Sunday’s sermon: Mary Magdalene: Woman of Misrepresented Devotion

Text used – Luke 8:1-3; John 20:11-18

  • When I was a kid, my grandma had a grand total of 3 VHS tapes at her house that we could watch.
    • All Dogs Go to Heaven[1]
    • Dot and the Whale[2]
    • Beauty and the Beast[3] → But it wasn’t Disney’s version of “Beauty and the Beast.” It was some minor production company’s version. It was animated like Disney’s, but it wasn’t embellished with all the musical interludes and anthropomorphized household items. It was short, and it followed more closely to the original version penned by Gabrielle-Suzanne de Villeneuve. But that wasn’t all. It also included two or three other, very similar tales that came from other countries.
      • E.g.s[4]
        • ITALY: Zelinda and the Monster = tale in which the beast is depicted as a fire-breathing dragon
        • CHINA: The Fairy Serpent = tale (which probably comes from an originally Indian version) in which the daughter is given in marriage to a snake
        • RUSSIA: The Enchanted Tsarévich = sort of a mash up of all of the above in which the daughter asks for a rose and ends up falling in love with a winged snake monster
      • Now, you have to remember that Disney’s version of “Beauty and the Beast” hit theaters when I was in 2nd grade, and it was (and still is) incredibly popular. So of course, that was (and still is!) the version that people know best. The version that people remember. The version that people retell. BUT …
        • Significant differences between Disney’s version and the original fairy tale that comes out of 17th France
          • Original tale = rich man on a journey stumbles upon a remote castle and picks a rose for his youngest daughter from the beast’s garden → beast catches him and gives him a choice of giving up one of his daughters or giving up his own life → father chooses to give up his daughter
        • (As you can surely imagine) significant differences between Disney’s version and the versions that have been told throughout the centuries in other cultures
        • But still, Disney’s version of Belle’s story is the one that people know and accept as “The Story” (capital T, capital S). It carries vague threads of the “real” story – the original story – but it is also undeniably its own fabrication.
  • And so today we come to the Scripture story of Mary Magdalene – a woman whose “real story” has been all but lost in others’ fabrications; a woman whose story has been tangled and warped and manipulated throughout the centuries; a woman whose story is inextricably interwoven with the story of the early church; a woman whose true significance we cannot ignore.
    • Lots of different versions of Mary Magdalene’s story have emerged throughout the centuries → 2 most prominent ones
      • FIRST: story of Mary Magdalene as a repentant prostitute → Scholars agree that this portrait probably originally stemmed from the proximity of Mary’s introduction – which we read from the beginning of Luke 8 – to the story of the unnamed woman with the alabaster jar who anoints Jesus’ feet at the end of Luke 7.
        • Woman with the alabaster jar: woman described simply as “a sinner” by the text → approaches Jesus as he’s sitting down to dinner → washes Jesus’ feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, anoints them with costly oils → This woman has always been portrayed as a repentant prostitute (though we should note that it doesn’t actually say that anywhere in Scripture either). And directly following her story at the end of chapter 7, we’re introduced to Mary Magdalene at the beginning of chapter 8.
        • Confusion reinforced by Pope Gregory the Great in one of his sermons in 591 C.E. – scholar: Pope Gregory solidified Mary Magdalene’s reputation as a former prostitute in one single paragraph. He also linked together the “sinner” from Luke 7…, Mary of Bethany, and Mary Magdalene. He formed, consequently, what many scholars refer to as the “composite Magdalene.”[5]
          • Finally cleared up by Catholic Church in 1960s → doctrine to separate the persons of the “composite Magdalene”
          • Pope John Paul II attempted further clarification by officially reinstating Mary Magdalene as “the apostle to the apostles” (a title that had originally been given to her by the early church fathers in 2nd century)
        • Still, this portrait of Mary Magdalene remains a misconception that has stood the test of time.
          • False depiction of Mary’s character has been immortalized by countless artists including names as prominent as Titian, Caravaggio, El Greco, and van Dyck
          • False narrative perpetuated by popular culture such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s depiction of Mary Magdalene in Jesus Christ Superstar[6], Martin Scorsese’s depiction of her in The Last Temptation of Christ[7], and Mel Gibson’s depiction of her in The Passion of the Christ [8]
          • This myth even persists in our own language! – English term magdalen = (by definition) a reformed prostitute
        • And yet, according to Scripture and early church accounts, this thread of Mary’s tale is, indeed, a false thread. There is no actual evidence to back up this story. So poor Mary Magdalene has spent centuries maligned with no chance to give voice to her own truth. Hear me today, friends: Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute.
      • SECOND: story of Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ wife → While we cannot solely credit American novelist Dan Brown with this particular storyline, he certainly did his part in its viral distribution with his wildly popular novel The DaVinci Code.
        • Published back in 2003[9]
        • Made into a movie directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks in 2006[10]
        • Dan Brown’s story heavily inspired by book Holy Blood, Holy Grail: The Secret History of Christ and the Shocking Legacy of the Grail written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln in 1982[11]
        • And while this particular storyline – that Mary Magdalene was actually Jesus Christ’s secret wife who was pregnant at the time of Christ’s crucifixion and was smuggled out of the Holy Land for her own safety and gave birth to Christ’s child somewhere in Europe … while that particular storyline certainly made for a compelling read and a thrilling movie, there is very little actual historical evidence to support any of it.
          • Scholars have found a handful of accounts in early Christian history that speak of Mary Magdalene as one of Jesus’ most devoted disciples who did have some sort of special, intimate relationship with Jesus → But it is quite a leap to go from those references to secret-wife-pregnant-with-the-child-of-the-Son-of-God. Again, poor Mary has no chance to set her own record straight in the face of this inventive fantasy.
  • So then who was Mary Magdalene?
    • Following Mary Magdalene through Scripture can sometimes get confusing → so many Marys!
      • Mary Magdalene ≠ Mary, the mother of Jesus
      • Mary Magdalene ≠ Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus
      • Mary Magdalene ≠ Mary of Bethany (who is the sister of Mary and Lazarus) … You see why it gets confusing!
    • Mary Magdalene = someone who experienced Jesus’ miraculous healing – text (Lk): The Twelve were with [Jesus], along with some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses. Among them were Mary Magdalene (from whom seven demons had been thrown out)[12]
      • Scholar (some historical clarification): The New Testament describes men and women afflicted with demons as having various diseases and pains, uncontrollable seizures and convulsions, unusual strength, self-inflicted wounds, illness, and blindness; teaching deceitful doctrines; being mute, violent, severely tormented, crippled, insane, naked, or ostracized from society, and yet – after encountering Christ – acknowledging him as the Messiah.[13] → So the general diagnosis of “having demons” basically covered any and every ailment – physical or mental – that wasn’t easily and obviously explainable such as blindness due to some sort of accident or illness due to ingesting something spoiled or inedible. As Scripture gives us no other indications as to Mary Magdalene’s afflictions, we can only speculate, but we do know that she was ill, and Jesus healed her.
    • Mary Magdalene = woman of means – text (continues): Among them were Mary Magdalene (from whom seven demons had been thrown out), Joanna (the wife of Herod’s servant Chuza), Susanna, and many other who provided for them out of their resources.[14] → This piece is arguably both one of the most important signs of Mary’s significance and the one most often overlooked or forgotten.
      • Gr. “provided for them out of their resources” = combination of word “serve, take care of, support” (word = root for our modern-day term deacon) + word “property, possessions” → The wording makes it clear that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and the unnamed others were providing for Jesus and the rest of his disciples financially. They had means which, in the culture at the time, also undoubtedly meant that had position – a respectability, some sort of societal standing and influence.
    • Mary Magdalene = “the apostle to the apostles” → Our 2nd reading from the gospel of John is truly Mary Magdalene’s shining moment in Scripture.
      • Mary Magdalene = only name mentioned in every single gospel as the first to find the tomb empty (which, by the way, also means she was the first to go and pay her respects … before anyone else, Mary came) → runs to get Peter and “the other disciple” (mysterious unnamed “beloved disciple” present only in John’s gospel) → Peter and the other disciple saw that the tomb was empty, didn’t understand, and “returned to the place where they were staying”[15]
      • But Mary Magdalene stayed. She stayed in the garden. She stayed in that space of unknowing. She stayed in that space of discomfort. She stayed in that space of grief. And in that space, as she wept beside the now-empty tomb, Mary Magdalene was the first person to encounter the risen Christ – her beloved Teacher and friend who knew her and valued her enough to call her by name: “Mary.” And from that space, Mary Magdalene was the first person to deliver the good news of the gospel: “I have seen the Lord.”
        • Reason Mary was and is again called “the apostle to the apostles” → “apostle” = one who is sent → Mary was sent to the disciples to deliver the good news of the resurrection, and from that initial declaration, the disciples sent the good news out into the world.
        • Even evidence that between Mary’s status as one of Jesus’ closest disciples and supporters and her role as the first apostle, Mary had a role in the development of the early church that was so prominent, it rivaled even Peter’s[16]
    • Last paragraph from Karla Zazueta’s essay on Mary Magdalene from Vindicating the Vixens (because she sums it all up so perfectly): We have examined, erased, painted over, and added new brush strokes to the canvas of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, nor Jesus’s lover, but a loyal female disciple, patron of finances, participant of prophecy fulfilled, and a necessary passive and active witness of Christ’s ministry, crucifixion, death, and resurrection. She was the first to the grave, the first to see the risen Lord, the first to testify the news of his resurrection, and the only woman to consistently appear in all the lists of women disciples. Let us stand back, observe, and remember this new portrait of Mary Magdalene – a portrait based on biblical fact, not folklore. Her portrait is complete: Mary Magdalene is honored and revered as the first messenger of Christ’s resurrection – the apostle of the apostles – declaring, “I have seen the Lord!” She saw and she proclaimed: He is risen. He is alive! … For Mary Magdalene, we say, “Thanks be to God!” Amen.

[1] All Dogs Go to Heaven, directed by Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and Dan Kuenster (Goldcrest Films International, 1989).

[2] Dot and the Whale, directed by Yoram Gross (Yoram Gross Films, 1986).

[3] Beauty and the Beast, directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (Walt Disney Pictures, 1991).


[5] Karla Zazueta, “Mary Magdalene: Repainting Her Portrait of Misconceptions” in Vindicating the Vixens: Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, ed. Sandra Glahn. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017), 257.

[6] Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Jesus Christ Superstar, directed by Norman Jewison. (Universal Pictures, 1973).

[7] The Last Temptation of Christ, directed by Martin Scorsese (Universal Pictures, 1988).

[8] The Passion of Christ, directed by Mel Gibson (Icon Productions, 2004).

[9] Dan Brown. The DaVinci Code. (New York: Anchor Books), 2003.

[10] The DaVinci Code, directed by Ron Howard (Columbia Pictures, 2006).

[11] Michael Baigen, et al. Holy Blood, Holy Grail: The Secret History of Christ and the Shocking Legacy of the Grail. (New York: Delacorte Press), 19892.

[12] Lk 8:1b-2.

[13] Zazueta, 265.

[14] Lk 8:2b-3.

[15] Jn 20:10.

[16] James Carroll. “Who Was Mary Magdalene?” from Smithsonian Magazine, Posted June 2006, accessed Aug. 17, 2021.