I have my first youth pastor to thank for my love for The Princess Bride. I admit, at first I was skeptical of its genius but like a good pot roast it gets better the longer you let it cook. The characters are rich. The comedic timing is impeccable. The lines, oh! The lines are some of the most quotable and most hilarious, time-enduring lines in existence!
One of the lines oft-repeated by the diminutive Vizzinni, convinced that his genius should anticipate all moves, counter-moves, and possibilities imaginable, is the classic, “Inconceivable!” Vizzinni utters this line so often when his plans seem foiled that one of his cohorts, Inigo Montoya, who himself has his own classic line, retorts, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means” (click me!).
Similarly, I often hear discussion about God’s favor. Typically, God’s favor is discussed in light of rousing successes. Plant a church and have 200 people show up the first service? It was evidence of God’s favor. Do well on a test that you barely studied for? It’s evidence of God’s favor. Get an unexpected check in the mail that helps you make ends-meet? Chalk it up to God’s favor.
Then we have the curious case of Mary. We read in Luke’s account of the nativity that an angel appeared to Mary and greeted her, saying, “Greetings, oh favored one! The Lord is with you!” Instead of leaping for joy at the prospect of being favored by God or recoiling in fear from the presence of the angel like every single other figure in biblical literature, Luke informs us that Mary “was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” The angel re-asserted Mary’s status as favored by God before informing her that she would give birth to a son who would be called “Son of the Most High,” who would take the throne of David and have a never-ending rule over God’s people.
Mary, being a betrothed virgin, asked a very good question: “How?” The angel explained that the Spirit of God would come over her, His power would overshadow her, and the child she would conceive would be the Son of God.”
Unwed motherhood is a more common phenomenon today, but in Mary’s day being an unwed mother was anything but a sign of God’s favor. If anything, it was a sign of the rankest form of sin and departure from obedience to God that was imaginable. Betrothal was a legally binding agreement between a woman and a man which cemented their relationship to such an extent that if a man wished to severe the relationship he had to write the woman a certificate of divorce. Consequently, laws prohibiting adultery could be enforced. In case you weren’t aware, the Mosaic law had some harsh penalties for adultery, as in an adulterers could be stoned.
Even if Mary were to escape death she still faced the possibility that Joseph wouldn’t buy the story. Honestly, I couldn’t blame him if he didn’t quite believe that Mary had gotten pregnant and hadn’t been with another man. Before being informed of the validity of Mary’s story via his own angelic messenger, Matthew records that Joseph considered sending her away with a certificate of divorce. If that had been happened, Mary faced the prospect of being an unwed teenage mother in first century Galilee. Suffice it to say that her life would not have been easy. She faced potential shunning from her family resulting in the loss of her home, she would have been unable to secure any type of employment to provide a decent living for her and her son outside of servitude or prostitution, and she would forever be labeled by her community as an outcast and a sinner.
Perhaps Mary was on to something when she was troubled by the thought that God favored her.
Knowing all this makes Mary’s response all the more remarkable: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Would we likewise respond if we knew that being the recipient of God’s favor would result in constant questioning about our character and lifestyle? Would we submit to God’s plan if it meant that, no matter how great the outcome of our obedience, others would still doubt the validity of our version of the story years later as the Pharisees did when they routinely implied that Jesus was illegitimate? Would we submit to being God’s favored if it meant putting ourselves in the crosshairs of danger for our very lives?
Really consider what you’re asking for when you pray for God’s favor. It might not mean what you think it means.