In 1969, Pope Paul VI removed the identification of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the "sinful woman” but the view of her as a former prostitute has persisted in popular culture. It is at this point I feel the need to ask for Mary Magdalene’s forgiveness for my misunderstanding of her role in the life of Jesus.
Image by Elle Stallings
By Steve Leininger
The readings today celebrate the Memorial of Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus. There are three accounts of sisters Martha and Mary in the Bible, and we are given the choice of two for them to use for today’s Gospel. Let’s take a look at these two readings in chronological order.
The first is from Luke 10, which happened during the third and final year of Jesus’ ministry on his last trip from Galilee towards Jerusalem. It includes the iconic “Martha, Martha”, which was the only thing not spoken in Swahili in the Mass we attended while on vacation in Tanzania.
Jesus entered a village where a woman whose name was Martha welcomed him. She had a sister named Mary who sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.
Martha, burdened with much serving, came to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me."The Lord said to her in reply, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her." [Luke 10:38-42]
This is the classic “Martha and Mary” story. We can all relate with Martha, who is doing the seemingly difficult and important chores of serving and being a proper hostess. She finally snaps and asks Jesus to correct this unbalanced situation. That’s when we learn that listening to (and hearing!) the words of Jesus is THE most important part of the visit. The “Martha, Martha” reading is complete. There is no relevant information in Luke before or after the five verses.
The Raising of Lazurus (a partial account)
The second Gospel reading choice seems to be an equally familiar story, the raising of Lazarus from the dead:
Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother [Lazarus, who had died]. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you." Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise." Martha said to him, "I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day."
Jesus told her, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and anyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" She said to him, "Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world." [John 11:19-27]
What we actually have here is the center part of the raising of Lazurus. The apparent theme of this reading is Martha testifying that she now believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world. It seems that Martha has grown in her faith since she first met Jesus. When I read this excerpt the first time, I kinda filled in the blanks and as I remembered it, the raising of Lazurus was complete. As I studied further, I found myself falling down the rabbit hole.
Falling down the rabbit hole
Usually reading verses and sometimes chapters before and after a reading adds clarifying context. John Chapter 11 starts out:
Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. [John 11:1-2]
I’m confused . . . wasn’t that Mary Magdeline that did that “hair dried the feet” thing? You know, the Mary that used to be a prostitute? Is Mary Magdeline the sister of Martha and Lazurus?? I didn’t think so until this very moment. After some serious searching, I found some clues.
The event John refers to is in the next chapter – unless there was some previous occurrence not recorded by John. John 12 starts out on the day before what we now know as Palm Sunday and is the third Martha and Mary story:
Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. [John 12:1-3]
In less than a week, Jesus will be crucified and buried! If we read on, we find the point of this scripture:
Then Judas the Iscariot, one [of] his disciples, and the one who would betray him, said,“Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?” He said this not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief and held the money bag and used to steal the contributions. So Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” [John 12:4-8]
“You do not always have me” . . . powerful words. The same incident and message were recorded by Matthew and Mark just before the betrayal by Judas. Both events took place in Bethany, but the woman with the hair and perfumed oil was not identified by name.
A similar incident of hair on feet was recorded in Luke shortly after the Sermon on the Mount, some two years earlier:
A Pharisee invited him [Jesus] to dine with him, and he entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table. Now there was a sinful woman in the city who learned that he was at table in the house of the Pharisee. Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment. [Luke 7:36-38]
After making a few points to the Pharisee how this woman was showing love better than the Pharisee. Jesus demonstrates his real point next:
He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The others at table said to themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” But he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” [Luke 7:48-50]
We are never told who this woman is. But Jesus, by forgiving sins, is doing what nobody else had claimed to have done before. Luke continues in Chapter 8:
Afterward he [Jesus] journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources. [Luke 8:1-3]
This is the first time Mary Magdalene has been mentioned. Note that she is not portrayed as sinful but having been previously possessed by seven demons. So maybe the Mary Magdalene “hair and feet thing” was my misunderstanding. I had some help in that direction.
We have Pope Gregory I to blame for the portrayal of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. In his 591 AD Easter sermon, he conflated Mary Magdalene, who was introduced in Luke 8:2 (above), with Mary of Bethany (our Martha, Martha reading) and the unnamed "sinful woman" who anointed Jesus's feet in Luke Chapter 7. The result was a widespread belief that Mary Magdalene was a repentant prostitute or promiscuous woman. The identification of Mary Magdalene with of Bethany and the unnamed "sinful woman" was still a major controversy almost a thousand years later leading up to the Reformation, and some Protestant leaders rejected it. During the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic Church emphasized Mary Magdalene as a symbol of penance. In 1969, Pope Paul VI removed the identification of Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and the "sinful woman” but the view of her as a former prostitute has persisted in popular culture.
It is at this point I feel the need to ask for Mary Magdalene’s forgiveness for my misunderstanding of her role in the life of Jesus.
The raising of Lazarus
The resurrection of Lazurus is a good read and will not be completed here [see John 11:1-34. Some key verses:
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. [John 11:5]
And Jesus wept. [John 11:35]
And the part I subconsciously filled in:
So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” [John 11:41-44]
What I learned today
The uncommon choice of two Gospel readings on the Memorial of Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus triggered a search for context and relevance on two what I thought were familiar stories.