The story of Mary Magdalene echoes in the heart of many women who have been labelled superficially without any attempt to understand them.
One of the most important aspects of modern life is the control of appearance. Leading public figures pay astronomical sums of money to be advised on how to project their chosen image. This projection may not actually reflect the truth - merely what someone wants others to think of them. Although image advisers play a very cynical game, we can hardly be surprised that public figures employ consultants, because if they don’t make some effort at controlling their image, the media will have a free hand at describing it to the public instead. And they rarely flatter in their work.
At a personal level, we all suffer from the same problem. People are often upset by the way other people form opinions of them which are entirely at odds with their own self-image. We like to think we are a certain kind of person, and that others can see us as we see ourselves. Instead, they see us in subtly different ways. This is because we judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions, meaning we are usually kinder on ourselves than we are on others.
I sometimes wonder if women are more prone to being stereotyped by others. Many women are casually and sometimes abusively labelled in the media with a gratuitous sexism that is never applied to men. We even reach back into history to do this, as the story of Mary Magdalene reveals. For this we can partly thank Dan Brown, who has made millions of pounds out of describing Mary as the lover of Jesus and mother of his children in his best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown was famously sued by one publishing house which claimed he pinched an idea they felt was their property, but this idea of Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus is old and jaded. If anyone should be suing for breach of intellectual copyright it is the Gospel writers who told a different story in the first place.
Mary has been variously presented as a prostitute; as the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears; as Jesus’ lover. None of these is supported by scripture, which was informed by the people who knew Jesus and Mary personally. The common thread here of course is her sexuality. And we look at her life through the prism of our sexually conscious world. Ancient Greek had four different words for love, but eros – that is, romantic or sexual love - is not mentioned in the New Testament. Instead, Jesus spoke of the way that friendships in the new community he was creating transcended other relationships.
A culture like ours, which is preoccupied with sex, tends to assume that any significant friendship between a man and a woman must either be founded on sex or be influenced by it subconsciously. As Billy Crystal said in his role in the film When Harry met Sally ‘men and women can’t be friends because the sex part gets in the way’. Yet this is not how the culture that Jesus and Mary lived in would have perceived it. Instead, Jesus and Mary Magdalene provide us with a model of how men and women in God’s community today can be intimate as friends without a sexual undercurrent. Our world would be relationally enriched if only we could follow their example a little more.
The idea of Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute, of course, has a delicious tabloid feel to it. The Gospels tell us instead that Mary was actually a disturbed woman from whom seven spirits were cast out. She wasn’t a prostitute - she was a deeply troubled woman in need of care and support. Frequently women are judged by outward appearance without any real attempt to understand their state of mind. Mary Magdalene’s internal struggles have been hopelessly misrepresented over time and in ways which generally do women a disservice.
We don’t know a lot from the Gospels about Mary Magdalene, but what we do know is significant for us. The same text in Luke 8 which tells us about Mary’s troubled mind also explains that she was one of a close circle of female friends of Jesus who supported him financially from their resources, the others being Joanna and Susanna. From this we can deduce that Mary was, in spite of her difficult background, a relatively wealthy woman. Jesus’ teaching on wealth is hard and takes no prisoners, but the example of the three female benefactors of Jesus shows that it is what we do with the wealth we have that counts. They were generous, saw their wealth as a gift from God, and gave back liberally to him by supporting the ministry of the man they were close to.
Most compellingly, Mary is a visible presence at the defining moments of Jesus’ life. After most of the male disciples of Jesus had fled at his arrest - once they realised he would offer no resistance - Mary Magdalene was one of the women who remained, willingly enduring the worst possible experience of all: watching someone you love be tortured to death in front of you. Woody Allen once said that 80 percent of success in life is just turning up. Mary understood the value of presence, and its meaning to a man who was dying but who still had eyes to see who was surrounding him – a counter-balance to those who hurled gratuitous insults. She was also the one who was first to the tomb after the Sabbath to dignify the body of Jesus in death, her love overflowing in grief. And as a consequence, she was gifted with perhaps the most important conversation in human history – a sparse and simple encounter between a man and a woman in the park in the early morning, one which changed the face of the earth for ever.
As the early followers of Jesus began to make sense of the cross and resurrection, to understand how this death was no random and senseless murder but a deliberate and meaningful sacrifice, they began to teach it to others. Gospels and letters were written and the theology of the Christian Church was formed. And it was largely written by men. They did the theorising, but Mary was first to do the practical. She was one of the few to see Jesus die and the first to see him rise from the dead. Her loyalty and love, her intuitive relational skills had led her to the right places at the right times. It is strange how Mary Magdalene has been falsely caricatured as a promiscuous woman who won the romantic heart of Jesus. Her story in reality is much richer and more compelling. She had a troubled and fearful mind, found redemption in relationship to God’s Son, used her wealth to resource his phenomenal ministry, stood by him to the end, and beyond the end, on resurrection day, began a new community in the risen Christ. In that sense, we owe her almost everything.
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