MARY MAGDALENE: THE FAITHFUL DISCIPLE OF JESUS WRONGED BY A BAD SERMON | Lenten Devotional, 2/23/21
WRONGED BY A BAD SERMON
Introduction | We are walking together through the Church season of Lent. Lent, which means “springtime or renewal,” began to be observed by the Body of Christ sometime during the 4th century. The period of Lent spans forty days (not counting Sundays) modeled after Jesus’ time fasting in the wilderness before beginning his earthly ministry. Lent is a sacred time of remembrance, renewal, and spiritual preparation in our journey of faith with Jesus.
Over these next few weeks of Lent, we invite you to take up the practice of reading and reflecting on the women who first followed Jesus. We all know that the four gospels specifically emphasize the twelve disciples whom Jesus called to “Come and see.” But there are several women who also follow Jesus as he teaches, heals, offers miraculous signs, and purposefully makes his way towards first, offering himself on a Cross, but ultimately rising to a life beyond death.
Each week we are going to look more closely at one of these women so we can better appreciate what they each saw in Jesus and how they learned to follow his lead with their lives. Each Tuesday, I’ll provide an overview and some brief reflection on the life of each of these women. Each Thursday, one of the female members of our staff will offer their own personal reflections as to the life and witness of each of these faithful women. Each Saturday a Lectio Divina prayer exercise will be provided to reflect more deeply in the Spirit in terms of each week’s devotional theme and focus.
Reflection | Today, we reflect on another female disciple of Jesus about whom we actually know very little. But sadly, and wrongly, that hasn’t stopped many interpreters over the centuries to assert some outlandish and derogatory things about her. In the more than 2,000 years since Mary Magdalene personally witnessed first the death and then later the resurrection of Jesus Christ, she has been labeled many things.
Sinful woman. Prostitute. Wife of Jesus.
We will explore each of these presumed identities of Mary shortly. First, let’s begin by considering a few things about her name. Mary or Miriam in Hebrew was such a common name in the days of the New Testament that the four Gospels always need to specify which Mary is being referred to from within the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. Traditionally speaking, there are six women named Mary in the New Testament: Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary of Bethany – the sister of Martha and Lazarus, Mary, the wife of Clopas (see John 19:25), Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, Mary, the mother of John Mark (see Acts 12:12), and Mary Magdalene. If we’re not careful, it’s easy to get these women confused.
In the various listings of all these women, there is, however, a little but by no means minor detail we ought to notice. Mary Magdalene is mentioned 12 times in the Gospels. With only one exception, Mary Magdalene is always placed first when listed with other women (besides today’s passages see also Matthew 28:1, Mark 15:47 and 16:1, and Luke 24:10). This suggests Mary Magdalene held some prominence and importance among the other female followers of Jesus.
Before we go any further, let us also clarify that Magdalene was not Mary’s last name – at least not in the way we think of last names today. Today in the Western world, a person’s last name indicates the name of their family of origin or family by marriage. However, in the ancient world women and men were identified by their first names followed by the name of their father (or husband, or brother – in the case of women). If one’s father was no longer living or if one didn’t have a husband or a brother, a person’s first name would be followed by the name of the village or city from which they came.
Technically, in the Gospels, Mary is referred to as “the Magdalene.” Most scholars believe the word “Magdalene” functions in a similar way to “Nazarene” when the Bible speaks of Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore, the consensus has been that Mary was from a town in Israel called Magdala (Aramaic) or Migdol (the Hebrew version of this Aramaic name). The only possible reference to a place of that name is found in Matthew 15:30 where Jesus comes “to the region of Magdala” – rendered, however, in some ancient manuscripts as Magadan.
There is some scholarly dispute about this. More recently, modern archaeological excavations at Qarīyat al-Majdal, an Arab village, which existed by the Sea of Galilee until 1948, have led many to believe they have unearthed this once fairly large Galilean town on the western coast called Magdala. To read more about this discovery and the amazing finds at its site, please click here. Was this Mary the Magdalene’s hometown? Personally, I think so!
But who was Mary Magdalene? Beyond the mention of her name at both the Cross and the Resurrection, all that we know about Mary is from two verses in Luke’s Gospel. As Luke details how Jesus traveled the countryside proclaiming the good news about the Kingdom of God, accompanied by the twelve disciples, he adds the following traveling companions: “and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means” (Luke 8:2 – 3).
Surprisingly, there is quite a bit we can learn about Mary from this brief mention by Luke. First, we are given the circumstances behind what was likely Mary’s first encounter with Jesus. Like all of the women who joined her, she had been healed by Jesus from a great affliction. In Mary’s case, her previous suffering resulted from severe demonic possession. Seemingly, Mary’s torment was much like that of the Gerasene demoniac we read about later in Luke, chapter 8 (see verses 26 – 37). If this is accurate, we can imagine her beleaguered condition would have resulted in Mary’s isolation and marginalization from the community as it did for that poor man.
In the aftermath of her miraculous recovery, Mary chose to follow Jesus. This detail in and of itself was extraordinary because in Judaism at that time women were not allowed to formally study the Torah. A woman could gain instruction informally – by listening to the weekly messages given in the synagogue. Entering into an association with a rabbi, however, was not permitted for a woman. Women were not to be in a close relationship with other men – save their male relatives. And yet here Mary and these other women are – traveling with Jesus and the Twelve, accompanying them in their ministry.
Perhaps some of us might challenge the notion that Jesus had more disciples than the Twelve – let alone female disciples. And yet, the gospel accounts make it clear Jesus had many more disciples beyond the twelve disciples he called to follow him (see Mark 3:14 – 18; Matthew 10:1 – 4; and Luke 6:13 – 16). Luke specifically indicates Jesus chose the Twelve from among his larger group of followers.
While certainly the original twelve disciples had a special, designated role in the inauguration of Jesus’ mission, a larger group of devoted followers who were taught and trained by Jesus are visible throughout his ministry. Part of the arrival of the Kingdom of God, according to Jesus, was the reframing and remaking of prior understandings of the basis of relationships and communities. Mary’s discipleship reflects this transformation – of the removal of social barriers and the fashioning a community in which membership is not determined by gender[CT1] .
From what Luke shares, we come to appreciate one of the specific contributions Mary and the other women he mentions made to the ministry and mission of the Kingdom of God. Mary provided for Jesus and the Twelve out of their own resources. Mary, a woman of some means, presumably was not married. Unlike Joanna who also is listed here, Mary is not identified in relation to her husband. Continually referenced as Mary the Magdalene, she again is not associated with any male relative. It is therefore likely whatever wealth she possessed was independently held and distributed as needed.
So then, what is the biblical picture we are given as to who Mary Magdalene was? Mary was a woman who bravely stepped outside of the cultural norms of her day not just to be healed by but also to follow Jesus. Her discipleship wasn’t theoretical. Mary dared to leave the relative comfort of her familiar surroundings and faced the grind of regular and rough travel in order to go with Jesus. And along the way, she didn’t just espouse her support of the work of the Kingdom; Mary willingly offered all she had for the cause of Christ (compare with Luke 21:1 – 4).
Tragically, this is not the picture that most Christians have of who Mary Magdalene was. In much of the Western tradition of the Church, Mary is envisioned as a prostitute. Typical works of art – both old and new – depict her in both provocative dress and posture before Jesus or tearfully abased in shame at the feet of Christ. If this is not the biblical image of Mary Magdalene, we must ask from where has this false representation of her come?
From a bad sermon delivered in the 6th century. Pope Gregory I (also known as Gregory the Great) gave a homily in Rome on September 14, 591 during which he egregiously abused his interpretative authority over the Bible. As part of his message that day, Pope Gregory asserted the unnamed sinner in Luke, chapter 7, (verses 36 – 50) – the woman who crashed a dinner party in order to anoint Jesus’ feet with her perfume and her tears – was none other than Mary Magdalene.
Gregory’s brazen claim was pure speculation without any basis in fact. There is nothing in any of the gospels that even hints at Mary Magdalene having been a prostitute. Besides the obvious, the specific sin of the unnamed woman in Luke, chapter 7, also is never stated as prostitution. It also should be added, the point of the encounter between the unnamed woman and Jesus is not about whatever her sin was but the contrast between her posture of receptivity and devotion to Jesus and that of the host of the dinner party that she crashed. Despite having credible basis for attaching Mary Magdalene to the events in Luke 7 and to coming from a life of prostitution, Pope Gregory’s faulty assertions stuck and was passed along generation after generation as biblical truth. For more than a thousand years, Western Christians continue to assume Mary Magdalene was a repentant harlot.
To add insult to injury, a linguistic error also became attached to Mary’s name. The Greek word magdalia, which can mean “dirt washed off,” just happens to bear a random similarity to the Aramaic word magdala which means “tower.” Even though these two words are completely unrelated, an association was made between the former word and Mary’s perceived reputation which further soiled her name.
Ironically, the woman whose suffering was first healed by Jesus ended up being worsened by his later followers. In publicly and persistently maligning Mary’s name, the Church continues to make Mary into a victim rather than to look to her as an example of a faithful witness to Christ. Thankfully, despite the damage we have done to Mary’s reputation, her redemption remains in the hands of the God who knows the truth.
It should be noted that in 1969 the Catholic Church finally admitted what had long been held as the official teaching in the Church about Mary Magdalene was incorrect. Pope Gregory I’s sermon was publicly stated to be wrong as nothing in the Bible supports his interpretation of Mary. It can be argued that this was too little, too late. After all, this slanderous view of Mary has become far too ingrained in our collective consciousness. You think I’m kidding? Do a dictionary search for the word magdalene and you’ll discover the meaning of this word is “a reformed prostitute.”
On the completely other end of the spectrum, some have sought to inflate Mary Magdalene’s role beyond what it is in the Bible. In recent decades much has been made of so-called secret gospel accounts that hitherto had been buried by the Church and therefore unknown to the Christian community. This is a specious claim that sells a lot of books but has little basis in truth. Early on in the canonization or formation of the Bible as we have it today, we find open acknowledgment, discussion, and ultimately refutation of these other gospels. In letters from the early church fathers, the generation that came after the first apostles, specific arguments are made against the authenticity and validity of these accounts.
Nonetheless, many have argued in support of works like the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip or what are known as the Gnostic gospels. These texts are believed to have been written by a sect of early Christians in the 2nd century A.D. but were not discovered until 1945. One of the common themes in these works is the elevation of Mary Magdalene above Jesus’s male disciples in knowledge and influence. Specific reference is made to Jesus loving Mary more than the other disciples.
Questionable theories like this led to recent artistic representations of Mary as featured in Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code – both of which were made into feature films. Common to both works is the reemergence of an old and popular theory born of these “other” gospel accounts. Namely, that Mary Magdalene was in fact Jesus’ wife. Similar myths surround the figure of Mary Magdalene to this day – including a recent 2018 film and a now-debunked archaeological find from 2012 propagated by Harvard Divinity School professor, Karen King.
While some early Christians sought to denigrate Mary Magdalene’s influence, other more modern Christians have sought to accentuate it. But in the end, neither theory — penitent prostitute or loving wife of Christ — actually matches what we find written about Mary Magdalene in the scriptures. The Bible’s picture of Mary is that of a woman whose life was radically changed when she encountered Jesus. It was a transformation that Luke hints at merely began with her liberation from the demons that were possessing her. Who Mary became was a woman no longer known for the oppression of her past by someone named for all time as a follower of Christ. A woman who gave her life to Jesus – holding nothing back.
Early on, many disciples who first followed Jesus walked away (See John 6:66). Later, when Jesus was arrested, chaos broke out among the Twelve. All but one of them ran for cover. Peter even denied knowing the Lord. But through it all, Mary Magdalene stayed true.
One of the declared justifications for crucifying Jesus was that he was a blasphemer. No doubt part of the reason the men in Jesus’ company abandoned him was in order to avoid guilt by association. And yet, amid this risk, Mary Magdalene remains lovingly steadfast. Although this must have been an incredibly traumatic event, Mary didn’t run. She was one of the few disciples who supported Jesus with her presence—and by being there for His mother.
And after the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene didn’t leave with the crowd. She stayed and watched as the stone was rolled in front of the tomb. A few days later, it is Mary Magdalene who will be the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection. It will be Mary Magdalene who will be the first to preach the Gospel of Christ’s victory over death. But we’ll talk more about this when we revisit the witness of Mary Magdalene during Holy Week.
For now, let us recognize how Mary’s story is also our story. Thanks to Jesus, we have been delivered too – from the demons of our past and even the wrongful assumptions and labels others seek to place upon us. May we follow Jesus like Mary – acting out of love and loyalty that is expressed through supporting others – sharing out of whatever we have given for the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Consider & Discuss | Prior to this devotional, how have you pictured Mary Magdalene? Mary Magdalene has been a victim of mistaken identity and has had an undeserved reputation as a woman of ill repute for centuries. Is there anyone you are wrongly making assumptions about and unfairly labeling the way Mary was? In what ways can you identify with Mary Magdalene? What has Jesus delivered you from? How are you, like Mary, seeking to follow Jesus by both journeying with Christ – going to where he is working – and sharing out of the resources you have been given to support the ministry of the Kingdom of God?
Prayer Focus | Almighty God, thank You for delivering all of us through Your Son, Jesus Christ – just as You did our sister in the faith, Mary Magdalene. Only You, Precious Lord, can set us free from whatever holds us in bondage. Only You, Gracious Father, can fully restore us to healthy of mind, body, and spirit. Like Mary, we seek not only to be changed by Your Son, Christ, but to follow Jesus so that we may be continually transformed into the best version of ourselves – who we are in You. Through the grace and mercy of Your Spirit, continue to teach and empower us to, like Mary, reflect our gratitude and love for You through our willingness and generosity towards others. Protect us from our changing circumstances moving our faith in You. Grant that our growing and maturing faith in You would change how we engage the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Amen.
Come, Lord Jesus, come!