Woman, who art thou? Mary: Blessed Among Women (Part One)

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Welcome to the sixth blog in my series called “Woman, who art thou?” which explores key women in the Bible and how their examples are relevant to us today.  In this blog, I’m going to be exploring the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and in particular, her visit from the Angel Gabriel and her response.  I write with a little reticence but only because I want to make sure that I do her justice, being that she is the mother of our  Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. The blog will be in three parts.  The second blog will focus more on the Magnificat – Mary’s response of worship.  The third blog will focus on Mary’s relationship with her son.

So, who was Mary?  Mary was a first century  BC Galilean Jewish woman of Nazareth. She was young – probably a teenager, poor and female.  It was quite normal for girls of that culture to be promised in marriage while they were still as young as thirteen years of age.  Marriages were ordinarily arranged by the bridegroom or his parents through the girl’s father.  To be honest, she had all the characteristics that, to the people of her day, would make her unusable by God for any major task.  But yet God chose Mary for one of the most important acts of obedience He has ever demanded of anyone.  Centuries earlier, God had promised David that David’s kingdom would last forever (2 Samuel 7:16).  This promise was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, a direct descendent of David, whose kingdom will never end.

Motherhood is a privilege, a painful one, but a privilege nonetheless.  Mary, at a young age, had the unique privilege of being mother to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.  This is why she is seen as being blessed among women. She had found favour with God.  Mary herself, in the ‘Magnificat’, testified that all generations would regard her as profoundly blessed by God.

“….for he has been mindful of the humble servant.  From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is His name”

Luke 1: 48-49

Was she being proud? No, she was recognizing and accepting the gift God had given her. Mary was showing complete humility and glorifying God in song for what God was going to do for the world through her.

Until the visitation of the Angel Gabriel, Mary’s life was quite ordinary.  She had recently become engaged to a carpenter, Joseph, and was anticipating married life.  She had no clue that her life was about to change in such a dramatic way.  This was not the first time that the angel had appeared. Gabriel had visited Zechariah, as well as Mary and even the prophet Daniel, some 500 years earlier.  Each time, he brought important messages from God.

I would imagine that, once Mary had got over the shock of being in the presence of an angel (if that is even possible!), when Gabriel greeted her she might have been puzzled as to what was coming next (Luke 1:29).  What did this heavenly being want with her?! Maybe she felt like she had won the grand prize in a contest that she had not even entered.  It’s no wonder she was puzzled and frightened.  What came next was the news that almost every women in Israel hoped to hear – that her child would be the Messiah.  God’s promised Saviour and the fulfillment of scripture.  God’s announcement of a child to be born, throughout scripture, was met with various responses:

  • Abraham’s wife laughed (Genesis 18:9-15)
  • Zechariah doubted (Luke 1:18)
  • By contrast, Mary submitted, she believed the angels words and agreed to bare the child, even under humanly impossible circumstances.
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Mind Blowing!!

What really stands out to me about Mary is that she does not doubt what the angel tells her, not even for a second!  She does not refuse to believe it or laugh it off as an impossible task.  Rather she asked how pregnancy would be possible because she was still a virgin.  Gabriel told her that her baby would be God’s son.

“You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his Kingdom will never end.”  Luke 1: 31-33

“…The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” Luke 1: 35

His blessing on Mary, the honour of being the mother of the Messiah, would cause her much pain and come at a high cost to her personally: with her story about being made pregnant by the Holy Spirit, she risked being considered crazy; her peers would ridicule her; her fiance would come close to leaving her; her son would be rejected and murdered. But through her son would come the world’s only hope, and this is why Mary has been praised by countless generations as the young girl who ‘found favour with God’.  Mary’s submission was part of God’s plan to bring about our salvation. I’m quite in awe of her willing obedience to God, something I can only aspire to!

“I am the Lord’s servant….May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:38)

When Mary said that, she didn’t know about the tremendous opportunity she would have.  She only knew that God was asking her to serve him, and she willingly obeyed.

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  • Mary may have been young in age but I have a feeling  that she is mature in her faith and relationship with God.  Initially, when the angel appeared to her, she may have been afraid BUT she listens to what he has to say from God and accepts it
  • At no point does Mary doubt that what the angel has told her will come to pass – “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1: 38).  If anything she is curious as to HOW it will happen but she does not doubt that it WILL happen
  • Mary willingly submits to the will of God and is obedient despite the potential risks to her personally, socially, culturally etc.  She doesn’t ask “Why me?” or say “I cannot do this!”.  She basically says “Okay God, let it be, let’s do this!”
  • Mary, being young, poor and a woman, may have appeared insignificant to others in society but she definitely was not insignificant to God.  God chose her for a task that would require an extreme amount of obedience.  Don’t ever feel that your ability, experience, or education makes you an unlikely candidate for God’s service.  Mary’s story shows us that this isn’t the case where God is concerned.
  • Don’t limit God’s choices.  He can use you if you trust Him!
  • If sorrow or sadness weighs you down and dims your hope, think of Mary and wait patiently for God to finish working out His plan.
  • “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1: 38) – When Mary said this, she didn’t really know about the tremendous opportunity she would have.  She only knew that God was asking her to serve Him and she willingly obeyed.  Don’t wait to see the bottom line before offering your life to God.  Let’s offer ourselves willingly, even when the outcome seems disastrous.  God has a plan for our lives and knows the bigger picture – we just have to trust in Him 🙂  I’m sure God waits to hear a similar response from us.
  • God’s best servants  are often ordinary people who make themselves available to him
  • God’s plans involve extraordinary events in ordinary people’s lives
  • A person’s character is revealed by his or her response to the unexpected

Be blessed!

Ali x

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Woman, who art thou? Ruth & Naomi

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I think the book of Ruth, in the Old Testament, is probably one of my favourite Bible stories ever.  For those of you reading, who are perhaps new to my blog…..welcome! I am writing a series of blogs about women in the Bible, how God shaped them and what we can learn from them today.  So far I have written about Eve, Rahab and Sarah.  Please feel free to take a look if you have not done so already.  Here are some links to other blogs in this series:

I think there are initially a few things that stand of for me in this story.  Yes, we might call it a love story in terms of how Ruth meets and consequently marries Boaz after being widowed at quite a young age.  What also strikes me, perhaps more so, is the depth of relationship between Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi.  In contemplating writing this blog, I decided that I cannot really just focus on Ruth because her story and that of Naomi are so very much intertwined that it seemed unfair to write about one without also writing about the other.  It is hard to separate them, so I am not going to, and this is a true expression of their deep love for one another.

Naomi had travelled from Bethlehem with Elimelech, her husband, and their two sons, Mahlon and Kilion to settle in Moab for a time. They had left Bethlehem, Judah,  due to the famine that had hit their land.  The story is set in the time of the Judges which was a time of disobedience, idolatry and violence. Elimelech died, leaving Naomi a widow. We meet Ruth, in the story, when she marries Mahlon.  Orpah marries Kilion.  However, the struggle and suffering did not end with the famine and losing a husband, as after being in Moab for about ten  years, Naomi’s two sons died. 

So we have three widows – Naomi, Orpah and Ruth.  The cumulative grief would have been harsh enough yet for these three women, as widows, life would have been tougher still.  There was almost nothing worse than being a widow in the ancient world.  Widows were often taken advantage of or ignored. They were likely to have been living in poverty.  God’s law, therefore, provided that the nearest relative of the deceased husband should care for the widow.  Naomi, however, did not have any relatives in Moab, and she did not know if any of her relatives were alive in Israel.

Despite being in a desperate situation, being a widow and having lost her two sons, Naomi still behaved in a selfless manner.  In a situation where she was probably grief stricken, poor and feeling helpless concerning her future, she still managed to consider the needs of her two daughter-in-laws, Ruth and Oprah. She did certainly not fit in to the stereotypical caricature that forms the basis of today’s jokes about mother-in-laws.

“Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home.  May the Lord show kindness to you, as you have shown  to your dead and to me.  May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.” Ruth 1:8-9

In these verses, even though she has decided to return to Israel, she encourages Ruth and Orpah to stay in Moab and start their lives over, even though this might mean hardship for her.  Orpah decided to do what Naomi suggested which in many ways, in those days, we might see as the most sensible choice.  Naomi did not have any other sons for them to marry.  Ruth, however, did not follow suit.

“But Ruth replied,”Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you.  Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay.  Your people will be my people and your God my God.  Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.  May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”  When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her.” Ruth 1: 16-18

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Ruth was willing to give up the possibility of security and children in order to care for Naomi.  The relationship they shared was one of strong mutual commitment.  That is clear.  They shared a deep love and loyalty for one another and had both shared in deep sorrow together too.  They were both trying to care for one another.  Naomi was thinking about Ruth’s future and Ruth wanted to care for her mother-in-law who otherwise would have been alone in the world with very little social status.  This was a beautiful, sincere relationship.

Not a lot is said about Naomi but what we do know is that she loved and cared for Ruth.  Naomi’s life must have been a powerful witness to the reality of God.  Ruth was drawn to Naomi and to the God she worshipped.    I love the fact that Naomi’s relationship with God was real.  It was honest.  Let’s be clear about it, Naomi had experienced severe hardship in her life so far.  She had left her homeland due to famine, she had lost her husband and her two sons and her future was uncertain as a widow.

“Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them.  “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.  Why call me Naomi?  The Lord has afflicted me; the Almighty has brought misfortune upon me.” Ruth 1: 20-21

Naomi changed her name, I believe, to express the bitterness and pain she was feeling.  However, by openly expressing her pain, she was not rejecting God.  Although, perhaps in the midst of her suffering, she had lost sight ,perhaps. of the valuable resources she had in her relationship with Ruth and with God.  Even though she was bitter, her faith was still alive.  She praised God for Boaz’s kindness to Ruth.  In her suffering, she still trusted God and acknowledged his goodness.  She was being real with God, open and honest in her pain, because she knew her God was big enough to deal with it.  Naomi allowed Ruth to see, hear and feel all the joy and anguish of her relationship with God.

You would not ordinarily have expected perhaps in different circumstances, for Naomi and Ruth to have been friends at all.  Ruth’s homeland of Moab had been one of the nations that had oppressed Israel during the period of the judges (see Judges 3:12 ff).  So, naturally, there had been hostility between the two nations.  The famine that fell upon Bethlehem must have been severe if it had prompted Elimelech and his family to move to live in Moab.  Even if Israel had already defeated Moab, there would have still been tensions between them.  That would not have been an easy move for them.  

Friendships with the Moabites would not have been encouraged (see Deuteronomy 23:3-6) but probably not completely forbidden, since the Moabites lived outside the promised land.  Marrying a Canaanite (and all those living within the borders of the promised land), however would have been against God’s law (Deuteronomy 7:1-4).  Moabites were not allowed to worship at the tabernacle because they had not let the Israelite’s pass through their land during the exodus from Egypt.  As God’s chosen nation, Israel should have set the standards of high moral living for the other nations.  It is ironic that it was Ruth, a Moabitess, who God used as an example of genuine spiritual character.  This just makes it clear just how bleak life had become in Israel at that time. 

Being a Moabitess did not stop Ruth from worshipping the true God, nor did it stop God from accepting her worship and blessing her greatly.  The Jews were clearly not the only people that God loved.  God chose the Jews to be the people through whom the rest of the world would come to know him, through Jesus Christ, a Jew.  However, God accepts all who worship him, he works through people regardless of their race, sex or nationality.  Ruth’s story might be seen an as example of God’s impartiality.  Even though Ruth belonged to a race often despised by Israel, she was blessed because of her faithfulness to Naomi and to God. Ruth through her marriage to Boaz became a great-grandmother to King David and also a direct ancestor of Jesus.  We might assume then, that Naomi and Ruth’s return to Bethlehem was part of God’s plan because in this town, David would be born, and as predicted by the prophet Micah, Christ would also be born there.  So rather than being just a practical move for Ruth and Naomi, it was the fulfillment of scripture too.

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Ruth and Naomi returned to Bethlehem during spring, the time time for the barley harvest.  It was a time of hope and plenty.  Bethlehem was a farming community.  As it was harvest time, there was plenty of leftover grain in the fields. When the wheat and barley were ready to be harvested, reapers were hired to cut down the stalks and tie them into bundles.  Israelite law said that the corners of the fields were not to be harvested.  Also, any grain that was dropped was to be left for the poor who picked it up.  This is called ‘gleaning’. It could then be used for food.   This law existed to feed the poor and to prevent owners from hoarding.  I guess we could call it the ancient world’s welfare system in Israel where provision was made for those that were poor. Ruth, obviously, being a widow, went into the fields to glean grain, as she had no other means of providing for herself.  Ruth was in a foreign land but she made it her home.  Instead of depending on Naomi or waiting for her luck to change, she used her initiative.  She went to work.  She was not afraid of admitting her need or working hard to supply it.  When Ruth went out to the fields, God provided for her.  Even though the work would have been menial, tiring and probably degrading, Ruth still did it faithfully.  For her, it opened up doors of opportunity. Ruth had an admirable character – she was faithful, hard-working, loving, kind and brave.  She demonstrated these qualities consistently.

Ruth may not have always been aware of it, but, God had been with her every step of the way in her journey and relationship with Naomi.  She went to glean and “just happened” to be in the field owned by Boaz who “just happened” to be a close relative.  A wonderful God-incidence!!  When Naomi heard the news about Boaz, her hope was renewed.

“The Lord bless him!” Naomi said to her daughter-in-law.  “He has not stopped showing his kindness to the living and the dead.” She added, “That man is our close relative; he is one of our kinsman-redeemers” Ruth 2:20

Naomi is demonstrating her selfless character yet again, as her first thought is of Ruth, encouraging her to see if Boaz would take on the responsibility of being a “kinsman-redeemer” to her. What is a kinsman-redeemer?

“When he lies down, note the place where he is lying.  Then go and uncover his feet and lie down.  He will tell you what to do.” Ruth 3:4

Now, these instructions might seem a little strange.  Naomi was not suggesting that Ruth try and seduce Boaz in any sexual capacity.  What Naomi was actually doing, was instructing Ruth in Israelite customs and law.  It was quite common for a servant to lie at the feet of their master and even share part of their covering. By doing this, Ruth was letting Boaz know that he could be her kinsman-redeemer and as such find someone to marry her or marry her himself.  This was business and not a romantic gesture though.  But this changes later in the story! Ruth, being the foreigner in Bethlehem, may have thought Naomi’s advice was odd but nevertheless, she followed the advice because she knew Naomi was kind, trustworthy and had moral integrity.  Ruth’s life may well have turned out differently if she had not followed the guidance that Naomi gave her as mother-in-law and her elder.

“He will renew your life and sustain you in your old age.  For your daughter-in-law, who loves you and who is better to you then seven sons, has given him birth.” Ruth 4:15

Ruth’s love for her mother-in-law was known and recognised throughout the town.  From the beginning of the book of Ruth to the end, her kindness toward others remained unchanged.  God brought great blessings out of Naomi’s tragedy.  Throughout her tough times she had trusted God, even when that was really hard.  God blessed her greatly in his timing.

Looking back over this beautiful story…..a few thoughts:

  • Ruth and Naomi and been on an incredible journey together;
  • They shared a relationship characterised by a selfless deep love for each other and a shared faith in God;
  • They shared a relationship which demonstrated a strong mutual commitment;
  • They shared a relationship in which each person tried to do what was best for the other
  • They have shown us what true friendship looks like;
  • God works through people regardless of race, sex or nationality.  God does not have favourites.  Ruth belonged to a race often despised by Israel but God blessed her faithfulness;
  • When we are suffering or feel bitter, it’s okay to be honest with God but don’t allow your situation to blind you to God’s opportunities.  God often provides love, strength and resources through our relationships with other people;
  • God always provides.  Sometimes we have to take the first step like Ruth did gleaning in the fields;
  • A good reputation comes from consistently living out the right sort of qualities, no matter what sort of group of people or surroundings you are in;
  • God provides “God-incidences” – God works in our lives in ways we may not notice at the time. We must not close the door on what God can do.  We should have faith that God is directing our lives for his purpose;
  • Be willing to listen to the guidance and advice of those older than yourself.  Their knowledge and experience can be invaluable;
  • When hard times strike – trust God.  He will be with you in hard times.

And finally……

The book of Ruth is a very lovely story about a girl who was very lovely and blessed by God.  In reality, the events recorded in Ruth were part of God’s preparations for the births of David and of Jesus, our promised Messiah.  At the time, I expect Ruth had no idea about the larger purpose her life had.  In the same way, we will not know the full importance and purpose of our lives, until we are able to look back from the perspective of eternity.  We must make our choices with this in mind and focus on God’s eternal values.  Ruth was faithful and obedient, her life and legacy were significant even though she couldn’t see all the results.  We must live in faithfulness to God now, knowing that the significance of our lives will go far beyond our lifetime.  The rewards will far outweigh any sacrifices we might feel we have made.

xx

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