Mary Magdalene

Pastor Monte Stevens  ―  North Riverdale Lutheran Church
February 17, 2016  ―  The Gospel of Mary 5-6

Mary Magdalene

Tonight’s reading is taken from the non-canonical Gospel of Mary. That means it’s not in our New Testament Canon. Only Mark, Matthew, Luke and John are canonical. The Gospel of Mary is not well known, as it was only recently discovered. But it is the only gospel whose main figure is a woman. The figure of Mary is portrayed as a confidante of Jesus and a leader of the disciples after Jesus leaves them.

A reading from the Gospel of Mary:

Gospel of Mary 5-6

But they were pained. They wept greatly, saying, “How shall we go to the nations and proclaim the good news of the Child of Humanity? If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?”

Then Mary stood up.  She greeted them all, and said to her brothers and sisters, “Do not weep and be pained, nor doubt, for all his grace will be with you and shelter you. 

But rather let us praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us Humans.”  When Mary said this, she turned their hearts to the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the Savior.

Peter said to Mary, “Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of the women.  Tell us the words of the Savior that you remember, which you know and we do not, nor have we heard them.” 

Mary answered and said, “What is hidden from you I will tell you.”  And she began to say to them these words.

In this series, tonight, and for the next four Wednesdays, I want to share with you some inspirational disciples, because in the bleakness of winter I think we could all use a bit of inspiration. Since the time of Jesus there have been disciples, those who have chosen to follow Jesus with the living of their lives. You are one of those disciples. But every so often there is a disciple who lives so richly and so deeply, that just by knowing a few of the obstacles they overcame, or the dramatic witness they offered, we want to learn from them, and can be inspired by their life.

I hope that you will be inspired by the disciples who I share with you over these next weeks. Tonight we begin with the disciple we know, historically, the least about, but maybe threatened the developing early Church the most, Mary Magdalene.

There is only one reference to Mary Magdalene in the gospels before the resurrections accounts. It comes to us in the gospel of Luke the 8th chapter. I will read it to you.

“Soon afterwards Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.

 The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities:

Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”

That is the only passage about Mary Magdalene until we get to the resurrection accounts which we’ll get to in just a moment. But this passage teaches us a great deal. First, we learn that she was a grateful recipient of Jesus’ healing power and compassion, and from this point forward she was determined to assist him in his ministry with her financial resources. It seems that Mary, was a person of means, and could provide financial assistance.

In Luke’s gospel, and in his second volume, known to us as Acts, Luke reminds us that there were more than a handful of women of means, that assisted Jesus’ ministry financially – women like – Lydia and Phoebe.

Mary Magdalene historically has been cast as a woman of ill repute. We’ll get to that in a moment, but there is nothing in the gospels which says that. In the only pre-crucifixion story of the gospels she is not a woman of ill-repute, but rather a woman of means who uses her resources to support the ministry of Jesus.

The only other thing the gospel says about her is that seven demons were driven out of her by Jesus. Remember seven is a theologically symbolic number, just like there were seven days of creation. Seven stands for completion and totality.

I don’t know the precise struggle that Mary was dealing with but what Luke is saying is that Mary came to Jesus completely overwhelmed, and in and through Jesus; she found her despair replaced with a sense of wholeness and well-being.

Mary Magdalene is often portrayed as a prostitute, but there is nothing in the gospels that even comes close to saying that. Why, how, and where did she get this reputation? Well I think I can show it was men who gave her this reputation, and they did so, out of fear, and a desire to put her in her place.

But we’ll get to that in a moment.

The other place where we discover Mary Magdalene in the gospels is that she was the first witness to the resurrection in all four gospel accounts. It was a woman, not a man that was the first.  It was Mary Magdalene, not the male disciples.

Whatever happened on that first Easter morning, as much as the disciples might have wished the reality of Mary (and other women) being there could not be changed or retold in a different way. Women were the first to experience the resurrection and not the disciples.  Go Women!

There are four quite different accounts, and we won’t go into all the details except to say that they all agree Mary Magdalene, and her companions, stood by Jesus till the bitter end. Mary Magdalene was the first apostle, “one sent”, to share the good news to the skeptical disciples. Mary was sent by Jesus to go tell Peter, the most important of the disciples. Mary plays a big role. Mary, and those with her, have come to be living icons of Christian devotion and self-sacrifice. Mary became an apostle to the apostles.

So how did Mary go from her high regard in the gospels to being portrayed as a prostitute? How did Mary go from being a faithful follower of Jesus and first witness of the resurrection, and in later writings a strong leader, to being portrayed as a prostitute?

The “how” might be explained by conflating this story with the story of the woman which preceded this passage in Luke. The woman who anoints Jesus’ feet who is known as a “sinner”, which might mean she was a prostitute. Or Mary of Magdalene was conflated with the women in the gospel of John, the women at the well who had committed adultery. And it might be that there is so much unknown about Mary Magdalene, that some have filled in the blanks in a way that suits their agenda.

But I don’t think these “how” explanations, hold much water. It is the “why” we need to look at. The first-century Mediterranean world was not a place that valued women as we think of valuing women today, but Jesus was a contrast to that culture and did welcome women into his ministry, and value then as an asset. But to those men who believed women to be inferior to them, a woman with a highly visible role in the beginnings of Christianity could have been a great threat. But the gospels and the other non-canonical writings – which I will talk about in a moment – suggest that Mary did indeed hold a special place in relation to both Jesus personally, and to the beginnings of Christianity.

For some, this was unacceptable. She could not possibly be allowed to be seen as the equal of the male apostles, let alone, or worse, that she might be superior to the male apostles. So it might be that the historical defamation of character was indeed intentional.

It was Pope Gregory the Great who in 591 CE declared that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the anonymous prostitute were one and the same, and that reputation stuck with Mary Magdalene. It found its way into paintings and films, where she’s pictured with flowing red hair, traditionally a sign of a wanton women.

I think Mary did pose a great challenge and threat to the early church, and still poses a threat to parts of the church even today. The first challenge is that she is a woman and it’s simply her gender. In a male dominated culture, and an early church which followed the lead of a male dominated culture, with all male apostles, Mary was nothing less than an apostolic figure. She was the first witness to the resurrection.  Even Peter could not make that claim. She was there at the cross when Peter fled and denied even knowing Jesus. She was faithful when the men in Jesus’ life proved faithless.

It’s really amazing to me that she received as prominent a place in the gospels that she did. I think the oral tradition was so strong that they had to include her. But as the early church developed, women were moved to the sideline and the male dominate church, over the centuries diminished Mary and turned her from apostle to prostitute. But there must have remained a minority part of the church which held her in high apostolic regard, because we have numerous non-canonical examples of her being praised; her being a strong leader in the church, her being a person to whom Jesus revealed special messages and wisdom.

In, The Dialogue of the Savior, found in the Nag Hammadi collection,

Mary along with other male leaders is found asking many questions of Jesus and shows great wisdom in her responses to him.  In one place it says, “Mary spoke this utterance as a women who understands everything.” And at the end of this writing Jesus says, “Well, done, Mary, pure spiritual woman.”

In a writing known as the Pistis Sophia, literally Faith Wisdom, written early in the second century, in a question and answer section, Mary takes an active role asking four out of the five questions overshadowing the apostles. In this document she is described by Jesus as “one whose heart is set on heaven’s kingdom more than all your brothers.”

Mary also appears in the non-canonical Gospels of Thomas and Phillip.

In these late first century and early second century gospels Mary is there playing an active leading role.

In the gospel called the Gospel of Mary, written sometime between 80 and 180 CE, the gospel from which I read tonight, we see the strongest words and statements about a Mary who is a leader of leaders, and a person Jesus grants special wisdom to.

In this Gospel the male disciples are coming to her asking her to share what Jesus has taught and revealed to her and her alone. In this gospel, at its heart, is an enthusiasm for becoming a true human. In this gospel Jesus is the Savior because he teaches people how to welcome true humanity into them. Jesus taught Mary how to overcome the obstacles that keep us from our true self, our true humanity, and how to overcome these obstacles.

The good news is not escaping one’s human identity, but embracing it.  We don’t have time to go into all the teachings of this gospel ascribed to Mary, but Mary plays a major role and is seen and challenged by people like Peter in this role.

According to New Testament scholar Hal Taussig, in his Book, The New, New Testament:

“Mary is portrayed as one of Jesus’ closest associates.

She consoles the rest of the disciples as they fear they might be crucified as Jesus was.

Mary’s authority stems from both her closeness to Jesus and the fact that Jesus told her things that he told no one else.”

This gospel points to the fact of Mary’s authority, in the early developing church. There is a tension in this gospel about Peter calling into question her authority and I think this ancient challenge of women’s authority still resonates with women today.

Let me close by saying, that I bring Mary Magdalene before you to hold her up as an insightful and courageous leader, who was a close spiritual companion of Jesus. Because of that she has opened up new ways of thinking about women’s roles. This reality of Mary undermines conservative Christian’s claims that Jesus’ exclusively male disciples offer the only model for leadership.

If Jesus trusted women like he did Mary and called upon Mary to share the good news, then we too should validate women as Jesus did.

I could not be part of a religious tradition that did not hold women in the highest regard and value their gifts.

I wear it as a badger of honor that the ELCA now has its first woman in the most influential role in the ELCA, that of Presiding Bishop. We owe much of this to Mary and her courageous leadership. It’s time to put away the false narratives of Mary and remember her proper place of apostolic leadership.

We have come a long way in treating woman as equal, but the broader Christian religious tradition has a long way to go. May we continue to be taught by Mary of Magdalene, an apostle of Jesus, and a model of the Christian life.

If we are to live like Jesus then let us value women as Jesus did.