Mary Magdalene's True Story

Rev. Christopher Gillespie

Scholars argue about St. Mary Magdalene. We know from the Gospels that she followed after Jesus. She is listed by name at least 12 times by the Evangelists. Both Luke and Mark describe her as having seven demons cast out of her (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9). Her name indicates she was from Magdala, a town on the western shore of the sea of Galilee. And we know from John, she was the first eyewitness and testifier of the resurrection of Jesus.

That should be enough to satisfy our curiosity. But idle speculation that began as early as the fourth century added more. Increasingly Mary was considered to be a prostitute or, at the very least, a woman with loose morals. The unnamed woman who anoints Jesus's feet (Luke 7:36-50), well, now that's Mary Magdalene, too. These opinions have lingered and have been further exaggerated by popular books, films, and a famous musical.

We get it. We'd like to know more. How much do we know about most of the apostles? Usually not much more than their names and, like Mary, there's a whole lot of pious mythology. It's interesting, though: The speculation around Mary largely is not positive. On the contrary, the additions to her history paint her in a bad light. Even her seven demons were theorized by Gregory the Great to not be legit demons but rather the seven cardinal sins.

We might think that the ancients made Mary look bad in order to make the rest of us look better. But let's put the best construction on their motives. The worse Mary seems, the more astounding the grace of God is. It's one thing for Jesus to cast out seven demons and redeem such a poor woman. But to save the outrageous sinner Mary was, according to our stories—now that's a testament to God's forgiveness!

But that's not how our stories are told. We're really good at building up a popular myth to describe our own lives. But unlike that sad story of Mary Magdalene, the stories we usually tell feature our accomplishments, our family, our great reputation, our moral living. Our own stories end up being nothing more than long self-righteousness projects. We try to overcome the devastating truth, "For there is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin" (Ecclesiastes 7:20). The Bible tells the true story—bleak and dark, poor and miserable—and stops our mouth. All the attempts to tell a better story about ourselves fail because they ring false.

And yet, that's not how we talk at funerals. We try to tell good stories about the dead. Eulogies ("good words"), unless you're Irish, rarely tell the true story. We set aside the failings, failures, and moral shortcomings as we remember our loved ones. We forget the sins and transgressions of the deceased. We talk about our dead like they're bona fide saints. And that's just right!

All the nonsense stories we tell about ourselves are finally dead in Christ. They are buried in His new tomb. We have a new story in His new testament. We are forgiven in Jesus's blood. We are baptized into Christ. The last story is the story that carries us into eternity. We are God's children: called, redeemed, purchased, and won. The true stories about our fleshly life aren't held against us anymore than they're credited to us. Like the stories of Mary Magdalene, true or pious myth, all of our life stories tell of one whom Christ has saved.

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher Gillespie serves as pastor at Grace Lutheran Church, Dyer, Indiana.

Created: August 8th, 2016