Mary, Mercy, and the Magnificat

December 9th, 2013
Magnificat by Franz Anton Maulbertsch

If you’ve never read the Magnificat closely, you should. (It’s the text of Luke 1:46-55, where Mary prophesies during her visit to her relative Elizabeth.) I’ve read it several times over the past couple of days. There’s a lot of theology going on in this little passage, and I see something new each time I read it.

John Wesley tells us in his Explanatory Notes that “Mary said, under a prophetic impulse, several things, which perhaps she herself did not then fully understand.”

(Well of course she didn’t fully understand, John, especially since this was before everything unfolded. I’m not sure I completely get everything she said either. Even with the help of your wonderful Explanatory Notes.)

One could have several different Bible studies using this single passage. Take this verse, for example: “He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. (Luke 1:50 CEB).”

That’s heavy stuff, and it raises a couple of questions.

  • What does it mean to honor God as God
  • Does God show any mercy to those who don’t honor him as God? 

Mary, under divine inspiration, is speaking of God’s nature and character. Remember, Jesus hasn’t shown up in the flesh yet. But right here, Scripture asserts that God shows mercy to everyone who honors him as God, from one generation to the next. That includes Old Testament times.

David understood this well. In Psalm 86:15, he writes, “But you, my Lord, are a God of compassion and mercy; you are very patient and full of faithful love.”

In other words, God isn’t waiting for us to screw up so he can hit us with a guilt trip or a lightning bolt.

But he’s still holy.

Jesus has given us access to God’s presence, however, we can’t allow this awesome approachability to keep us from honoring him as God. We read in the New Testament, “Our God really is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29 CEB, emphasis mine) And John Wesley adds this note: “in the strictness of his justice, and purity of his holiness.”

But God often shows grace and mercy to us even when we don’t honor him. After all, Paul wrote, “...while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 CEB). And those of us from a Wesleyan background are taught about prevenient grace. (This is God’s grace that precedes human decision—it’s God’s action, not ours, that begins the process of salvation.)

Still, I have to believe there’s a connection between honoring God (or fearing God) and God’s mercy, otherwise Luke 1:50 wouldn’t have included the qualifier. I realize that this sort of speculation is unsettling for some who fear falling into works salvation. They feel that such a connection implies that we deserve mercy because we’re honoring God. But I look at it this way—perhaps the attitude with which we approach God makes it easier for us to receive God’s mercy. And that’s where we can follow Mary’s example of humility.

What do you think? Is God’s mercy ever conditional?

Shane Raynor is an editor at Ministry Matters and editor of the Converge Bible Studies series from Abingdon Press. Connect with Shane on Google+Twitter, and FacebookSign up to receive Shane's posts free via email.

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