And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’
What does it mean to be a prophet? Does it mean you can foretell the future? Does it mean you speak truth to power and fight for justice? Does it mean you stand on the street corner, preaching fire and brimstone and warning people about the end of the world? What does it mean to be a prophet?
This question came up early on in our recent Bible study as we read this song of Mary in the opening verses of Luke’s gospel. The author of the study we used asked the question, “is Mary a prophet?” The answer of most people around the table was a resounding “no.” After all, folks said, she wasn’t telling of some future event. She wasn’t speaking truth to power. She wasn’t even talking to the masses— she was just singing a song of praise in the presence of her cousin. Hardly a prophetic act, right?
I suppose it all depends on how you define the word ‘prophet.’ Maybe by most traditional definitions, Mary is no prophet. But there is one definition that I want to introduce this morning that might get us thinking about Mary, and by extension, maybe even ourselves, in a different way.
Walter Brueggeman is an Old Testament scholar who has written in depth about the prophetic literature of the Bible. One of his most foundational works is a book called ‘The Prophetic Imagination.’ In this book, he crafts his own definition of what it means to be a prophet. First, he says, a prophet must be imaginative because they must be able to imagine a world that is radically different than the one that most others see. Second, he writes that the task of the prophet is to “nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness alternative to the consciousness of the dominant culture.” In other words, in order to be prophetic, one must be able to imagine a better world and help others imagine it as well.
Quite frankly, I think that’s exactly what we see Mary doing in her famous Magnificat. She sees a world that is radically different than what most others in her culture see. She sees a world in which God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. She sees a world in which the hungry are fed and the selfish are sent away empty. Notice that she doesn’t say, “someday these things will happen.” She says that these things ARE happening. He HAS shown strength with his arm,she says. He HAS lifted up the lowly. He HAS filled the hungry with good things. She sees a present reality in which God is already fulfilling God’s promises to God’s people. There is no need to wait for some future time, in Mary’s view, because the time is already at hand.
So, is Mary a prophet? Well, to be honest, we don’t hear much from her after this, so I suppose it’s a little hard to say, but I do think that in this moment, Mary is engaged in prophetic speech. I think that in this moment, Luke is casting Mary in a prophetic role. Because for most other Jews living in first century Palestine, Mary’s words would have seemed almost absurd. They were living under Roman occupation with a corrupt government and corrupt religious leadership. To say that God had scattered the proud and brought down the powerful would have seemed completely at odds with the reality most people saw around them. To say that God was lifting up the lowly in a world where the poor were treated with so little regard would have seemed preposterous. But somehow, Mary was able to see something that others could not, or would not, see. In my mind, that not only makes her a prophet it shows us how we, too, can nurture the prophetic imagination, not only in ourselves, but in others as well.
There’s a story that I’ve heard a number of times about a young lawyer working in an inner city housing project. The young lawyer goes into the projects with high ideals about how he could make life better and more equitable for the people who lived there. One of the first people that he meets in the projects is an elderly woman named Virginia Jones. The woman takes the young lawyer down to the courtyard of her building and says to him, “if you want to help me, tell me what you see.” He then proceeds to describe what he sees in the neighborhood— poverty, addiction, violence, hopelessness— basically, he paints a pretty dismal picture. Ms. Jones’ face falls and she begins to shake her head. “I’m sorry,” she says to the young lawyer, “you can’t help me.” She starts to walk away, but the young lawyer runs after her and asks her what she means. “You need to understand something,” she says. “The world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you. And if you’re one of these people who only sees darkness and problems and despair, well then, that’s all there’s ever going to be. But if you’re one of these stubborn people, who every time they open their eyes, sees hope, opportunity and possibility— sees love and the face of God, well, then you get to be one of the people who helps me.”
Ms. Virginia Jones was a prophet. She understood the value of the prophetic imagination. She understood that how we see the world affects how we are able to change the world. She understood exactly what Mary understood— that hope is not some thing that maybe someday we can have, it’s something we need to have right NOW. Joy is not some far off dream accessible only to those with power and privilege. It is a present reality that is right in front of us— we need only to recognize it.
And so, in a world in which so many people see nothing but problems and despair, it is a prophetic act to have hope and to be joyful. It is a prophetic act to see the goodness and the beauty around us. It is prophetic for us to say that the world is good and that God is doing great things right here in the very midst of us. We too can be prophets. We need only open our eyes and allow our imaginations to get to work.
Now of course, this is not to say that we don’t also speak truth to power and work to overturn tables of injustice. But we do those things so much better when operating out of a sense of hope rather than a sense of anger and despair. We have more energy to do this work when we also have joy and a sense of possibility in our hearts. We bring so many more people into the work with us if we show them that they too can be hopeful. If we want to build a better world, we don’t have to constantly complain about how bad things are. In fact, if we want to change the world such an attitude will probably only get in our way. It’s the people who can already see the world that they wish to build who are able to make change happen. People who have a dream, people who can imagine a better future and truly believe that it is possible— indeed that it already exists— they are the ones who will change the world. Let’s be those people. Let us be people— like Mary— who sing songs of joy. Let us be people whose imaginations run wild. Let us be people who are hopeful. Let us cultivate within ourselves our own prophetic imagination. And then, let us nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness in others that is an alternative to the dominant culture of cynicism and despair. Let us nurture a consciousness of joy. May it ever be so, Amen.