How many of you have been told that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute? Either in church…or maybe you watched Jesus Christ Superstar? Not true.
How many of you have watched “The Last Temptation of Christ” or read or saw “The Da Vinci Code” where Mary Magdalene was portrayed as Jesus’ wife? Not true.
Mary Magdalene has gotten a lot of press…people are fascinated by her. After all, she is mentioned more than any other disciple in Scripture except Peter, James and John. She is mentioned as one of the women who travelled with Jesus during his ministry — who had been cured by him and who provided financially for his ministry. She is also mentioned as one of the women who were there at his crucifixion and who were the first to find the empty tomb. In John’s gospel, Mary is the first to see Jesus resurrected, and the one who tells the disciples “I have seen the Lord.” Mary Magdalene was part of Jesus’ inner circle. She was obviously influential.
Some of you may have heard of the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene”. The first manuscripts were found in 1896…but they date back as far as our other gospel manuscripts from the 2nd century. The existence of these manuscripts means that early on, Mary was widely known in the church communities. However, in Mary’s gospel, the author writes how the disciples knew she was close to Jesus, but questioned that a woman could understand his message as well as they did. So it also hows that even then, then male leaders in the church were uncomfortable with women in positions of leadership and were trying to dismiss her. In 591, Pope Gregory tried to get rid of her influence and authority for good. He did it by claiming that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. He taught that Mary Magdalene and the “sinful” woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and the woman caught in adultery were all one and the same. And moreover, he claimed that the seven demons cast out of Mary Magdalene were the 7 deadly sins. So Mary was not only sexually promiscuous but completely sinful…full of pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. Basically, this reinforced Gregory’s belief that women and their sexuality were the source of all the sin in the world. So basically from that time on, Mary Magdalene lost any authority as an apostle and witness to the resurrection…and instead became emblematic only of Jesus’ willingness to forgive and redeem the utterly irredeemable and the gratitude of a repentant sinner.
Now, of course, that is true. Jesus was and is willing to forgive the unforgivable…he forgave the men who nailed him to the cross, after all. However, there is absolutely nothing in Sciripture’s witness that justifies any of Gregory’s claims about Mary Magdalene. Because the truth is — Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. And in fact, in 1969, the church finally admitted that publicly….sadly Andrew Lloyd Weber didn’t get the memo, and in Jesus Christ Superstar, she gets immortalized again as the woman who has “had so many other men before in so many different ways.”
No, Mary Magdalene wasn’t a prostitute…and she wasn’t even described as a sinner or recipient of Jesus’ forgiveness…but rather, she is the recipient of his healing. In Jesus’ ministry, casting out demons didn’t have to do with sin, but with illness. When Jesus and his disciples cast out demons, the symptoms usually had more to do with seizures or blindness or depression and other mental illnesses. Demons were what captivated people’s bodies and minds and kept them from living freely…like some toxic beliefs. Casting out demons wasn’t about forgiveness…but was part of Jesus’ ministry of letting the oppressed go free. Mary Magdalene was cured…Jesus had freed her. And along with other women who Jesus had cured , she took care of Jesus. They provided the money for Jesus’ ministry. I kind of love the fact that the husband of one of those women, Susanna, was part of Herod’s own court. Through her, Herod was indirectly supporting Jesus. There is lovely irony there. But the point is, these women put their money where their faith was.
It was Billy Graham who said “ Give me five minutes with a person’s checkbook, and I will tell you where their heart is.” There’s deep truth to that. Admittedly, today, you probably have to look at our credit card statements or bank statements….but you get the idea. Jesus knows that where our treasure is…that’s where our heart is. It’s a good self reflection process for all of us. Where is our heart? What gives our life meaning. What do we treasure?
These women treasured Jesus. They treasured the difference he made in their lives. They treasured the freedom he gave them, the love he showed, the life he offered. And they gave what they had to provide for him…to make sure his message and his grace continued to reach others.
The best witness is always someone whose life has been changed. Who has known healing. Transformation. They will talk your ear off about what made all the difference. Whatever it is — life coaching, education programs, health regimes…I’m sure most of you have had a friend on some bandwagon or another. Whatever it is that helped them, they want to share the good news…so you can benefit as well. Jesus’ love made all the difference to these women and they believe with all their hearts and they want to share the good news with whoever will listen.
These women love Jesus…they are grateful…they are transformed….and they are faithful. They stay with Jesus…and remain with him to the very end. They are there when Jesus is crucified, bearing witness….refusing to leave his side in the midst of his suffering. And they are there, after his death, to care for his body, to tend to it lovingly and show him honor in his burial. And because they are there…because they are present…they are the first to bear witness also to the living Jesus, resurrected from the dead. In the act of serving…in the act coming to tenderly care for the body of their loved one…the resurrected Jesus is first revealed.
You know, Jesus said, so often…that the least shall be first. He said that he came not to be served, but to serve, and that the greatest among us would be a servant. Jesus knelt and washed his disciples feet, and asked them to do likewise for one another. How extraordinarily odd is it that the church went forward and tried to dismiss women from Jesus’ story. Because it was women, in their humble acts of service, who embodied Jesus’ mandate most clearly.
We get stuck, so often, wanting to be big shots. As humans, it is our greatest weakness. Funny, isn’t it? That our greatest weakness is wanting to be great. You might rememberJames and John, Jesus’ disciples, arguing over who was the greatest? That’s how the church …how people of faith…so often lose their way, trying to be great. Trying to be impressive…trying to be the best and rule over others. Waging crusades and creating hierarchies…tearing others down to prove how “right” we are.
Yet….that’s exactly the opposite of what Jesus modeled. Jesus modeled foot washing. Humility. Service. Compassion. That’s where we find Jesus. The women — Mary Magdalene and Susanna and others — are the ones who get it. God is not found in the halls of power — in impressive resumes and great accomplishments. God is found in the day to day acts of love and faithfulness. We discover the holy…we discover the resurrected Jesus…when we wash dead bodies. Or dirty feet. When we look to the needs of others, instead of ourselves. When we lift others up, instead of ourselves. The ones who understand Jesus…who see him clearly…are the ones who serve. The ones who love.
Mary Magdalene was indeed a close companion of Jesus. She did “get it” when the disciples did not. But despite Davinci’s code…there’s no evidence she is Jesus’ wife. Yet she is the first one to see the risen Jesus, the first name he speaks. And the first person to be the church in the world..the first voice to proclaim the church’s message — Christ is Risen! I have seen him. Life wins. Love wins. We are not defeated…but empowered to serve, trusting in God.
Yes, Mary loves Jesus…and he loves her. But that love is not exclusive. No, it is the love we are all invited to share…the life we are invited to share. A life of intimate connection with Jesus. Where we see him in our everyday ordinary acts of kindness and service.
May we, like Mary, transformed by Jesus’ love, bear witness to the risen Jesus in the world by following his example. May we wash feet. Or wash dishes. Or whatever it takes to tenderly care for Jesus’ body in the world…for our neighbors. Amen.