry is seen here as a political act.
So Mary’s song does have clear political overtones. She rejoices in the idea that her son is destined to overturn an oppressive system and set in place the everlasting government of God in the land of Israel. From her point of view, this would have seemed obvious – and the first disciples of Jesus would have agreed with her.
The expectation that Jesus was going to lead a rebellion against the occupying Romans and bring down those rulers from their thrones was very deep-rooted in the minds of his followers. Why else would Peter bring a sword to the garden of Gethsemane (John 18.10)? Even up to the day of Jesus’ ascension, the disciples were still clinging to this hope, asking, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1.6).
But Jesus never saw himself as that kind of Messiah. He had already redefined the kingdom of God as a place where violence is neutralised by peaceful resistance (‘If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also’, Matthew 5.39), and his words to Pontius Pilate had made his position clear: ‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here’ (John 18.36).
Jesus’ disciples, including Mary, expected him to be the ruler of an earthly kingdom; he turned that idea on its head and spoke of a radically different, heavenly kingdom. However, this doesn’t mean that the kingdom is only ‘spiritual’, with no practical outworking in the world. After all, Jesus himself taught his disciples to pray, ‘Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matthew 6.10). When Mary sang her unashamedly political Magnificat, she was voicing a hope that continually challenges us – that the righteous, just and peaceful kingdom of God would be seen on earth, in very real and tangible ways, through Jesus and his message.
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This article was written by Lisa Cherrett, who works in our publishing team.
Author: Bible Society, 9 December 2019 (Last updated: 1 December 2021)