Mary, Mary, Mary?
Mary Magdalene – what do we really know about Mary? Not much. In fact, we probably think we know more than we do. Mary Magdalene is mentioned only rarely in the gospels, in fact, mentioned only one time outside of accounts of Jesus’ death and resurrection. In one passage in Luke, there is mention of the fact that Mary Magdalene had been cured from possession by demons by Jesus, and that she was traveling with him along with some other women and the Twelve as he was teaching and preaching. Other than that, Mary Magdalene is only mentioned in the context of being at the scene of Jesus’ crucifixion, helping the women with burial rites, and then, of course, most significantly, at Jesus’ resurrection, as the first witness, the first teller of the news. She’s mentioned nowhere else, despite popular beliefs. She is not the woman caught in adultery. She is not labeled a sinner. She is not a prostitute. She is not the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. She is not the Mary who is sister to Martha and Lazarus, not the Mary who is praised for simply sitting at Jesus’ feet. All we know is that she was following Jesus, that she witnessed his crucifixion along with other women who were followers.
I’m not exactly sure how or why these several separate women in the scriptures become merged into one. It happened very early in church history, that these several stories began to be folded into one in the Christian narrative. We see evidence that Jesus was inclusive of women in his ministry – radically inclusive for his day – he had women who followed along with the rest of the disciples, he spoke to women in circumstances that were normally considered inappropriate, and he heals women along with men, commending them for their great faith. But after the church was born, when the disciples were leading and growing congregations, women’s roles in the movement began to be suppressed and minimized. By the 6th century, the Pope, Gregory the First, preached a sermon merging the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, and Mary Magdalene, together as one person. And it was not until 1969 that the Catholic Church officially stated that the sinful woman, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene were actually three separate women. That’s well over a thousand years of assuming Mary Magdalene to be not only a sinful woman, but more particularly, a prostitute, when the scriptures simply tell us no such thing. Centuries of paintings show Mary Magdalene with bright red hair, worn long, rather than covered as would have been appropriate. Films and musicals, like my own beloved Superstar, have portrayed Mary as a prostitute. Mary Magdalene has been seen as the example of a life redeemed, a forgiven woman who turned things around.
But then, in the last several years, the tide seemed to turn – people started to get interested in Mary Magdalene again. And if I had to point to what sparked the interest, I’d point to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code that was so popular a handful of years ago. The book suggested that through DaVinci’s artwork, you could discover the hidden secret – that Jesus really married Mary Magdalene and had a child with her, and that Mary was really the most devoted disciple, whose image had been smeared by those who were jealous of her and her power and bent on telling a certain version of Jesus’ story. Interest in Mary Magdalene exploded, even though Brown’s book was a work of fiction, and people started reading some of the Gnostic Gospels, writings that were not included in our scriptures, which also pictured Mary Magdalene as a prominent disciple, though never as Jesus’ wife.
So who is Mary Magdalene, really? Personally, though I’ve read and enjoyed both The DaVinci Code, and the Gnostic Gospels, I like to focus on what the biblical scriptures tell us, with what is really in the text before us, and understanding that, before adding other sources. So who are these Marys, exactly, and really, who end up so blurred together? Let’s look at what the scriptures actually say. First, Mary Magdalene. We see her at the tomb on Easter morning. But we’re not ready for Easter yet. The only other place Mary is mentioned is in the other text we read today: “Soon afterwards Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the
Then, there’s Mary of Bethany. We know she’s not Mary Magdalene primarily because Magdala and Bethany are two different places! Mary of Bethany is the sister of Lazarus and Martha. We see her in three significant scenes: We see her sitting and listening at Jesus’ feet while he was at her home, and while Martha prepared a meal. Martha was upset with Mary, but Jesus tells her she’s chosen the better part by listening to him. We see Mary upset with Jesus when Lazarus dies because Jesus did not arrive quickly enough to heal him. This time it is Martha who shines in her understanding of resurrection, and Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. And finally, we see Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with costly perfume, and Judas, or in other gospels, all the disciples, being upset over her wastefulness. But Jesus commends her for her act of extravagant love.
And finally, the other woman who is often confused with these two Marys is the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ feet at the home of Simon the Pharisee. She and Mary of Bethany both anoint Jesus’ feet, and so the two have often been mistaken for one another, but anointing of feet was not a particularly unusual act. It probably happened to Jesus many times that aren’t even recorded. And thinking of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute also probably comes from this passage about an unnamed woman. This unnamed woman is never called a prostitute, just a sinner, but wearing her hair down, and the way Simon speaks of her being known as a sinner suggest that she may have been a prostitute. But there’s no conclusive proof. So this sinful woman anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment and her own tears. Simon is critical of Jesus for letting such a woman perform this act of devotion, but Jesus, with a parable, says that her sins are forgiven, and because her sins are so completely forgiven, the woman reacts with deeply loving behavior.
These are the three woman who have been rolled into one, but their stories are really quite unique. And there are even other Marys in the Bible – a few actually – but just mentioned by their very common name. So with their identities untangled, we then have to ask what we learn for ourselves. I think restoring Mary Magdalene’s reputation is a worthy endeavor on its own – she deserves to be remembered for what the gospels tell us she was – a follower of Jesus and the first witness of the resurrection. But what do we learn from her? As I’ve said, we’re looking, this Lent, at who we say Jesus is, and what that says about us. So who does Mary Magdalene say that he is? And who does Mary of Bethany say that he is? And who, even, does the sinful woman who anointed his feet say that he is? For each, in different ways, Jesus was quite literally their savior. Mary Magdalene is healed from something described as demon-possession. Seven demons, actually. Whatever this meant, it would have made her ritually unclean and shunned from society. Jesus saves her. Jesus forgives the sins of the unnamed woman, and takes a burden of guilt from her, and she responds with such love, such relief, such thankfulness. Mary of Bethany has her brother returned to life, and finds Jesus’ affirming her choices of discipleship in more than one situation. Jesus has saved these women. Who do they say he is? Their savior. And because they see him this way, their lives change dramatically. Where the song from Superstar I sang today resonates with me most deeply is where Mary sings: “I’ve been changed, yes, really changed. In these past few days, when I see myself, I seem like someone else.” Their lives after meeting Jesus are almost unrecognizable from the lives they led before they met, knew, and followed him.
Last week, we talked about Pontius Pilate, and his apathy. He recognized Jesus as someone important, but it didn’t matter to him more than his own power and status. Who Pilate was was more important to him than who Jesus was. He isn’t changed by who Jesus is. When we look at Mary Magdalene, and these other women, the questions are the same, and Mary, like Pilate, recognizes Jesus. But the difference, the critical difference, is in the response. Who Jesus is changes Mary Magdalene, and the others, because who Jesus is changes how they see themselves. Mary of Bethany is singled out by Jesus more than once for her sincere discipleship, and we hear more about her than most of the twelve, which tells us how significant she was. The ‘sinful’ woman has her sins forgiven and shows Jesus an act of love, ignoring the insults of a prominent Pharisee. Mary Magdalene packs up and literally follows Jesus, even supporting Jesus and the twelve financially, which would enable them to preach and teach without worrying about their resources. They know who Jesus is to them, and because of it, their lives have changed.
The question is still the same for us this week: Who do you say that Jesus is? How does who he is to you change you? Does knowing Jesus change you? Are you changeable? We’re well into our Lenten journey now, a time of preparation for Easter. And I’ve come, this Lent, to think that Lent is a time to prepare ourselves to be more changeable on Easter morning. On Easter morning, we’ll see Mary Magdalene in her most significant role yet – the very first witness to the resurrection. And on Easter morning, we’ll have to ask ourselves once and for all who Jesus is, and how it changes us.
This week, I keep returning to a question posed by Lovett Weems, a church leadership guru, at one of our past District Days. He asked us, “if your church disappeared today, who, besides its members, would miss it? Who would notice it was gone?” He wasn’t talking about who would miss the physical structure, of course, but was asking what noticeable impact that church had on the community that would be missed. Who would miss this church, besides us, if it was gone, because of the difference we make? How would your discipleship be missed if you weren’t around? In other words, what changes are visible in our lives and in the life of the community because of who we say Jesus is and what that means we are called to do? Are you changeable? Are we changeable?
Jesus saved them. And it changed their lives. Amen.