He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. God’s 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. Luke 1:54-55.
I struggle to express all that this passage, this short line, can mean and for that matter, I struggle to express all that it means to me.
It speaks of God, not the “God” we suppose the word to signify when we use the pronoun “he” and verbs like “do” and “make,” but that Other within and beyond history, that Other which may be “the Rock” of Hannah’s hymn but is within and beyond the natural rocks of which mountains and deserts are made.
It speaks of an Other that “kills” and “brings to life,” as Hannah’s hymn declares, yet is life itself but in a way that incorporates death as well. Such a God is the inspiration for the exalted words and profound emotions of Hannah’s song and Mary’s Magnificat, their communities reaching for the utmost intensity of expression.
But what kind of doing, relative to deity so conceived, can be meant by the word “scattered,” as in “he scattered the proud”?
To scatter a people is more than scattering pebbles or mice—it is to disperse, to rout and confuse, to unhinge and to dislocate, to shred and render without community, the worst of all possible human fates. Such existential terrors do the proud undergo, according to Hannah’s song and Mary’s Magnificat, because pride goeth before a fall, to quote the King James version, because pride seeks its own over-self-estimated counsel, then it claims the ill-gotten gains entirely and only for oneself, saying “devil take the hindmost.”
For, the proud are special, they harbor vast empires in the imagination of their hearts—normal and human-sized as the proud may be, their mental compass embraces outsized horizons of banquets beyond need, wealth beyond luxury, protection beyond security, where too much is never enough.
What is this human tendency that God would single it out for condemnation—ordinary greed?
Yes, to use an inadequate word, but it also represents the refusal deeply to investigate the secrets of life and death for the unimagined kinds of riches that actually lie there—it’s the tragedy of missed opportunity, missed satisfactions, missed discoveries, missed dimensions, that happens when you overlook computing for parallax effect—the fate of the man who buried his two talents, the fate of the rich young man who found Jesus disappointing, the fate of Ivan Illych who thought he had done it all right by social norms, the fate of Dr. Faustus who sought complete knowledge, it is, of course, the fate of Ebeneezer Scrooge, the fate of Citizen Kane, the fate particularly in America where an entire continent worth of natural resources, gems, gold, oil, coal, and forests spawned financial speculators, real estate speculators and the millions of gullible victims of get-rich-quick schemes like the 1849 gold rush that brought thousands of hapless seekers to the California Sierras—ultimately pathetic and very often tragic fates.
And thus it is proclaimed in this passage that God is not only the God of promises but the God of reversals. Remember the Aniwim, the poor ones I told you about last Sunday—? Because they couldn’t trust their own strength, they had to place utter confidence upon God—they were poor not only in material terms but spiritual, too, but they knew it. The proud, on the other hand, in the imagination of their hearts, having no need of him, always end in the little square of their self-sufficiency.
With so many famous warnings, why should it bear so much repetition the way Hannah’s hymn concludes: “not by might does one prevail”—?
I have a guess: it’s because in this country we’re never guilty of self-sufficiency, we are “self-reliant” and that’s different, we suppose. Americans in every one of our centuries saw land for the taking and pressed every advantage to secure some, actually, lots and lots of it, stolen then exploited with slaves! In a wilderness where there were no services or supplies, this required much independence and know-how—we called it self-reliance, which is just self-sufficiency by another name.
Self-reliance—the quintessential American virtue of the frontier society—gave us America’s “can-do” spirit, which we admire and other countries do, too. But we have applied it to a fault. In the name of independence, we have failed sufficiently to acknowledge interdependence. In the name of individual rights, we have fostered a bunker mentality. In the name of progress, we have manipulated nature and used up our resources. In the name of independence, we have refused partnership with God, and this refusal is having tragic national consequences. It amounts to the refusal to look inside and to listen to the still small voice of God—it’s a rejection of the way Mary waits, that is, waiting creatively, not like waiting for the bus.
So Mary’s Magnificat applies especially to us, where she sings, “God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts,” because 2020 has brought our chickens home to roost. Our question in these times should be, What are we supposed to learn here? God does not favor those who over-play our hand, those who convert opportunity into opportunism at the expense of weaker or less avaricious competitors. Mary only repeats the age-old Israelite theme—God is not mocked, which is simply what is meant by our passage’s first line about “the fear of God,” being proper respect for cause and effect. This promise is now about to be incarnated in the person of the baby Jesus to show what kind of power matters in the kingdom of God.
In Advent we celebrate Mary, but not as Virgin, not as Queen, not as Bride, not as Mother, not as Intercessor—all of these being quasi-biblical elaborations of the gospel story by the emerging churches—but as Challenger of business-as-usual. Our Ralph Waldo Emerson entitled an essay, “Self-Reliance,” but he wasn’t giving cover to them—he was actually urging independence of mind, independence from old, traditional ways of thinking, religious ways of thinking that came from the Old World.
Our denomination and the whole liberal progressive stream of Christianity stands in this line—our spiritual roots are in Mary’s Magnificat. Eliot Church stands squarely in this line, too, as our past history and present ethos demonstrate. Our Small Group discussions last month reflect how strong this is in our DNA.
“God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts”—this beautiful line, and one among so many beautifully crafted lines of the Magnificat, is most beautiful because of its context, and is the reason for this remarkable season of Advent before Christmas which is one of love and hope and joy and peace.