The wrapping paper has made its way to the recycle bin and the toys are no longer new. Many of us have returned to our normal routine. Yet I find myself reflecting on something that came up numerous times this holiday season.
I clearly recall the first time I heard someone make a point of the idea that Mary, the mother of Jesus was a teenager when she became pregnant. We were driving down I95 one night returning to Miami. It was the mid 90’s. I had been out of the states for quite a few years by then and found many things I heard on Christian radio a bit perplexing. On this night, a preacher made the point that Mary was twelve years old when she became pregnant with Jesus. I remember thinking at the time, that while I understood what he was trying to say, why make a point of it? What difference did it make to the narrative? What difference did it make to the central message of “God with us!”
I did a bit of research and learned that there were some apocryphal writings that say Mary was twelve and even state that Joseph was quite old when they became engaged. Yet, I could not find in the bible any reference to Mary’s age. So why make a point of something that is not a point in scripture?
Enter Roy Moore and the recent allegations of his sexual and inappropriate encounters with girls who were teenagers and much younger than he. I listened as some lamented his actions while others saw no problem with it. Indeed the Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler called it “unusual” but not immoral or illegal. He validated Moore’s actions by referring to Mary as a teenager and Joseph as a much older man.
For whatever reasons, perhaps because of Roy Moore, I have now heard more than one preacher make a point out of the fact that Mary was a teenager. While years ago, I was perplexed now I see it as misleading. Let me be clear, I am not disputing that Mary likely was a teenager. I am simply saying that when that point becomes central to the message, we risk misleading others in understanding what is morally, legally, and culturally acceptable NOW…not then.
Here are the ways I think this happens:
1. Highlighting her age can put aside the idea of consent. In today’s world we make much about the fact that the brain is not fully formed until young adulthood. We cannot understand fully repercussions of our actions and can make poor decisions. Many of our laws especially as they pertain to sexuality are based on that idea. One could question that Mary truly made the decision to be the servant God was asking her to be. It could be supposed that she was merely a teenager and what choice did she have. Yet as Rev. Amanda Atkins puts if Mary did not give a clear and purposeful deliberate yes to the unfolding kingdom, then no one else can.
2. When I think teen pregnancy today, I automatically think inappropriate relationship and/or rape. I also think of a teenager’s inability to think through consequences of actions and choices. That is the nature of our world today. Also, I think of efforts to reduce teen pregnancy, not glorify it.
3. When a point is made of the difference in age between Mary and Joseph, I cannot help but think of things like child brides, forced marriages, or coercion. These all fall under the definition of human trafficking.
4. Though it shocked me to hear someone actually say it, do we really want to highlight Mary’s age at the risk of adult men thinking it justifies their pursuit and exploitation of teenagers?
5. Yes, Mary was most likely a teenager. But a teenager then and a teenager now are two entirely different things. When Mary’s age is emphasized, can we adequately in a 20 minute sermon explain thoroughly these differences so as not to risk some of the problems stated above? Does emphasizing her age put a greater emphasis on “God with us”?
To say Mary was a teenager is by no means bad or wrong information. I am simply saying the scriptures do not make a point of it and that in our world today with rape, #metoo, human trafficking, teen pregnancy etc, I would hope that if the emphasis is made, it is made with care.