53he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
The song of Mary begins with an exclamation of joy and wonder at the divine favor shown to her, a peasant girl, that she should bear into the world the one who would “reign over the house of Jacob forever,” and of whose kingdom there would be no end. (Luke 1:33) But then it shifts into a song of salvation, rejoicing that God is turning the wheel of fortune that raises the lowly and casts down the mighty.
We hear the exaltation theme; we tend not to hear that the rich are sent away empty.
It is a song of salvation, not a threat. Mary lives in a world where most eke out their existence close to the edge of hunger, and the rising of a king who will fill the hungry with good things rather than extract the abundance of their fields and labor is and will always be met with great joy. These are not notes of vengeance but celebrations of justice, of salvation, of the liberation of life and a righting of the world.
But the words are still there: “He has scattered the proud in their vain conceits.” “He has cast the mighty down from their thrones.” “He has sent the rich away empty.”
The scriptures are hard on the wealthy. Yes, there is a kind of prosperity that is a blessing from God – a natural prosperity from the fields and livestock rather than a profit made at the expense of your neighbor. But the accumulation of wealth and lands in the hands of the few was never God’s intention for Israel – or for the world. The land was divided among all as they came out of the wilderness. A family’s land was not to be sold, but only to be leased if they fell into hardship. The obligation to redeem the field – or to return it in the year of jubilee – was part of the fabric of God’s vision of a just society. “There will be no poor among you,” says Moses, if the people will follow God’s commands (Deuteronomy 15:4-5) When Jesus says “the poor you always have with you,” it is more an indictment than a casual observation. (Matthew 26:6-13)
But human societies tend to veer towards inequality. As some become powerful and wealthy, they naturally skew the playing field to gain yet more power and wealth. The prophets attacked this transformation of Israelite society into rich and poor, the privileged elite and a peasant mass. God sentenced it to destruction. First the Assyrians and then the Babylonians represented God’s “no” on the injustice/unfaithfulness of Israelite society. But by the time of Jesus the pattern had repeated itself yet again. Power and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a few, and the temple and the name of God were used to legitimate their privilege.
Mary sings of the fulfillment of the prophetic hopes, the coming of a just king, the transformation of human society, the lifting of the poor from the dust, the hungry filled with good things. Salvation means a profound reorientation of the human community. Jesus calls it the Kingdom of God.
Somewhere, in the light of this social transformation, is a call for the wealthy to live differently. For those with two coats to share with the one who has none. For those with food to share with the one who hungers. For love of God to be matched by love of neighbor. We hear it from John. We will hear it also from Jesus. It’s not revenge; it is the joy of participating in God’s kingdom. And those who heed the call to enter this new reality will find it the path of life.