Mary, the Reluctant Prophet: Reflections on Luke 1:26-55
Mary Objects to the Prophetic Call
In preparation for her prophetic song of praise to God in 1:46-55, Mary goes through all the classic steps of the call of prophets familiar to us from the Old Testament: God's initial call, God's task, prophet's objection, God's reassurance, prophet's acceptance of call.
First comes her call and her commissioning to her prophetic task: "Hail, favored one . . . you will conceive in your womb" (Lk. 1:28). The Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel saw visions and heard God's commission in the midst of them. Isaiah witnessed a great heavenly gathering, in the midst of which God tells him to go and prophesy to the people (Is. 6:9). Ezekiel saw an elaborate vision of a cloud and four-winged creatures in the midst of which God gives him a message to go and tell to the people of Israel (Ezek. 2:3). Jeremiah is told by God: "I have appointed you to be a prophet to the nations." In Mary's case, God sent the angel Gabriel to confront her and tell her she has been chosen. The angel doesn't say, "Your mission, Mary, should you choose to accept it." The angel says to her, "And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus." Like other prophets, Mary is informed what she is going to do. She is not consulted about what role she would like to play.
In the call of Old Testament prophets, the prophet always objects to the call by protesting his inadequacy or pointing to some factor that makes it impossible. Jeremiah said, "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." Moses said, "Lord, I am not a very good public speaker. Here am I, send Aaron."
Therefore, Mary's objection seems quite logical to us. It is the highly practical question: "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" (1:34)
Unfortunately for them, God never pays any attention to prophetic objections. In the entire Bible, God never listens to someone's objection and says, "You're right. There probably is someone better temperamentally suited for this and with a better resume. I'll keep looking until I find them."
It doesn't seem as if the prophets were chosen for their special virtue or competence. All we know is that God has chosen them. The details aren't revealed. Mary may be the exception that proves the rule, for Gabriel tells her that she has found favor with God. Still we aren't told any details, and she probably thought it a strange and dangerous way to be shown favor.
God's Reassurance for Mary and All of Us
The next step in a prophetic call is God's reassurance that God is committed to the prophet: God reassures the Old Testament prophets that the divine presence will abide with them in carrying out the call. The prophet's job description is not to speak out of his (or her) own wisdom or eloquence, but to be a messenger for God, to do and speak what is commanded. In fulfilling this task, God promises to be with the prophet as deliverer. In Mary's prophetic call, the angel Gabriel is the mouthpiece for this divine reassurance: "Nothing will be impossible with God" (1:37).
Call, task, objection, reassurance, acceptance: these are the five stages of the prophet's call. They may sound quite familiar to you from your knowledge of the Bible and its prophets. They may sound quite familiar to you from your knowledge of your own past and present struggles with God.
This Christmas season, we have much to learn from Mary the prophet, Mary the mother of Jesus. While her specific task is unique to her, the prophetic call extends to us all. The lesson of the call of Mary the prophet is that while objections are to no avail, God's presence is always available.
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.
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