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Catholic Diocese of Little Rock
Published: April 14, 2012
This is the 11th column in a 13-part series
By Cackie Upchurch
Director of Little Rock Scripture Study
In the New Testament, who is the only woman to be identified as "righteous in the eyes of God"? If you pictured Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, you are correct (see Luke 1:6). Biblical righteousness at its root is connected to the notion of meeting a standard, as in a standard of weighing and measuring when selling goods, or walking in the right direction or having a legitimate legal claim.
Over time, this basic concept evolved to describe those who meet the standards of God, those who embrace and reflect God's values and God's law in this world. This description puts Elizabeth in the company of such other righteous New Testament figures as Joseph, John the Baptist, Simeon, Joseph of Arimathea, Cornelius and Jesus himself.
Elizabeth's story unfolds in the opening chapter of the Gospel of Luke. When she and her husband Zechariah are introduced as righteous, the very next verse states, "But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren and both were advanced in years" (1:7). In a culture that often associated barrenness with divine punishment, this juxtaposition affirms that Elizabeth's barrenness cannot be attributed to sin or disobedience.
Rather, Elizabeth's barrenness becomes God's avenue of intervention. Among the stories of the Old Testament there are accounts of barren women who give birth through God's intervention and contribute significantly to the story of salvation: Sarah (Genesis 15), Rebekah (Genesis 25), Rachel (Genesis 29), and Hannah (1 Samuel 1) to name a few. Elizabeth, then, is in good company both as a righteous person, and as a woman among the great mothers in salvation history. And it would be fair to say that she acts as a bridge between God's earlier covenants and the new covenant which will be ushered in with Jesus and announced by her own son, John.
The way Luke presents the account (Luke 1) leaves no doubt that Elizabeth's pregnancy is the result of divine intervention. Gabriel, the angel of the Lord, delivers the news to Zechariah when he is fulfilling his priestly duties in the sanctuary, assuring the aging father that the Holy Spirit will fill the child even in the womb. Zechariah's subsequent muteness and Elizabeth's swelling belly were all the proof needed.
Perhaps the most poignant scene in the account of Elizabeth is when a young relative, Mary of Nazareth, comes to visit her in the hill country. We are invited in their meeting to see two ends of a spectrum, on one end an elderly woman whose inability to have children is related to aging, and on the other end, a young woman who has not yet entered into her child-bearing years. In both cases, God's promise is made manifest in a child.
We can imagine that both women would have been the object of gossip and scorn in their villages. We can imagine that they would have been justified in feeling confused and fearful. But there is nothing but joy between them (1:39-45), even a joyful leap of the child who was growing within Elizabeth.
In the story of salvation, it is Elizabeth's son, John, who prepares the way for Jesus. His proclamation of deliverance from sin (2:3-6, 15-18) opens hearts and minds to receive the coming Messiah. But even in the story of the visitation, we find a clue that John's later proclamation is found in seed form in the words of his mother: "Blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" (1:42-43).
Elizabeth recognizes the Lord in their midst. Her greeting and acknowledgement sets the stage for the appropriate joyful response to God taking on flesh. Her example reminds us to rejoice in the ways that God works not only in our own lives but in the lives of others, the unexpected arrivals of God in the midst of our very ordinary lives.
The woman known to be "righteous in the eyes of God" demonstrates that in her life righteousness is manifest by being open to God's intervention and alive with joy for God's goodness.
This article was originally published in Arkansas Catholic April 14, 2012. Copyright Diocese of Little Rock. All rights reserved. This article may be copied or redistributed with acknowledgement and permission of the publisher.