12.13.09 Highly Favored: Virgins, Sinners, Scum, and Fools. Luke 1:26-38, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, 1 Corinthians 4:9-13, Psalm 38
Was Mary’s virginity an asset or a liability? Virginity, especially a woman’s, is a highly prized status among religious zealots. Just remember the reward promised to jihadist. And following the story of Jesus’ virgin birth, virgins emerged as the spiritually superior class among Christians. But however the church might assess Mary’s virginity, it seems clear that she thought it was a liability.
Mary is visited by an angelic messenger who makes extraordinary promises to her. And Mary responds with a question. But it’s not the question we might have expected. She doesn’t question God, but rather herself. The messenger says she will bear a son whose name shall be Jesus and who will inherit David’s throne. “Jesus” is a variant of “Joshua,” someone Mary would have remembered as the leader of the ancient Israelites into the land of promise. Joshua was a finisher, a warrior, the one who deposed the inhabitants of the land.
And David was the greatest warrior king ancient Israel had known. The kingdom was united under him and reached its greatest extent. According to the messenger, Mary’s child would transcend these archetypal heroes, despite the longevity of Jewish hopes, despite the overwhelming presence of the Romans.
But Mary’s question isn’t about whether God can liberate Zion from Rome. Her question is rather about her ability: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary’s question reveals the grace of her election, for it reveals her conviction that God is capable, though I am not.
The community formed by Paul’s theology also understood grace this way. They presented Paul as one in whose life grace was revealed by virtue of his vice. The passage from 1 Timothy (written in Paul’s name, but not by Paul himself) refers to Paul as the “worst sinner” since he persecuted the early church. But as the persecutor turned apologist and evangelist, his life became an example par excellence of the transforming power of grace.
Paul and his community understood God in terms of grace. They would have been intimately familiar with the words of Psalm 38:4, 18, 21-22, where the author frankly confesses the crushing conviction of sin, complemented by the overpowering nature of God as savior. In Paul’s life it’s revealed not only that grace makes everyone equal (he wasn’t really any worse a sinner than anyone else, and neither are we), but that grace can make everyone an example.
I’m often reminded how spiritual discernment often travels through self-centeredness. It makes sense, because God calls us, and WE have to respond. We have to factor ourselves into the equation of our vocation. And many people respond with two attitudes which only appear opposite. One is too proud; the other is too humble—but both are self-centered.
One says, in response to God’s call, “I would never do that. I’m too far along in my life, I’m too spiritually mature, I’m over qualified to do what God is calling me to do.” Another says, “I could never do that. God is asking too much, and I am not worthy to undertake God’s calling.”
But when God came calling, Paul follows through, as Mary did, with faith. But there were consequences. Paul liked to remind his readers of the sacrifices he made on their behalf and for the sake of the Gospel. As you read 1 Corinthians 4:9-13, ask yourself who would say these things about themselves today? Who would view themselves as a “spectacle, condemned, ridiculed, reviled, feared, hated.” Paul experienced in his life what others today experience on the basis of our perceptions of them. I would say that today, the ones who might view themselves this way would include adulterous athletes, disingenuous scientists, insurance executives, corrupt politicians, illegal immigrants, and the homeless. These might refer to themselves, as Paul did, as “scum,” in part because we view them as such.
But Paul endured these experiences, because he maintained the hope of salvation and redemption. He had the perspective of Psalm 38, that God was a savior and a redeemer. He anchored that hope in Jesus Christ. And it made Paul appear the fool.
Followers of Jesus Christ are fools. We believe in salvation, redemption, and rehabilitation. Paul’s life exemplifies and testifies to this. Mary had to abandon her notions of Jesus as the returning Joshua and David. Jesus banishes not our political rivals, but our sin and our self-doubt. And only after Mary comes to term with this, when she confesses that God is capable though I am not, the angel leaves her.
Today I wonder, how have you been called. Would you say about your calling, as Mary did, that it “greatly troubles” you? How are you responding? Too proud or too humble? Catch yourself thinking ” I would never, I could never” do that?
Receive this as good news, for it is: God will continue to call. As the messenger did not abandon Mary, so God will not leave you until your sin and self-doubt are overcome. This Christmas, may you believe as Mary did, and give birth to Christ in your life today.
Questions for further reflection
- In what ways has your self-doubt delayed what God wants to do in your life? Or have you neglected to even listen for God’s calling because of your self-doubt?
- In what ways do you feel you are the “worst sinner,” that God can’t use you to reveal his presence in the world? How can Paul’s example inspire you to confess that sin and hope in salvation and redemption again?
- Grace makes everyone equal, and everyone an example. How can your life participate in this truth?
- How have you been “foolish” in your belief about salvation, redemption, and rehabilitation? Do you held such hope for yourself, for others?