Readings from the Gospel of Mary here
The year was 1998. I was in my final year of seminary. I took a course from a visiting New Testament Scholar, who shall remain nameless, to protect not his innocence, but because it is bad form to speak ill of our elders. Suffice it to say that this professor had achieved some renown as a New Testament Scholar, so I was eager to learn from his wisdom. This professor lived up to his reputation. He was brilliant and he was demanding. I learned a great deal from him. During a class on the women of the New Testament, I recorded a conversation between the professor and myself. The conversation impressed me so much that I included it in my Master’s Thesis. It went like this…
He just said it for the third time! “Harlots!”
He keeps calling them “harlots”, while I rack my brains to come up with one harlot. Then he points to the text and his charges become clearer, he says,
“she is a “prostitute!”
My carefully reigned in anger is unleashed. “Where? Where? Where? Show me where it says this woman is a prostitute!”
As he refers to the Gospel text and insists that, “It is there, right there in the text”, I want to scream, I want to cry, I want to wipe the bemused expression from his face. I want to rub his nose in the damned text. Instead, I begin the uneasy process of reigning in my anger. I slow my speech, I try to erase the tremor from my voice, and I ask him to, “Show me, show me where it says this woman is a prostitute.”
He consults his text and says, “a woman in the city who was a sinner.”
“A sinner not a prostitute.” I respond.
He insists, “Yes a prostitute.”
“Where?” I ask.
Again, he insists, “A woman who was a sinner.”
I demanded to know, “Where does it say she was a prostitute?”
He insists, “The author means that she was a prostitute.”
I lose control, “How do you know? What words does the author use to say that this woman was a prostitute? Show me in the text where it says she was a prostitute?”
He still doesn’t get it,“What do you mean? It is clear that this woman was a prostitute.”
Once again, I push, “Show me. Show me where?”
He continues to say, “She was a woman from the city who was a sinner.”
I know that the text says that, so I implore him to tell me, “The Greek… What does the Greek say?”
He replies, “amartolos”.
I push, “Does that mean prostitute?”
We both know that it does not.
He replies, “Sinner. But the context clearly shows that she was a prostitute.”
Still pushing I ask him to “Show me. Show me how the narrative says this woman was a prostitute. Show me where it says her sins were sexual. Show me where it says so in the narrative.”
He says, “It’s clear.”
Clearly, we disagree, so I try again, “Clear to you. Show me. Show me!”
As he fumbles through the pages, I offer him a way out, “Okay. Even if I concede the point that her sins were sexual, show me where it says that these sexual sins were nothing more than lust or adultery, show me where it says that she was a prostitute. For Christ’s sake! Show me!”
He couldn’t show me. It’s simply not there.
Nowhere in the New Testament does it ever say in Greek, or in English that Mary of Magdala is a prostitute. But over and over again scholars, theologians, popes, preachers, and dramatists, have continued to cast Mary of Magdala as a prostitute. In the years that have transpired since that day in seminary, when a visiting New Testament scholar insisted that “the context clearly shows that she was a prostitute,” I have delighted in being able to participate in the phenomenon of that I like to call, the resurrection of Mary the Migdal as the first Apostle. Migdal is a Hebrew word for tower and some scholars suggest that this was actually Mary’s title. Mary the Tower – perhaps because she was tall, but more likely because her authority as an Apostle “towered” above the authority of the apostles who abandoned Jesus.
The recent resurrection of Mary the Migdal, has offered up portraits of a character whose historical roots go all the way back to a relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. That relationship situates Mary at Jesus’ right hand. Now you’d think that someone whom all four canonical gospels declare to be so very close to Jesus, ought to be someone you hear about in the church all the time. You’d think that someone who the canonical gospels record as having supported Jesus’ fledgling ministry out of her own resources, someone who if the these gospels are to be believed, followed Jesus all the way to the cross and to whom the risen Christ first appeared and who is the first person to be sent by Christ to proclaim the good news of the resurrection, you’d think that such a someone would be heralded down through the centuries, from pulpit to pulpit across the length and breadth of Christendom as, the First Apostle. For indeed the literal definition of the word apostle is “one who is sent”. If these gospels are to be believed, Mary was sent by none other than the Risen Christ, so you’d think she would be honored by the very church that professes to follow Christ. But there’s just something about Mary…. that has made priests and preachers down through the centuries speak such ill of her.
Not even the historical evidence which so clearly points to Mary’s role as a leader, perhaps the foremost leader of the first, fledgling followers of Jesus, not even this, has helped Mary’s reputation. Indeed, it may be that her leadership position as the Apostle to the Apostles, the first witness to the resurrection and the first to proclaim that Christ is alive, is the very thing that set the proverbial cat among the priestly pigeons.
I know that there are those who would say that the swirling conspiracy theories that abound around any discussion of Mary are little more than the rumblings of ill-advised detractors who seek to undermine the teaching authority of the church. But the evidence is clear that dear old Pope Gregory the Great, whether it was by accident or design actually misrepresented the Scriptures when in the sixth century, he pontificated in a way that only popes can, about a woman’s sexuality. That this particular woman happened to be a close confidant of the one his holiness Pope Gregory called, “Lord and Saviour” did not save her from falling (pardon the pun),
falling prey to his holiness’s foibles as he confused Mary Magdalene with the woman caught in adultery and made the perilously, presumptuous leap from adultery to prostitution.
Low and behold for 15 centuries after Gregory’s not so great condemnation, Mary has remained relegated to the ranks of those whose bodies are bought and sold for the sake of those who care little for the female gender. Despite biblical and historical evidence to the contrary, Mary has been denied the titles that befit her rank.But if you want to believe that it is merely a coincidence that the denial of Mary’s rank coincides with the church’s adamant denial down through the centuries that women could ever hope to enter the ranks of the priesthood, well I’m sure that God will forgive you, I’m just not sure Mary or her sisters will.
So, what do the scriptures tell us about the disciple whom Jesus loved? Well for starters ,Mary was a woman whom Jesus healed. The gospel according to a bloke we call Luke tells us that:
“With Jesus went the twelve, as well as some women he had healed of evil spirits and sickness; Mary of Magdala, from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons; Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza; Suzanna; and many other women who were contributing to the support of Jesus and the Twelve with their own funds.”Evil spirits and sickness; 7 demons, no mention of sex. No mention of prostitution. I don’t know about you, but if a prostitute showed up at our church tongues would be wagging. I don’t care how inclusive we claim to be, people would talk. Whoever wrote the gospel of Luke was more than capable of passing on a sexual tidbit or two. In fact, just before he tells us about the women who support Jesus’ ministry, the writer tells the tale of a woman caught in adultery. But the writer never, and I do mean never, never mentions that Mary was a prostitute.
I know that there are some who insist that Gregory-the-not-so-great was simply confused by this story and therefore we should understand that it was an easy mistake to make. But to accept this is to accept that adultery and prostitution are the same thing. I do understand that popes are not well versed in matters of sex, but sadly that’s never stopped them from pontificating. What irks me more is that in my life-time, a New Testament scholar of some renown, who ought to know better, insisted to me, that adultery and prostitution are the same thing or indeed that one woman is the same as the next.
Okay, I’ll admit that I have an axe to grind. Many women do. It is Mother’s Day after all; a day originally set aside for women to grind our axes. Just read the Mother’s Day Proclamation that I printed in today’s bulletin and you’ll see that women do indeed have axes to grind. But can you blame us?
Gentlemen. I know that I have the rare privilege of serving in ministry with the most enlightened generation of men any woman has had the privilege of serving. You guys are great! So, please don’t hear this as some sort of angry tirade against men because sadly, the attitudes that have confined Mary to walking the streets at night are not confined to men. The entire church culture is steeped in antiquated attitudes that will take all of us, women and men together, decades to recover from. But recover we will.
We will recover the witness of St Mary the Migdal, the Tower, whose dedicated faith in Jesus, helped her to follow Jesus, despite the fact that his male disciples abandoned him. Mary stayed and followed Jesus all the way to the foot of the cross and beyond. Even in her grief, while the disciples remained locked behind closed doors because they were afraid, Mary ventured out with her ointments ready, not knowing how she would be able to roll the stone away, only knowing that she could not fail to do what she thought would be the last loving act for her beloved Jesus.
It is long past time for the church to celebrate the resurrection of Mary of Migdal, the Tower, the Apostle to the Apostles, the First among the Apostles. Mary faithfully ventured forth, not knowing how; only knowing that she must. It was Mary who recognized in the face of someone she thought was the gardener; Mary recognized the face of Christ.
In Mary the Migdal we see a woman whose love of Jesus pushed her to keep going in the face of torment and death. It was Mary’s love of Jesus that sent her into the garden alone. Even though she thought that her beloved Jesus was dead and gone. Mary’s love helped push her forward and she discovered that everything old is made new through LOVE.
So, looking back to Mary, I wonder what it would take for us to proclaim, as Mary did, “I have seen Christ”? Where can we find CHRIST in our lives and thereby find new life, new hope, new love? Where can we find what Mary found?
Well, we can begin, as we have today by reading from the Gospel that bears Mary’s name. Hidden for away for centuries, the Gospel of Mary was discovered in 1896 in an antiquities market in Cairo. It was first published in German in 1955. But, the first English translation didn’t appear until 1975; round about the same time as some of the Nag Hammadi and Dead Sea Scrolls were also being published in English. I can tell you that since the first manuscript appeared, other manuscripts have appeared. The first to appear dates back to the fifth-century, and we now have two other pieces of the gospel that have been found that date back to the third century. So, even though the men in the fourth century, who determined which gospels made it into the New Testament and which did not, decided that the Gospel of Mary did not make the cut, we can read the Gospel of Mary confident that it comes from communities that recognized Mary’s authority as the First Apostle. We can read the Gospel of Mary as evidence that Mary founded a community of followers of Christ who endured despite the odds against the; a community who although their writings were suppressed by the powers that be, they could not be kept silent. A community whose gospel lay buried for centuries, and whose restoration preserves the traditions if not the words of Mary who encourages us down through the centuries with these words: “Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be troubled. For Christ’s grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise Christ’s greatness, for Christ has joined us together and made us fully human.”
Mary saw the risen Christ in the face of a gardener. Mary who understood Jesus’ practice of referring to himself as the “Fully Human ONE”. The title “Fully Human ONE” comes from the Greek – gios tou anthrópou – which translators have been rendering as the “Son of Man”.
Son of Man is not, I repeat not an adequate translation of this important phrase which according to the Gospels that did make the biblical cut, Jesus used to describe himself 81 times: gios tou anthropou. Anthroupou or Anthropos – we get our English word anthropology from the same root. It does not mean man! It means human. There is a perfectly good Greek word that is used in the New Testament for man – that word is “aner”.
The anonymous writers of the gospels deliberately did not translate Jesus’ Aramic sayings into Greek using the word for “man”. Instead, some 81 times they chose instead, the Greek word for human which includes both males and females.
We can all guess why the English translators failed to be so inclusive. Some of us have paid the price for their failure. All of us have missed the incredible, radical meaning of Jesus’ declaration that he is the HUMAN ONE. The Gospel of Mary spells out this tragedy in detail. The Gospel of Mary points us toward Jesus’ vision for a new way of being human. The contemplative scholar Cynthia Bourgeault translates gios tou anthropou so beautifully into English as, “Fully Human”.
In the Gospel of Mary, we encounter Jesus as the FULLY HUMAN ONE whose embodiment of the CHRIST provides a vision of the transformation or the evolution of women and men into a new way of being human which transcends gender, a way of being in which we become FULLY HUMAN. As FULLY HUMAN we can begin to recognize as Jesus did, our ONENESS with the DIVINE; as when Jesus says, “I and ABBA are ONE.”
This ONENESS with the DIVINE ought to open us to the reality that because we live and move and have our being in the DIVINE, the DIVINE is everywhere, for everything is in the DIVINE. Embracing our FULL HUMANIY, we embrace the CHRIST that lives in, with, through, and beyond us. In the Gospel of Mary, we can begin to see a vision of what it means to follow Jesus into a new Way of Being in which we recognize Jesus as the CHRIST, but more importantly we begin to recognize the CHRIST in one another.
Perhaps when we begin to share Mary’s faith that the risen Christ can be seen, we will begin to see the face of Christ in those around us; in face of the stranger we meet on the road, in the face of the homeless man as we sit and share a meal with them, in the face of a child we reach out to lift up out of poverty, in faces the women upon whose shoulders we stand, in the faces of our opponents as together we struggle for understanding, in the faces of our enemies as we work for peace, in the faces of our tormentors as we strive for justice, in the faces of the sick as we seek healing, and in the faces of the poor as we offer aid.
When we can look into the faces of those we meet and see the face of Christ then perhaps we can follow in the footsteps of Mary the Migdal, the TOWER, and all the world will know by our LOVE, that we too follow Christ. St. Mary the Migdal, the Tower, the first Apostle, the Apostle to the Apostle, the ONE to whom the Risen Christ entrusted the good news. May the power of Mary’s witness inspire us to live into our FULL HUMANITY so that we can begin to see the Christ in every thing.