Today the Christian Church commemorates Mary Magdalene. As sometimes happen with Biblical figures, at least half, if not more, of what’s said and repeated about her is bunk. Utter hogwash. Pure nonsense. Use whatever term you like, but not everything you hear associated with her name is true. In addition to her cameo role in The Da Vinci Code (very convenient to make outlandish claims about those who are no longer here to defend themselves), there’s also a persistent tradition that Mary Magdalene is the nameless woman who was a sinner in Luke 7:36-50. In fact, that traditional (i.e. not satisfactorily substantiated by the Scriptures) claim is most likely why Luke 7:36-50 was appointed as the Gospel for her feast.
The woman is not named. For reasons not revealed to us, St. Luke was not inspired to note down that woman’s name. And yet, it could have been Mary Magdalene who anointed the Lord’s feet in Luke 7. She is mentioned in the context, if one looks at the chapters before and after Luke 7. Also, Mark 16:9 references the fact that Jesus drove seven demons out of Mary Magdalene before she became His follower. It has been noted that demons will often drive those whom they possess to engage in grotesque or promiscuous sins against the Sixth Commandment, and when you pair that fact with the fact that the unnamed woman in Luke 7 is called a sinner, which seems to be a polite euphemism for prostitute, it seems possible that the unnamed woman could have been Mary Magdalene. Is it anything more than circumstantial evidence? Not really. Does anyone’s salvation hang in the balance? Nope. But it is interesting to think about, and another example of the push and pull between tradition (which can mean different things to different people) and the close reading and study of the Scriptures.
Because we really can’t nail down definitively who that unnamed woman was, it made sense to Lutherans to leave Luke 7:36-50 as the Gospel for this feast. In the absence of a sinful consequence from continuing to use the reading, as long as Christian love and concern for people’s consciences are never left out of the equation, Lutherans will tend to err on the side of keeping what’s been handed down to us. One never knows — there may be wisdom in choices that thousands of people, many of them smarter than you, made centuries before. Those choices continue to shape our worship and enrich our faith even today, and it would be foolish and short-sighted simply to discard whatever we do not understand or appreciate immediately. If we adopted that approach, where does it end?
Leaving aside those considerations of identity for a moment, just consider what Jesus is doing in Luke 7:36-50. With His little pointed parable about the two debtors, plus His simply noting aloud who did what — contrasting the actions of the Pharisee and the sinful woman — Jesus brings home who the “good” one, the righteous one, really is. It’s not the Pharisee. He thought he was, but he wasn’t. His lack of love betrayed his lack of faith, and his exalted position as a leader and teacher of Israel was no help in his standing with God, which is what mattered. By pointing out that “her many sins are forgiven, for she loved much, but he who is forgiven little loves little,” Jesus is pointing out that she is righteous. That righteousness is not caused by her love — that’s not the reason — but it is the proof; proof that was sorely lacking in Simon. Her trust in Jesus and His Word for forgiveness meant that she was forgiven, no matter what anyone said or thought.
We look so much at the outside. We focus on the things that the world praises and calls good: money, status, possessions, and what they say about us. We rarely consider ourselves the way God does: from the inside out. Or, at least we don’t as often as we should. Jesus scandalized those at the table with Him by absolving this sinful woman — just like that! But she understood His grace best of all. Mary Magdalene got to be one of the first witnesses to Christ’s resurrection, despite her sinfulness and despite having been plagued by foul demons. Not Simon, nor any of the other Pharisees or teachers of the law — but Mary Magdalene, a woman and a sinner, was given this honor.
So which one are you? Sinner, or Pharisee?
The collect, or prayer, for this feast nicely ties in Mary Magdalene’s story with the greater significance of the resurrection, and has some beautiful phrases:
O Almighty God, whose blessed Son did sanctify Mary Magdalene, and grant her to be a witness to His Resurrection : Mercifully grant that by Thy grace we may be healed of all our infirmities, and serve Thee in the power of His endless life; who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost : ever one God, world without end. Amen.
— Brotherhood Prayer Book, 2nd ed., 2007, p.519