We Don't Know How to Take Her
Ever since the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar everyone knows Mary Magdalene didn't know how to love Jesus. Though there is not a word about this in Scripture, never mind, it makes a good story. The truth makes a better one, and truth be told, we don't know how to take Mary.
There is something about this Mary. That's a play on the title of a 1998 movie Something About Mary. There are many Mary's in the Bible. Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary, the mother of James and John. Mary, the wife of Clopas. Mary, the mother of Mark. Mary, the sister of Maratha and Lazarus. Mary, the friend of Paul, and this Mary. In church history she has sometimes been regarded as the unnamed woman of Luke 7 who anointed Jesus' feet as well as the Mary mentioned in John 12 who also anoints Jesus' feet. Other times, she has been thought to be different from those two. Still others said there wasn't enough information to know (Saints, 237).
Two things Scripture does tell us about this Mary make her stand out. Luke 8 tells us that from her went out 7 demons, and Mark 16 makes it clear that Jesus cast those demons out. In terms of number, 7 is not a lot. The Gadarene Demoniac was possessed by a legion of them. A Roman legion was 5,000 men. We know that Jesus cast out at least 2,000 because that many went into pigs. Scripture says the Gadarene Demoniac had super human strength, lived among the tombs, and was extremely violent. Scripture doesn't tell us anything about Mary's demons. I think they were like the ones we have: demons of despair, guilt, fear, worry, melancholy, unbelief, and misbelief. But Mary Magdalene's demons are usually thought to be mainly sensual. She has been and still is frequently considered a repentant prostitute. Scripture doesn't even hint at that. It just says she had 7 demons that Jesus cast out. Prurient imagination does the rest.
Other than being rescued by Jesus from 7 demons, Scripture says our Mary was willing to go all out for even a dead Jesus. When she believes the gardener has taken away Jesus' body, she says, "Tell me where you have put him, and I will carry him off." She doesn't say we' but I'. I don't know how much Mary weighed and I don't know how much Jesus weighed. Even so, she says she is able and willing to carry anywhere from 150 175 pounds of dead weight.
There is something about this Mary, but there's more in Mary's story about Jesus than her. And if it's about Jesus it's got to be for us. Mary's story tells us that demons are no match for Him. 1 John 3 says the reason Jesus appeared was to destroy the works of the devil, and we all have devils. We speak of being bedeviled by this or that. I had a seminary professor who used the expression "the devil is twisting your tail." Jesus came to destroy devils. And Colossians 2 tells us that Jesus disarmed the devils and made a public spectacle of them triumphing over them by the cross. Whatever devils be twisting your tail, whenever you are bedeviled, remember Hebrews 2 says that Jesus took on our flesh and blood so that in them He might break the power of the devil who held us in slavery by the fear of death. The Devil only had a claim on us through Death because of our sins. Sins can only convict us by the Law. Jesus in our flesh and blood kept all laws in our place and paid the price for our breaking them. Without laws to convict us of sin, devils have no claim on us.
What Scripture does tell us about Mary tells us more about Jesus. Her story shows us even when we don't recognize Jesus in the way He appears in our life, He still knows us by name and is there to help. Mary in tears can see Jesus only as a gardener and possibly a thief. In our tears, fears, doubts, and despairs we too might not see anything in our Baptism but simple water only, anything in our Absolution but the words of a man, anything in Communion but bread and wine. But Jesus promises He is in all 3 to apply the forgiveness, life, and salvation He paid for on Good Friday to your life today. Him in the Water makes Baptism a life-giving Water rich in grace. Him in the Word makes Absolution God's voice from the lips of a man. Him in Communion make Bread His Body and Wine His Blood.
Our Mary is noted for being one of the 3 Mary's standing by the cross of Jesus, but what happens on the cross to Jesus is what really ended up mattering to our Mary and us. What happened to Jesus there should happen to us here. The name Mary, which is Miriam in the Old Testament, means "their rebellion." And theirs is ours and ours was hers. You know how mad we get when even a 2-year-old stamps his foot and dares to tell us, "No!" Well, our rebellion against God is one loud, "No!" We dare say to God, "No I don't want this; I won't do that; and You had better do this." That's punishable; that's worthy of a torturous death; a guilty dying; a damnable end. And all that happened on the cross to Jesus in your place. And by raising Jesus from the dead the Father showed He accepted the payment, and now I can say to you, "Go in peace; you are free." You're free. No torturous death to pay for your sins awaits you. No guilty death is ahead for you. No damned sinner's death for you. Jesus swallowed it for you.
Still don't know how to take Mary? Think Pathfinder. Pathfinders in the Army are exactly what their name says. Their official motto is "First in, Last Out." And that fits this Mary to a tee. An 1810 poem says, "She, when Apostles fled, could dangers brave,/ Last at the Cross, and Earliest at the grave" (Eaton Barret, Woman). This Mary is the answer for all of you yearning for what contemporary churches claim to provide: relevancy, practical "Bible" classes, how to sermons. We say in our Augsburg Confession, "It's also taught among us that the saints should be kept in remembrance so that our faith may be strengthened when we see what grace they received and how they were sustained by faith. Moreover, their good works are to be an example for us, each of us in his own calling" (XXI, 1).
When 11/12 apostles won't go, much less stay at the cross, this saintly Mary stays. When everything looks lost, at least 3 women and only one man stood firm to the bitter end. And only the women are mentioned as going to the funeral conducted by two men, and only women go to the tomb on Easter morning to properly bury Jesus. The men don't like that sort of thing you know.
It's true; the women, along with the men, all fall away from the faith that Jesus is Lord, Savior, and Redeemer. They all thought that Good Friday was the end. Our Mary didn't go to the tomb looking for a risen Jesus but to properly bury a dead Jesus. But had she not gone who would have told the men that Jesus had risen? But the men didn't believe the women and Jesus had to go and get them personally in the upper room where the men were locked for fear of the Jews even after seeing the empty tomb.
Take this Mary's example rather than the men's. She won't go from the empty tomb till she knows what happened to the body. And all it takes is one word from Jesus to call her back to the faith. She isn't looking when Jesus says, "Miriam" the endearing form of her name, and she replies, "Rabboni" which does mean teacher but was only addressed to the Lord, Yahweh in prayer. Contrast this to Thomas who won't believe the words of 10 apostles that Jesus had risen, who says that unless he not only sees the nail marks but puts his finger in them and even his hand in the spear wound, "He will never, ever believe."
Be Mary's; Hear Jesus' voice speak your name in Baptism. Hear Jesus' voice saying, "I forgive you." It's the voice of Jesus who says to you, "Take eat; take drink. This is My Body. This is My Blood given and shed for the remission of every sin you can think of, all of them you can't remember, and especially the ones you can't forget." Be Mary's and recognize the Lord's voice to you in all the ways He has promised He would speak to you today: in those Waters, by these lips, and by that Bread that is His Body and that Wine that is His Blood.
The problem is that our Mary is used as an example of a redeemed harlot or a rescued social derelict. She was neither. She is an example of a saved, single Christian woman. Scripture doesn't say she was married, but one Mary is called the wife of Clopas and another a mother of children. And in the list of Luke 8 where the women are mentioned who travelled with Jesus and supported Him out of their own pocketbooks, one of them is also specifically said to be married. So, I think this formerly bedeviled woman was single, and she single-mindedly supported Jesus. She had gazelle-like intensity on Jesus' ministry, on Jesus on the cross, Jesus being buried, Jesus not being in the empty tomb, and was rewarded by being the first to be brought to faith in the risen Jesus. Last at the cross and first at the empty one. "Jesus, Jesus only Jesus" was her cry and Jesus rewards her by bringing her to faith and sending her on a mission.
She is sent to the disciples, the ones who don't go to places of suffering or death but cower in fear, to tell them that God still claims them as a Father and Jesus still claims them as brothers. And she does. But they won't follow her down the path she's leading to a risen Jesus. Luke 24 says that to them her words were nonsense. The words of Jesus were nonsense to the men, but not to our Mary.
Historically the emblem of this Mary is an ointment jar. This comes from misidentifying her as the sinful woman in Luke 7 and the sister of Martha who also anointed Jesus. A compass indicates a more fitting way to take this Mary. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Mary Magdalene (20180722); John 20: 1-18