Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Mary of Magdala

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was John 20:1-18:

As many of you know, it is said that the best-selling book of all time is the Bible.  The 13th best-selling book in any language is the Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, which is also the tenth best-selling book in English.  So, it is perhaps not surprising that when I began asking people what women in the Bible I should preach on, nearly without exception, the first name that came up was Mary Magdalene.  Although people have had a fascination with Mary Magdalene for a long time, and within recent memory, she has played a significant role in Jesus Christ Superstar and in the novel and movie The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson’s The Passion it is The Da Vinci Code which has driven resurgence in interest and thinking about Mary.  But most of this has been more speculation and fiction, than reality.

Now I don’t have a very high opinion of Dan Brown.  I think he is a great suspense writer, and I have, in fact, read most of his books, but the problem is he includes facts that could be disproved with just two minutes on Wikipedia or ten minutes in the library, and then passes those off facts as the absolute truth, and this is especially true in The Da Vinci Code.  So for example, he says that the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1950s and contained the earliest Christian writings, when in fact they were found in 1947 and do not contain any Christian writings at all.  But the claims he makes about Mary, and what we can claim about her are even worse, and I strongly suspect have influenced what many of you think about Mary Magdalene.  And so to begin we are going to spend some time deconstructing some beliefs of Mary, looking at what we know about her from the Bible, and then because Dan Brown focuses a lot of his material on non-canonical texts, that is books that were not included in the Bible, we will look briefly at those as well, and then we will discuss what she means for us and why she is important.

Mary Magdalene is mentioned thirteen times in the four gospels.  She does not appear in Acts, which talks about the early church, or in the writings of Paul, which are the earliest writings we have, or in any of the other books in the New Testament.  She is often seen in more stories in the gospels than where she actually appears because the name Mary is so common.  In fact, of the sixteen women named in the gospels, six of them are named Mary and this is not just an anomaly, as nearly one in four of the women that we know of from first century Palestine were named Mary.  We know her as Mary Magdalene because she is apparently from the town of Magdala, which was a large fishing village on the Sea of Galilee, around where Jesus spent most of his ministry.  The Greek name for the city meant “salted fish” so they were known not just for fishing but for preparing that food for export throughout the empire.  Josephus also tells us in his writings that Magdala had a hippodrome, which was used for chariot races, think Ben Hur, so it was a city of substantial size.

The first and only mention that we have of her before the crucifixion and resurrection is found in Luke, where Luke says that Jesus was traveling with the disciples “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.” (8:2-3)

This is a very interesting passage, especially as it relates to Mary.  What this tells us is that Jesus and his disciples, who were itinerant preachers and had left their occupations behind, were being supported financially by these women.  Since the vast majority of people at the time made just barely enough money to survive, the fact that these women were supporting these thirteen others indicates that they had some level of financial means.  The fact that the wife of Herod’s steward is listed amongst these women gives further proof of this.  It also tells us that they had control over their money, and could spend it how they wanted, which was not the usual.  In addition, since women were responsible for making sure the household was taken care of, one of the few ways that a woman would be able to follow Jesus around would be if she had someone else, probably slaves, at home to take care of the household while she is away.  This money could have come from her family, and under Roman law, contrary to common belief, women were able to inherit, or she may have had an occupation that allowed her to make a good income, like Lydia who supports Paul who we are told sells purple linen, or its possible Mary was married to someone who had wealth.

One of the reasons that Mary Magdalene is often thought of as a prostitute also comes from this passage from Luke.  It’s not often that we can say exactly when an idea began, but in this case we can.  On September 14, 591, Pope Gregory delivered a sermon in which he claimed that the seven demons that were cast out of Mary represented the seven deadly sins, and that she was also the sinful woman who Luke says had anointed Jesus with oil, which is the passage just before she is mentioned, and thus was a prostitute.  There are several problems with this attribution.  The first is that a woman being identified as “sinful” does not mean that she was a prostitute, instead it simply means that she did not keep Jewish laws.  Someone who did not obey the Sabbath was a sinner.  Second, nowhere in scripture is prostitution attributed to demon possession, nor does demon possession mean that she as foaming at the mouth.  Everything from a headache to blindness was attributed to demon possession.  John the Baptist was accused of being possessed because he didn’t drink wine and fasted often.  So the fact that she was said to have demons does not really tell us anything, and the idea that they represent the 7 deadly sins is simply not there.  Third, Mary Magdalene is not the sinful woman who anoints Jesus with the oil.  This is someone else, and in the context of each gospel it is clear that this is the case.

We also know that Mary is not the woman who is caught in adultery in which Jesus gives the famous phrase, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Again, although a prevalent trope, and it appears in both The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, it is not scriptural.  Finally, as a counterpoint to this view of Mary, the Eastern Orthodox Church has never viewed Mary Magdalene as a sinful woman who then becomes repentant and a follower of Christ.  Instead, they say that Mary was always so virtuous that the reason the devil sent her seven demons was in order to try and get her to do something bad.

But, what all four gospels do attest is that Mary traveled to Jerusalem for the Passover and that she was present at both the crucifixion and at the resurrection.  But before we get to that, let’s clear up what is probably the most shocking claim, at least to some, that Dan Brown makes in The Da Vinci Code and that is that Mary was married to Jesus and had his child.  He makes this claim based on the fact that he says that the non-canonical gospels, again those are books that are not found in the Bible, claim that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.  The problem is not a single gospel or other document either canonical or non-canonical makes such a claim.  In fact no document makes this claim until the 13th century, nearly 1200 years after Jesus.  But, some of the non-canonical gospels do indeed address Mary, and there are two that Brown highlights.

The first is the Gospel of Mary, which purports to tell a secret message Jesus gave to Mary.  It should be noted that this document does not in fact claim to be written by Mary, but is instead about Mary, although it never actually identifies this Mary as Mary Magdalene.  Brown says that in it Jesus tells Mary about how the church is to function after Jesus dies and is resurrected, and that is the reason why the church ignored it or tried to suppress it was because it says that Mary was to be the head of the church.  Again, a little bit of research would have shown that this gospel says nothing of the kind.  First it takes place not while Jesus is alive, but instead after the resurrection.  Second it has nothing to do with the church, but instead it is a treatise on the afterlife and what is to come.  The Gospel of Mary is an extremely important text for understanding Christian Gnosticism, which I don’t have time to describe here except to say that it was deemed to be a heresy, and it is the only gospel from antiquity attributed to a woman, but it says nothing about the church or about Jesus and Mary being married.

The other non-canonical gospel that Brown highlights is the Gospel of Philip, which does indeed say, as Brown claims, that Mary was Jesus’ companion.  But then Brown says, through one of his characters, that “as any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion, in those days, literally meant spouse.”  The problem is that the Gospel of Philip is not written in Aramaic, but instead is written in Coptic, which is an ancient Egyptian language.  And the word used here for companion is not even Coptic or Aramaic, but instead is borrowed from Greek where it is used to talk about a family member or friend.

In addition, it is claimed that the text says that Jesus and Mary would often kiss.  But because the manuscript has deteriorated and there are gaps in the text, it isn’t even really clear what it says.  How it reads is “[blank] kiss her [gap in the manuscript] on her [gap in the manuscript].”  Who is kissing her is missing, although from the context we can guess it is Jesus, so we know that he is kissing her somewhere, but were not sure where.  For us this might mean that they had a very special relationship, after all they were kissing, but that is not what it means here.  Because if it does mean that, they we need to totally rethink things, because the Gospel of Philip also says that Jesus kissed James.  But what they are talking about is the kiss of peace,  which we know it was practiced in early churches, because at the end of 2nd Corinthians Paul says “greet one another with a holy kiss.”  When we greet one another at the beginning of worship we do it with a handshake, because we think you might be a little freaked out if we asked you to kiss one another, but that is how you would greet each other in the early church, and of course there are still cultures where this is the case.

Now even after all of this some of you might still want to say, isn’t it possible that Jesus was married to Mary?  Sure it’s possible, but if you want to talk about possibilities, we could say that Jesus played a mean game of stickball, or we could even say it’s more likely Marry is married to Peter?  Why?  Because Peter is the only disciple that we know for sure is married, because Jesus heals his mother-in-law, and in many of the writings Peter and Mary are arguing.  Sounds like a married couple to me.  The problem with talking about possibilities is that all of these are arguments from silence, and those are arguments that are simply impossible to make.  The simple fact is, if Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, I would expect the scriptures to say that, but they don’t, and absolutely no other writings give us this information.  In addition, when Mary encounters Jesus after the resurrection, in the only words we have recorded from her to Jesus, which we heard this morning, she does not call him honey, or darling or husband, as we might expect if they were married, instead she calls him rabbi, or teacher.  And to dismiss one more argument, Dan Brown says that it would have been very unusual, and against Jewish custom, for Jesus not to be married.  While it might have been unusual it would not have been unique, as we have lots of witnesses to non-married Jewish men, Paul being one of them, John the Baptist being another, as well as members of the Essene community, who were the one who preserved the Dead Sea scrolls.

Now let me just say, for the conspiracy theorists amongst us, I am not trying to defend the church or how it has treated Mary Magdalene, or women in general, because it’s generally been horrible as we have seen through this series.  Now in seminary I did have to take a secret class in which I was brought in on all of the different conspiracies I was going to be a part of as a leader of the church, but there was no conspiracy about Mary.  I could tell you the others, but then I would have to kill you all.  But I don’t think that the way to increase her importance, or to return her memory is to proclaim that the only reason she is important is because she was married to Jesus and had his children.  Rather than freeing her, which is what I think those who want to elevate her position as a disciple are seeking to do, I think they are giving in to just another view of acceptable roles of women.  Mary is important to us because of her gender, but she is also important regardless of her gender.

On this day in which we celebrate our graduates, one of the things I hope they will do is to be appreciative of all the people who helped them out along the way, who supported them, and made what they did possible, from their parents and teachers and administrators and support staff and friends, and Mary represents that same role for Jesus.  He did not do everything by himself, but had people to support him, and Mary was one of those people and at the very least we should remember and celebrate her for that.

But she is also so much more than that because what all four gospels tell us is that  after the disciples had fled and deserted Jesus that Mary Magdalene and some of the other women were there at the cross, either standing at a distance or at the foot of the cross depending on which gospel we are reading.  And then on Easter morning it is clear that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.  While who else is there depends on which gospel account you are reading, but they all have Mary Magdalene present.  In addition, she is always listed first, even in Luke’s list of those who supported Jesus and his disciples she is listed first, so clearly she held a position of importance and prominence amongst even this group, and she clearly held a position of importance for the early Christians as well.

The first person to witness the empty tomb, the first person to encounter the risen Christ, the first person to proclaim that Christ is risen, was a woman.  If, as Dan Brown claims, the church had wanted in a great conspiracy to try and diminish Mary Magdalene they would not have retained her story, they would have simply removed her all together, and there was certainly plenty of reasons for the early church to try and silence this witness.  But instead we have her story told, not just once, but in all four gospels.  Although she has certainly been battered around at times, Mary Magdalene holds a position of great importance in the church.  An apostle is one who is sent, and so in reality, Mary is the first apostle, and in fact Peter Abelard gave Mary the title Apostle to the Apostles.

It is upon Mary’s proclamation that the disciples made their proclamation, and it is upon their proclamation that we make our proclamation.  In fact, in most gospels, Mary is the example of what it means to be sent into the world to proclaim the gospel message.  Because of Mary we are forced to ask, are we going to be like the disciples and flee from the cross or are we going to be at the foot of the cross?  Are we going to be like Peter and go to the tomb only to go home, or are we going to be like Mary and stay around in order to encounter the risen Christ and then proclaim the message?  Jesus calls Mary by name and then tells her that she cannot keep his presence to herself, she must tell others what she has seen, and she does.  She is the first one sent to proclaim the message.  Mary Magdalene is the apostle to the apostles.  She was sent to proclaim that she had seen the Lord, and the message continues to us today, but the question we must answer is, what are we going to do with the message that Mary proclaims?  Amen.

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