Rags to Riches: Scripture’s Redemptive Storyline
Christmas always brings the rereading of familiar passages (Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2). Like grandparents, they visit us this same time each year, bringing with them wise insights and a calming presence. And even though you’ve known them all your life you will, if you’re attentive, learn new things about them that you never knew before. I recently had that experience rereading Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56).
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
and has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty handed.
The theme of reversal, especially unexpected reversal, runs right through the storyline of Scripture. As a literary device, it has become known as the Cinderella, or rags-to-riches, motif. It’s the story of Joseph, from a prison dungeon to Egypt’s second in command. It’s the story of Gideon, from a nobody furtively gathering food to the leader of a historic military triumph. It’s the story of David, from the youngest child and family gopher to Israel’s king. It’s a major, multi-layered theme in the book of Esther (that’s another post). And it’s intertwined into the core of the Bible’s narrative of redemption. Redemption is the ultimate rags-to-riches story.
But to be more precise, it’s a riches-to-rags-to-riches story, on both the human level and the divine.
Adam and Eve were fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, viceregents over a magnificent creation, children of the King of the Universe, and the sole heirs of the Godhead. Words like “sin,” “forgiveness,” “salvation,” “redemption” were not even in their vocabulary.
Then came the crisis, and the fall from riches to rags, from heirs to aliens, from children to rebels. It was only then that “afraid” first entered human language (Gn 3:13), along “deceived” (Gn 3:13), “cursed” (Gn 3:14), “enmity” (Gn 3:15), “sorrow” (Gn 3:16). They—we—were banished from the kingdom for which we were made and from the favored presence of the Monarch who made us. But not before he announced his plan by which our plight could—quite unnecessarily, undeservedly, unexpectedly—be reversed (Gn 3:15). It was a plan that would entail warfare and suffering on a cosmic scale, and expand the divine role from Creator and Sovereign to Creature, Sufferer, Serpent Slayer, Savior, Redeemer. Because he folded into that plan the subtle assurance that (as Aslan puts it) the worst of it would fall upon him.
In the fullness of time (Gal 4:4), the Creator himself (Jn 1:1-3) went from riches to rags, abandoning his glory and privilege to become a second Adam (Phil 2:6-7). But what did this look like? This is where Mary comes in. He was not born into the mansions of the mighty or the palaces of power. Instead, he emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave (Phil 2:7). He “took note” of a commoner of lowly status (Lk 1:48) to become his mother, routing the proud (Lk 1:51), toppling potentates and exalting the poor (Lk 1:52), filling the hungry with good and sending the plutocrats packing with their hats in their hands (Lk 1:53).
He left all his wealth to rescue those who had lost all theirs. He abandoned his riches to come in rags to those in rags. No statement captures this reversal more succinctly than this:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Cor 8:9).
And there is the rest of our riches-to-rags-to-riches redemption story—that you through his poverty might become rich again. He will transform the humble condition of our body to make it like his glorious body (Phil 3:21). (Paul uses the same word, “humble condition,” that Mary used to describe her “lowly estate” in Lk 1:48.) But our rags-to-riches redemption is not only physical. He has also
raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:6-7).
Riches-to-rags-to-riches is the story of Jesus, who embraced it that it might become our story too. It is the reality that the Christmas event offers to any and all who will embrace this history of humanity by faith (Eph 2:8-9).