Yesterday I preached on John 20:1-18, focusing on Jesus’ encounter with Mary Magdalene. We don’t know much about the historical Mary Magdalene, but the little we get from the Gospels indicates she was a significant person in Jesus’ life and ministry.
You’d be hard pressed to find an early Christian with as impressive a résumé as she had. Consider this:
- Mary was with Jesus throughout his ministry after being healed of demon possession, traveling with Jesus and the Twelve disciples, one of a group of women who supported them out of their own pockets (Luke 8:1-3).
- Mary witnessed the three central gospel events: Jesus’ death, his burial, and his resurrection (Matt 27:55-56, 61; 28:1-10).
- Mary was the first person commissioned by the risen Jesus to bear witness to his resurrection (John 20:17-18; Mark 16:9-11).
As I noted in my sermon, Mary thus fit the criteria for being an apostle: she had been with Jesus through his ministry, and she was the star witness to his resurrection (see Acts 1:21-22). It is not surprising, then, that she has been called “Apostle to the Apostles” in the Western Church, and “Equal to the Apostles” in the East.
However, through much of Church history Mary has been pushed to the margins.
From early on she was ignored. In the New Testament she disappears after the Gospels, and she’s left off the “official apostolic list” of resurrection witnesses in 1 Corinthians 15.
And then she was maligned. As the centuries passed she was identified with the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus’ feet, who, in Luke’s Gospel, is identified only as a “sinner.” In the medieval imagination this morphed into Mary being a prostitute, and a particularly lascivious one at that. Paintings of a later era often show her in a provocative pose even in penitence, taunting the viewer with her brazen sexuality.
None of this, however, is even hinted at in the Gospels. Mary Magdalene is never identified as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. She is never described as a “sinner,” let alone as a prostitute or adulteress. She was as I described her above: healed of demon possession, and then a faithful disciple of Jesus, an important person in Jesus’ life and ministry, and a crucial witness to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.
Mary Magdalene, faithful disciple and first witness of the crucified and resurrected Jesus, was first ignored, and then maligned. Mary was shoved to the margins—all because she was a woman.
Yet this was not Jesus’ perspective on women. Of course, Jesus was no modern feminist. He chose twelve men to be his first apostles, after all, a nod to the patriarchy of his ancient Jewish world: the Twelve represent the twelve tribes of Israel, the sons of Jacob, as Jesus is re-making the people of God.
Yet along the way Jesus undermined that patriarchal mindset. He is remembered across the Gospels as sticking a burr under the saddle of patriarchy, a barb here, a bristle there, until the male-dominated world gets mighty uncomfortable. Consider this:
- Jesus talks to women as equals, not as inferiors—like the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-42).
- Jesus even accepts a rebuke by a woman, and commends her for it—the Gentile woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon (Matt 15:21-28).
- Jesus frequently praises women for their faith and piety—the poor widow with her meagre offering (Luke 21:1-4), the bleeding woman who touched his garment in the crowd (Mark 5:25-34), the ten virgins waiting faithfully for the bridegroom to come (Matt 25:1-13), and more.
- Jesus heals women in ways that show concern for their unique difficulties in society, or that elevate them to places of honour—raising the widow of Nain’s only son so that she would be cared for (Luke 7:11-17), or healing the woman bent double and calling her a “daughter of Abraham” (Luke 13:10-17, the only place that phrase is used in the New Testament).
- Jesus speaks of women as his “disciples,” his true “mothers” and “sisters” who do God’s will—unusual if not unprecedented for a Rabbi of the day (Matt 12:46-50).
- Jesus even highlights another Mary, Martha and Lazarus’ sister, as the ideal disciple learning from her Rabbi (Luke 10:38-42).
And when the resurrected Jesus appears, he appears first to the faithful one on the margins, the one whose testimony would be suspect simply because she was a woman: Mary Magdalene. Jesus doesn’t marginalize Mary—he brings her right into the centre of God’s work in the world, first witness to the dawn of a new creation.
How well are we following Jesus in this way? Are we men following Jesus in drawing women into the centre of God’s work in the world, deliberately creating space for women among us to use their gifts and share their voice, allowing them to create this space for themselves, sharing this co-created space as full equals?
And what about others on the margins? What about those who have God-given gifts to share, God-given voices to use, but whom we hold at arm’s length, keeping them on the sidelines, in the shadows?
Jesus looks to the last in the world, the least in society, those who have lost their way. He sees them. He sees their gifts, he hears their voice. He seeks them, he finds them. He draws them in, and lifts them up, and empowers them to use their God-given gifts, to speak with their God-given voice.
May we who claim to follow Jesus do the same.
In a moment of inspiration last week I wrote a poem (it is still National Poetry Month, after all). It’s a poem about Mary Magdalene, Mary on the margins, Mary brought into the centre of God’s work in the world. It is simply called, “With.”
I stand among them,
yet not with them.
Their number is fixed:
signs of the heavens,
tribes of the father
—no girls allowed.
I learn among them,
yet not with them.
Hearing good news,
and will be done
—first for the Jew.
I walk among them,
yet not with them.
Preaching good news,
feeding poor mouths,
—cast out with the demons.
Where have they gone?
Why have they fled?
The cross before me,
the tomb behind me,
the garden around me:
he is with me
—and I am with him.