22. July 2012
Festival of St. Mary Magdalene
The appointed lectionary and calendar of festivals and commemorations of our Lutheran Service Book offered us a unique opportunity this weekend, that is, to celebrate the festival of St. Mary Magdalene. Why bother? First, St. Mary Magdalene is not well known. Increasingly, Christians lack basic Bible knowledge nor do they crack open the Scriptures during the week for prayer and meditation. Despite Mary being one of the chief female disciples of Jesus, she is relatively unknown.
Second, much of what passes for knowledge of St. Mary Magdalene is really idle speculation and often contrary to the faith. Consider The DaVinci Code continued the millennia old speculation Mary was somehow Jesus’ wife. Author Dan Brown drew on sources hundreds of years after the Apostolic era and drudged up this long disproved theory to make a buck. Of course, people are gullible and easily fall into error when they stop reading the Scriptures and have no answer for such fictional nonsense.
Knowledge of the story and characters of Scripture is essential because it is your story and they are your family. An article in the Smithsonian Magazine in 2005 sought to disprove that St. Mary Magdalene is the model for Christian devotion, defined as a life of confession and absolution. True! Yet, certainly, the understanding and tradition surrounding her is often sketchy. This ought not stop us from trying best to know her from the evidence of the Scriptures alone. Why?
Every disciple of Jesus is an embodiment of the Christian discipleship and thus your life with Him. Even in Judas, we see how our sinful nature clings to our bones and given a willing heart can overcome the gift of faith. To ignore or confuse St. Mary Magdalene, is to ignore and confuse a model example of faith. Any distortion of Jesus’ own disciples is a confusion of Jesus, just as author Dan Brown, his friends in the scholarly world, and the gnostics of old have done. They get Mary wrong and thus get Jesus wrong.
What do we know of St. Mary Magdalene? First, there are many named Mary in the Scriptures: Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, Mary, mother of James and Joseph, and Mary, wife of Clopas. Plus, there are three women identified as sexual sinners who come to Jesus. There are many other women who follow in the train of disciples of Jesus, whom Luke says were cured of evil spirits and ailments. (Luke 8:1-3) Here, the Evangelist lists Mary, called Magdalene, from who seven demons had gone out.
This comes immediately following our Gospel reading for today, of which, St. Augustine, Gregory the Great , and others agree is about St. Mary. But because the account of Magdalene’s exorcism is not recorded, nor is she given a name in our Gospel, many have come to assume that today’s Gospel is not an account of Magdalene washing Jesus’ feet with her tears but rather some generic woman sinner. Yet, we know that Jesus had already exorcised her seven demons. We also know from all four Evangelists that St. Mary Magdalene was at the cross with the other Marys for the crucifixion and also went to the tomb early on the first day. While the accounts are slightly different, all agree she saw the resurrected Lord. Thereafter, she went and told the disciples.
Even if our Gospel for today is not a literal account of St. Mary Magdalene, it does demonstrate precisely what a disciple of Christ is like, both male and female. It also shows exactly how Christ our Lord deals with us with His Word. We know St. Mary fits the mold of Luke chapter seven, as she is one of the few, all women, who persist to be with our Lord to the bloody end and even thereafter, caring for his body. This is the duty of Christians, especially those who serve in roles of mercy and service. They care for Christ’s own body, the church, with their tears, their crowning glory, their wealth, and their kisses of friendship.
One of the Pharisees asked [Jesus] to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment.
Mary is a virtuous example for every Christian of discipleship. This woman of Magdala followed after Jesus whom she knows is her savior. She shuns all social norms and taboos and serves her savior. This woman of ill repute does not belong at table with Jesus, nor in the house of the noble Pharisee. She
“Ah, what of that!” she says. “I am a sinner and I must meet my savior. My sins have brought me to the point of despair. I have violated God’s holy law and deserve punishment. I will go to Jesus with tears of sorrow and pleas for mercy. For surely, He will be gracious and forgive me, underserving as I am.”
And so she does, wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair wet with tears, and kissing them with affection, and anointed them at great cost. So it ought to be for the Christian. We come before Jesus humbly, acknowledging our sin, confessing we deserve death, but trusting in the promise of mercy, the forgiveness of sins, and thus serving his body with tenderness and compassion. This is self-sacrificial love, love as our savior Jesus has shown to us.
Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” Simon the Pharisee is far from the kingdom. Jesus did come to save the righteous, especially the self-righteous, but the sinner. He does not desire to see the sinner dead but that they repent and believe in Him. Such holier-than-thou attitudes are unbecoming of the Christian. Why?
The Pharisee wants all grace and no correction. He wants the benefits of God’s abiding presence in Jesus without either the knowledge or correction of the holy Law. He wants his preacher to turn his church into a social club of like-minded and righteous good people. He doesn’t want the adulterer, the idolater, the prostitute, the hypocrite, the gloomy and depressed, the alcoholic, the crack-head, or anyone not like him to come and sit at table with him.
He wants a church without acknowledgment of sin, without godly correction, and most especially without forgiveness of sins. He doesn’t want his church to turn him off by telling him he’s a miserable sinner. He doesn’t want anyone to disturb his perfect little dinner, especially anyone who makes him uncomfortable, be it woman, black, hispanic, child, or whatever.
And Jesus answering him, said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.”
While Magdalene has already been brought low by the holy law, this Pharisee has yet to acknowledge and confess his sin. He cannot possibly understand why St. Mary who give of her tears, her hair, and even expensive ointment to serve her savior. He cannot comprehend what has moved her with such great love for this man. Yet, Jesus, out of compassion, tells the man a story to help him know. The woman has had a great debt forgiven in Jesus. And even he likewise has had his debts, though fewer, forgiven. All are debtors. All need the lender to forgive.
The turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then those who were at table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
We do well to follow our savior and heed His every word. When He speaks a crushing Word of Law that humiliates, disgusts, or is shameful, we dare not hide this sin away like Pharisee. Nor should we act as if its nothing of consequence. Quite the opposite, we heed this sinful woman’s example and bring everything that burdens our conscience to the feet of our savior, even to the foot of the cross. We weep and mourn our sin, true, but our Jesus would never leave us in despair.
Jesus has granted his church the authority to bind and loose sins. (John 20) This does not mean we turn away the sinful woman from the door of this house, where a feast is celebrated and Jesus is the host, butler, and meal. Quite the contrary, we recognize her despair and grant unto her the forgiveness of sins just as Christ has forgiven us. She may come with “baggage,” whoring and six other unnamed demons. She might make us uncomfortable. So what? She who has been forgiven much loves much. She may be 100 denarii worth of sinner but listen to Jesus. You’re 50 denarii worth or worse.
For those who only want to feast with Jesus like this Pharisee but don’t want anything to do with sinners, they need to hear the holy Law. Those holy Ten Commands, good and right, are proclaimed, calling even the 50 denarii “righteous” sinner to repentance. All righteousness is obliterated first, and then all come to the feast with tears of sorrow and gifts of humility.
Luther says: “Neither of these can be neglected. The call to repentance and the rebuke are both necessary to bring people face to face with their sins and humble them. The proclamation of grace and forgiveness are necessary too, lest the people lose all hope. Therefore, the office of preaching must walk the middle way between presumption and despair, to preach so that the people become neither proud nor despairing.”
Therefore, it might be said that your story is the story of St. Mary Magdalene. But it is also the story of this Pharisee. The Christian, while he may not be an adulterer, murder, or thief, yet has sins that wage war against his soul (1 Peter 2:11), that is, against faith and a good conscience. Everyone according to the flesh remains a sinner in the eyes of God, hearts full of it, not delighting in God or His word, nor loving neighbor as himself. Its a sort of demon-possession, like St. Mary Magdalene, of which only Jesus can free us. Indeed, it sticks to us until the day we die and only then will be finally free of the horrible burden.
But as much as we are like the Pharisee, we are also like St. Mary Magdalene, who trusting in the promise of God fled to Jesus for refuge. While we know and feel the sinful nature, we do not let it rule over us or rage against the hope we have in Jesus. Nor do we let it drive us to despair nor drive us back to the Pharisaical pride, presumption, or arrogance against God. This is a life of struggle, waging each day in our prayers and meditation upon the Word and each week in the confession of sins and forgiveness of the Gospel.
Our hope is not in a righteous life. There is no one righteous, no not one. There is no hope for those who refuse to confess their sins, but on the contrary, defends them and refuses correction. Our hope is like St. Mary Magdalene’s: even while feeling our sins, we confess, submit to the discipline of the Word, and resists all our foes, confident in her sins are forgiven.
Thus, our Lord still ministers to us. He rebukes all sins and forgives them, and will do until the Last Day. We will never achieve in this life absolute purity and sinless perfection. We will be like St. Mary Magdalene, a sinner in need of forgiveness, and also the Pharisee, a sinner in need of rebuke, until the day we die. May God grant us His grace, that we may not fall into such error as to reject Him or His name, but rather let God be just and his words right, so that he may justify us.
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
(Adapted from Luther’s House Postils, volume 4.2 p. 365ff)