Mary of Nazareth, a Master Teacher

By Marie Meyer

When a layman asked Luther for guidance in being a God-fearing ruler, Luther directed him to Mary of Nazareth, a master teacher in understanding how God works through human instruments in the Church and in the world. Luther, God’s instrument for reforming the Church, wrote to the young man while waiting to be called before the Diet at Worms. His choice of Mary may seem strange and the Magnificat an unlikely text, yet Mary’s words and the example of her experience continue to instruct clergy and laity, men and women in how God works through human instruments.

The first and foremost lesson we learn from Mary is to keep our eyes focused on God, not the person through whom God is working. The Magnificat is about God and his regard for persons we would not consider suitable choices for God’s work in the care and redemption of creation. “God’s work and His eyes are in the depths, but man’s only in the heights” (LW 21:302). Luther concludes that we cannot know God apart from his regard for the lowly. Whether God works through women or men in the Church and the world it is not about their qualifications. It’s not about who is first or last, strong or weak. It’s about the power and authority of God to accomplish His good and gracious will for all people.

Mary not only directs us from herself to God; she also teaches us how to recognize God in His works. Luther writes, “Many philosophers and men of great acumen have also engaged in the endeavor to find out the nature of God; they have written much about Him, one in this way, another in that, yet all have gone blind over their task and failed of the proper insight. And, indeed, it is the greatest thing in heaven and on earth, to know God correctly if that may be granted to one. This the Mother of God teaches us here in a masterly fashion, if we would only listen, just as she taught the same above, in and by her own experience. How can one know God better than in the works in which He is most Himself? Whoever understands His works correctly cannot fail to know His nature and will, His heart and mind” (LW 21:301).

Mary’s simple “I am the Lord’s servant” is often used to praise her humility. “Not so,” says Luther. It reveals the nature of God, the Helper of Israel, to accept her service in accomplishing His redemptive work for all people. Luther credits the Holy Spirit with teaching Mary that what God would bring about through her was not about Mary, her womanhood or her humility. It was about the nature of God to work through unlikely servants. Mary let God be her God in His work of the Incarnation, and God let her be His helper.

Mary, like the prophet Jeremiah, identified God’s work as practicing kindness, justice and righteousness and gifting women and men with wisdom, might and riches. According to Luther, God’s gift of wisdom includes knowledge, spiritual gifts, piety, a godly life,“in short, whatever is in the soul that men call divine and spiritual, all great and high gifts, yet none of them God” (LW 21:332). In granting might, God gives some persons authority, high station and honor in temporal and spiritual matters, “though there is in Scripture no spiritual authority or persons, but only servants and subjects—together with all the rights, liberties and privileges pertaining to them” (LW 21:332).

The first work of God is his mercy and kindness toward the poor in spirit who receive gifts from God without making any rational deduction about themselves. Like Mary, they do not misuse gifts received from God to set themselves above or apart from others.“Thus, God would not have His true children put their trust in His goods and gifts, spiritual or temporal, however great they may be, but in His grace and in Himself, yet without despising the gifts” (LW 21:325).

God’s second work is breaking the spiritual pride of persons to whom God grants wisdom but who, in the imagination of their hearts, become proud and think they must now defend what is right and true. Luther minces no words in describing such persons:“No rich or mighty man is so puffed up and bold as one such ‘smart aleck’ who feels and knows that he is in the right, understand all about a matter and is wiser than other people. Especially when he finds he ought to give way or confess himself in the wrong, he becomes so insolent and is so utterly devoid of the fear of God that he dares to boast of being infallible, declares God is on this side and the others on the devil’s side, and has the effrontery to appeal to the judgment of God. If such a man possess the necessary power, he rushes on headlong, persecuting, condemning, slandering all who differ with him, saying afterward he did it all to the honor and glory of God” (LW 21:333). While such persons may indeed be right, they spoil it all by how they defend God’s truth. In a play on words Luther calls them the “reschtschuldigen,” “the right guilty ones,” who “extinguish the truth itself and replace it with other things, the imagination of their own heart, so that the truth cannot come into its own again” (LW 21:343). According to Luther the misappropriation of riches and the abuse of temporal authority may for a time hide or drive people away from God’s truth, but the misuse of spiritual gifts extinguishes the truth in those to whom God has given these gifts.

Unlike the religious leaders of the day, Mary did not regard gifts received from God as something that set her apart from fellow Israelites. Rather, her awareness of salvation history enabled Mary to view her experience as the God-Bearer in the context of God’s promises to Israel and to be a willing participant in the unfolding of that history. Poor in spirit, she saw herself as one with all those to whom God is merciful. Because Luther recognized that the Holy Spirit taught Mary how to receive spiritual gifts he could acknowledge her as his teacher. Mary, to whom God granted wisdom rather than might or riches, is also our teacher.

Today, Mary’s understanding of how God shows mercy to the poor in spirit and breaks spiritual pride is a solemn reminder to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod of our potential to misuse gifts received from God. Rather than see ourselves as one with all to whom God shows mercy, do we regard ourselves as unique, possibly even set apart from fellow members of the Body of Christ? What if we, by the manner in which we defend truth, are the “right guilty ones” who extinguish the truth? Might we misappropriateto ourselves and to the teachers of our church a purity in doctrine and a right understanding of truth that belongs to God alone?

Luther concludes that Mary’s song of praise cannot be sung by those who “magnify themselves by reason of the good gifts of God and do not ascribe them to His goodness alone. They desire to bear a part in them; they want to be honored and set above other men on account of them” (LW 21:308). God has given good and gracious gifts to the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod so that we might be His instrument in His work of caring for and redeeming creation. By the grace of God we can, like Mary, respond, “I am the Lord’s servant.” “Now, no one is God’s servant unless he lets Him be His God and perform His works in him, of which we spoke above” (LW 21:350).

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