The Feast of St. Mary Magdalene (July 22, 2007)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In Holy Scripture, Hebrews 12:1 says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” In the Book of Concord, our Lutheran Confessions, Article XXI of the Augsburg Confession says, “Our churches teach that the history of saints may be set before us so that we may follow the example of their faith and good works, according to our calling.” (Concordia Reader’s Edition)
St. Mary Magdalene is among that great cloud of witnesses. In fact, she was the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus as you heard in today’s Gospel reading. This morning, we will learn about her and ask God that by his grace he would enable us to follow Mary’s example of faith and good works.
For the past several years, we’ve heard a lot about Mary Magdalene. It has been claimed in several books and television specials that she became the wife of Jesus. Also, the claim is made that she even fathered a child with him. Believe it or not, there are a few individuals today who claim to be descendants of Jesus of Nazareth. Of course, they have no way of proving this. It seems to me a bit of wishful thinking or self-aggrandizement.
Another item of false information about Mary Magdalene is that she was a prostitute. This comes from a long-standing tradition of associating her with the “sinful woman” in Luke chapter 7 who wept tears of repentance over Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. The work of artists over the years have depicted her as that woman and so the idea has been perpetuated that she was a “lady of the evening.”
Neither of these evaluations of Mary Magdalene is true. There is absolutely no evidence that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ wife, nor that she gave birth to a son with Jesus as father. Nor is there any reason to say that she is the sinful woman in Luke 7 and thereby suspect that she was a prostitute.
Here’s what we know about her from Holy Scripture. Her name informs us that she was from the town of Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Jesus had cast 7 demons out of her (Mk 16:9; Lk 8:2). She was among a group of women who had become followers of Jesus and provided for him out of their means (Lk 8:1-3). In addition, she must have been a leader among those women, because when this group of women is named, Mary Magdalene is usually listed first (Mt 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mk 15:40, 47; 16:1; Lk 8:2-3; 24:10). Also, she was among the small group who watched Jesus be crucified (Mt 27:55-56; Mk 15:40; Jn 19:25). She was among those who saw Jesus’ dead body laid in the tomb (Mt 27:61; Mk 15:47). She was the first to the tomb the next day and saw the stone rolled away (Mt 28:1; Mk 16:1-8). And she was the first to see the Risen Jesus and to report this to the disciples (Jn 20:1-2, 10-18).
With all the talk about Mary Magdalene being the alleged wife of Jesus, I have to wonder why the committee charged with producing the new lectionary—the series of readings we use in church—why they chose Proverbs 31 as the Old Testament reading for this particular saint’s day. The very first verse of today’s reading says, “An excellent wife who can find?” Today’s conspiracy theorists will probably have a field day with this juxtaposition. But I have a feeling that today’s reading was chosen for another reason. Mary Magdalene was not Jesus’ wife, but by faith in Christ she became a member of the Church, which is indeed the true Bride of Christ.
And that Bride is always slandered because of her association with Jesus.
She is holy because she is forgiven in Christ, but all kinds of foul things will be said of her. It will be said of the Church that she is responsible for violence, for keeping people in poverty and ignorance, for the degradation of women, or that it “poisons everything,” to quote the title of a recent book by a renown atheist (god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens). So it’s no surprise that members of the Bride of Christ will be slandered like Mary Magdalene...or like you. Remember, Jesus said, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you...all these things they will do to you on account of my name” (Jn 15:20-21). But Jesus also said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.” (Mt 5:11).
Mary Magdalene’s reward is great in heaven because she had been saved by Jesus. We don’t quite know the nature of her demon possession. All Scripture tells us is that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her. Seven is a number in the Bible that represents wholeness or completeness. So you might say that the devil had a complete hold on her. Every single aspect of her being was engulfed by Satan until Jesus delivered her.
Before you and I were baptized into Christ and came to faith in him, we, too, were part of Satan’s dominion. With our hearts full of original sin, we were unable to believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to him. But God delivered us from the devil’s darkness when the Holy Spirit called us by the Gospel, the light of faith was ignited in our hearts, and we renounced the devil and all his works and all his ways. Therefore, you and I and Mary Magdalene can sing the words of today’s Introit, “I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up [out of the depths]...O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol; you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.”
Saved by Jesus, Mary Magdalene became a steward of Jesus. She evidently became a leader among the women who followed Jesus, as mentioned earlier. Also, Scripture says that she ministered to Jesus and the disciples out of her means. She took whatever resources she had and offered them to the Lord for the support of his earthly ministry. She was like that woman of Proverbs 31, who “works with willing hands”...who “rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household”...who “opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy”...who “looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.”
Mary is an example to all of us, both men and women in Christ’s Church, to get involved and not be idle. We have been saved by Jesus, and therefore we are now stewards of Jesus. As a grateful response to God’s gracious deliverance, you and I can provide for the mission and ministry of the Church out of our means. Each one of us is called to “work with willing hands.” Each one of us can serve the Church, each other, and our neighbor with the gifts God has provided us.
Saved by Jesus, Mary Magdalene became a steward of Jesus. And the highlight of her story in the Scriptures is she was the first person to see the Risen Jesus.
But before that happened, John 19:25 says that Mary Magdalene was standing by the cross of Jesus. Mary Magdalene was among that little group of faithful followers who watched the soldiers drive the nails into Jesus hands and feet...who watched them lift the cross up and place it on Calvary...who saw the Lord of Life shed his blood and give his life for the life of the world.
That, too, is an example for us...to stand by the cross of Jesus...to remember what it cost our Savior for our forgiveness...and never to neglect the preaching of the cross, as St. Paul said, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Why? Again, listen to St. Paul: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). That’s why...because the word of the cross is a powerful, saving word. The Word of the cross is always to be the Church’s Word.
But the Word of the cross would also have no power if Jesus had not been raised from the dead. Once again, St. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is vain” (1 Cor 15:14). Mary Magdalene was highly honored to be the first to lay her eyes upon the risen Jesus. Her dismay turned to relief, her sorrow turned to joy, her fear turned to confidence. She became, as some have called her, “the apostle to the apostles” as she went and reported to them, “I have seen the Lord.”
You have been highly honored to have heard that Jesus died and rose again for you. Your dismay over your circumstances can turn to relief, knowing that Jesus has promised to be with you always, no matter what. Your sorrow over your sin can turn to joy, knowing that you are forgiven. Your fear about the future can turn to confidence, knowing that no matter what happens in this life, an eternal existence awaits you where there will be no more death or dismay or sickness or sorrow.
Mary Magdalene has been slandered because of Jesus. But she was saved by Jesus. She became a steward of Jesus. She stood by the cross of Jesus. She testified to the Risen Jesus.
Saved by Jesus, you and I can do the same. Amen.