Mary Magdalene: A Woman For Today
Today is the festival day of St. Mary Magdalene. For hundreds of years, long before the Lutheran Church, the Church has paused on July 22 to remember her. We Lutherans have continued the tradition of marking the historic days of the saints. We say in the Augsburg Confession: "Our people teach that the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith." There are, however, only 2 women saints on our Church calendar: Mary, the Mother of our Lord, and Mary Magdalene. Perhaps in our day we need more. Maybe in years gone by women drowned their children willfully in bathtubs; maybe in years gone by women suffocated themselves and their children in garages; maybe in years gone by women threw their toddlers from cliffs, but I don't remember it. Today it seems women as never before are under siege, and I think saints like Mary Magdalene can help.
Talk about a woman under siege; that has to be Mary of the City of Magda. Scripture tells us that Jesus cast out 7 demons. 7 demons had this poor woman besieged. Think of what just one did to King Saul. One demon sent him into murderous rages where he tried to kill not only David but his own son Jonathon. Think of what Scripture says demons did to others. They threw people whom they afflicted into water and into fire, they convulsed their bodies and tormented their minds. And when Jesus sent the legion of demons out of one man what did they do? They entered into pigs and sent them rushing down the cliff to drown them. And what does Scripture say Judas did immediately after Satan entered into him? He went out and handed Jesus over to those who would murder Him.
You don't think of Mary Magdalene has a murderer, do you? No Mary Magdalene is the one in paintings whose eyes look slightly made up, whose hair is long and a bit disheveled, and who has one of her shoulders exposed. That's because it's popular to think of Mary Magdalene as a woman of ill repute, a prostitute, a loose woman. I must admit there is Church tradition to support this view. However, there are no Biblical facts. The only Biblical fact is that she had 7 demons. Let's think Biblically about what that means.
First we shouldn't wonder that Mary in her day or women in our day are particularly tormented, besieged by Satan. Right from the get-go in the Garden of Eden the Lord declared that he would put hatred between Satan and the woman. Satan hates women. Always has, always will. He attacks them. And what are the particular sins of Satan, what temptations is he a specialist at? Are they sexual? Well, he led Saul, Judas and Cain to murder. That should not surprise us. Jesus Himself says of Satan that he was "a murderer from the beginning." Murder, and also lying, are the particular inclinations of Satan.
Mary was besieged by 7 demons. I'm sure they led her into despair, worry, fear, hatred, and maybe murder. Scripture remains silent about her particular demons, and from ancient times this has thought to have been done so we all could put our particular demons there. Yes, who knows whether Mary of Magda did not methodically drown her children in the bathtub one at a time.
But that bothers you when I say that for 2 reasons. One because you think I might be trying to absolve the woman in Houston for her murderous sins by saying, "Maybe the devil made her do it." Well, Scripture says demonic influences were definitely involved in the cases of Cain and Judas, yet it does not absolve them. The second reason it bothers you is because it frightens the stuffing out of you to think that the demons could be that close by today.
Well it frightens the stuffing out of me that people act like devils are only here at Halloween. It bothers me that while Hollywood, horror writers, and rock bands believe that demons are real here and now many Christians don't. What we believe in is bad genes, brain chemicals being out of whack, and people being "sick" who commit sickening crimes. Rather than believe a personal, malevolent devil roams around the earth seeking people to devour, as 1 Peter 5 plainly says, Christians believe that chemicals in the brain or abuse at home are the real causes of people committing horrible crimes. So if we can just get some other chemicals into their body and some counseling into their brains, we can help them. Well I have news for you: The women in Houston had the pills and the counseling and she still drowned her kids!
If it's all in their genes, if it's all in their brain chemicals, if it's all in their sick heads, then we in the Church have nothing with which to help these people. Too bad, Jesus didn't have pills. Too bad Jesus didn't have counseling. Too bad Jesus didn't know about post-partum depression, obsessive compulsive syndrome, and low self-esteem. How much more consistent would Jesus be with our view of the world if we read of Mary, "for her Jesus provided medication," or, "for her Jesus provided counseling," rather than "from her Jesus cast out 7 demons."
What am I saying? That there are no brain chemicals out of whack, that there is no such thing is as mental illnesses? Am I saying there are no people who have rotten genes, or abusive upbringing that load them with baggage? But you know people who've got messed up brain chemicals, rotten genes and tons of baggage. You know people who are helped by their pills and counseling. And so do I. I would point out though that just because you can describe something psychology doesn't mean it isn't spiritual, and just because medicine helps a person doesn't mean there is no spiritual component. But neither would I say that all mental illness is the result of demons. I would admit that there are ways for the brain to be diseased that it would be wrong to call demonic. A person with epileptic seizures is not demon possessed.
But frankly, I'm not interested in disputing the claim that people have messed up genes or chemicals, or that they have baggage. I can concede this. What I wish to assert is that merely giving people pills and counseling for sinful thoughts, words or deeds only gives them symptomatic relief. It's like giving someone who is grieving mood elevators. Such pills don't, can't and won't deal with the loss. Only Jesus can get at the root cause of murder, lying, pedophilia, stealing, lusting, despair or grief. While medicine has a pill to treat every single one of these things, only Jesus gets at the root. Only Jesus forgives sins; only Jesus defeats the devil. While not everyone afflicted by depression, panic attacks, or mental illness is directly possessed by the devil. He or she is most certainly being afflicted by him, and only Christ Jesus can really deliver them.
And this is what He did for Mary Magdalene. Though 7 demonic beings had her in their grip, Jesus was the Stronger Man who came and rescued her. Though her sins might very well have been child-killing, Jesus came to her and forgave her sins. He sent both the demons and the sins away from this poor women. He could send the demons away because He is stronger than them. He could send the sins away from her because they were on Him. Yes, whatever Mary's sins might have been, whatever yours might be, they are not on you but on Christ Jesus. Though Satan will rage and insist that your sins are on you, (I think he particularly does this to women since Scripture speaks of women not men being "weighed down by sins."), he lies. They were all on Christ, the Lamb of God who took away the world's sins.
Christ freed a woman plagued by 7 demons. He can free any woman from sin, death and most certainly the devil. These are our real enemies. However, we've been led to believe that our real enemies are low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Friend, I don't deny that these exist. I don't deny that they can be horribly heavy crosses to bear. I can well imagine Mary suffering from one or all of these all her days. What I do deny is that they will matter a hill of beans come Judgment Day. Christ isn't going to say to any of you, "You can't enter heaven because your self-esteem is too low, or your depression and anxiety are too high." Furthermore, I'm not surprised that this fallen world which Scripture says has Satan as it's prince is characterized by bad feelings, depression, and anxiety. In fact, in such a demon oppressed world, why wouldn't such feelings be the norm among God's people? Don't our hymns call this a valley of tears? Don't we sing our reward here is "Many a sorrow, many a labor, many a tear?"
But you're still bothered. You know someone who is very troubled. Am I saying that he or she is demon possessed rather than psychology sick? I have known people like that too. Rather than speculate about all sorts of chemicals and genes that may or may not be there and may or may not cause this or that, I would rather think of them not as demon possessed but as demon oppressed as indeed Scripture says the whole world is. Why Satan is attacking them particularly I don't know. I do know he particularly attacked St. Paul, King David, Job and St. Peter. Should it surprise us then that he still today particularly attacks certain people? What we don't want to do is make the mistake Job's friends did and say that because someone is particularly attacked by Satan they must have done something particularly evil.
Well then because I see the devil's afflicting in psychological pain, do I think people should stop taking their medicines and only rely on Jesus? No, I don't. But I am troubled by ads on TV and articles in print that make it seem the answer to every bad feeling or troubled life is taking a pill. Of even greater concern is that the real problems of sin, death and the devil are being obscured as well as the only real solution, being connected to Jesus. When Jesus freed Mary, she followed Him from them on. She followed Him supporting His ministry. She went to the cross, to the burial and to the empty tomb. Mary only lived in connection with Jesus.
You can see this pointedly in the Gospel. As soon as she saw the risen Jesus, she latched on to Him with a vise grip. She lived from Jesus. She needed to be connected to Jesus. She needed His Word, His grace, His forgiveness, His help, but she wanted it the old way. She wanted Jesus walking with her, talking with her and telling her that she was His own. But Jesus had something better for her and for us. His mission on earth was ended. He had successfully paid for all sins, and rescued us from death and the devil. He was now returning to heaven to reign and rule over the cosmos as a Man on behalf of Christian women, children and men.
Regardless of what bad thoughts oppress you, I speak as one oppressed; regardless of what demons torment you, I speak as one who knows the torment too, know this; you can be connected to Jesus for life. Jesus leaves you what He left Mary of Magda. He leaves you Baptism by which you were once and for all rescued from Satan. He leaves you Absolution by which the sins the devil would torment you with are sent away. And Christ leaves you Communion, His Body and Blood which Satan must flee from. In these Mary lived out all her days and died safe in the arms of Jesus in Ephesus. In Word and Sacraments all woman, all men, all people, regardless of how bad, anxious, or depressed they may feel, can live and die safe from Satan even though he still prowls about like a roaring lion. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
St. Mary Magdalene (July 22, 01) Mark 16:9