Most churches don’t spend much time on the disturbing words of pregnant Mary’s song in Luke 1, known as the Magnificat. But during the British colonial rule of India, it was forbidden to sing the Magnificat in church. Gandhi, who did not consider himself a Christian (yet sought to follow the teachings of Jesus more radically than most Christians), requested that this song be read in all places where the British flag was being lowered on the final day of imperial rule in India. Free at last!
The junta in Argentina banned Mary’s song after the Mother’s of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza. And during the 1980’s, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador found Mary’s proclamation of God’s love for the poor to be so dangerous and subversive that they banned any public recitation of the song. Though we have not yet officially banned it in our Western churches, we have done something much worse – we have inoculated ourselves against its message. Before he was killed by the Nazis, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer proclaimed the song of Mary is “the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings…This song has non of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth.”
The Magnificat is a freedom song for the poor, with Mary as the lead singer. No wonder it has been part of the church’s liturgy since the very first centuries. It has been recited or sung daily by ancient monks and hermits, but our modern church has lost sight of the subversive dynamic hidden within.
Mary’s proclamation about the subversive nature of Jesus’ kingdom is documented in Luke 1.46-56, the longest recorded set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament. Her freedom song reaches its peak with this revolutionary couplet: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (vv.52-53).
This is the prophetic announcement of Jesus’ life and ministry, straight from the lips of his mother.
Now, I’ll admit, mothers can sometimes overstate the talents and wonders of their sons. But this is just the beginning of a very disturbing trend. From the moment he emerged from the desert, full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was stirring up trouble.
The very first sermon he gave enraged the crowd so much that they tried to throw him off a cliff. Have you ever heard a sermon that resulted in people walking out of the church let alone wanting to kill the preacher? Most sermons I hear in church, including my own, barely cause someone to shake their head in disagreement. They hardly warrant discussion over coffee after the service, let alone challenge our lifestyles deeply.
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador once asked, “A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed – what gospel is that?”
Jesus’ words threatened the core values of his society, and the people erupted in rage.
Then there is the dramatic and powerful clearing of the temple, an action that most of us struggle to reconcile with what we have been taught about nice, respectable Jesus. Turning over tables? Sending coins and merchandise flying? Making a whip? Using it! Interrupting the system of commerce? Not very tolerant or respectable Jesus! Not very law-abiding! Bring back nice Jesus, we might think. I’m getting scared!
Yet Jesus was not some nice, polite do-gooder. He was not an American pastor who preached personal responsibility, good citizenship, respectability, and American values. He was the opposite. He was a controversial, radical troublemaker who challenged the status quo and the religious establishment, all the while embodying a wild and untamable love for the vulnerable and broken.
He came to inaugurate the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. He came to subvert the world as we know it.
Taken from Subversive Jesus by Craig Greenfield. Copyright © 2016 by Craig Greenfield Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com.