The Tower (Reflections on Mary Magdalene)
Luke 8:1-3, Matthew 15:32-39, Psalm 1
agdalena, I have decided that I want to speak to you today. On some long distant day, your parents will likely tell you the story of how they chose to give you your name. And the story they will tell you, I happen to know, will go something like this: When your mom was only a couple of weeks pregnant with you, your grandma got a phone call from your great Aunt Maggie who lived way out west. She had called to tell your grandma, before your mom had said a word, that your mom was pregnant and that she was going to have a girl.
That event was what prompted your parents to name you after your great Aunt Maggie (whose full name, of course, is Magdalena). And I’m sure you can be proud of being named after her – a strong woman who is obviously sensitive to things that many of us are not.
But I didn’t really want to talk to you about your Great Aunt Maggie today, but about another woman – maybe one of the strongest I have ever heard of – after whom you are also named. We know her, as Mary Magdalene, one of the early followers of Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, Mary Magdalene is a very important person in Christian tradition. Down through the centuries, all kinds of things have been said and written about her. She has often been identified as a prostitute or as that repentant woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. I wanted to tell you first of all, Magdalena, that there is absolutely no reason to think that Mary Magdalene was any of those things. At least, at no point does the Bible say any such things about her. These are all ideas that somehow became attached to the figure of Mary Magdalene in later church traditions.
It might even be that these negative images of Mary were intentionally connected to her by later church leaders as a kind of a smear campaign. You see, she was a little bit embarrassing to later Christians because it is pretty obvious that she was an important leader in the early
church and, as time went by, an increasingly male-dominated church
didn’t feel comfortable with the idea that women could even be leaders.
So, Magdalena, ignore what later Christians and traditions said about Mary Magdalene and lets just concentrate on what the Bible says about her. It may not seem like there is a lot in the Bible, but I think that what there is you will find very interesting.
The first thing that we know about her is her name: Mary Magdalene. And that name marks her already as someone rather unique. Most women in that world at that time would have used a name that indicated her relationship to some man in her life. So a normal name for someone like her should have been Mary, daughter of Jacob or Mary the mother of James or, as we have in an example in the passage we read from the Gospel of Luke, Joanna, the wife of Chuza. This was because women, in that world, were defined and limited by the men in their life. I’m not saying that it was right – I’m just saying that that was how it was.
But Mary Magdalene doesn’t have that kind of name. Already that marks her as unusual – as a strong and independent woman who was able to make a mark on the world all by herself. Wouldn’t it be something to be named after a woman like that!
But what is the meaning of her name if it is not a reference to some man. The last part of her name most likely refers to the place where she comes from. It means that she comes from the town of Magdala. And, as it turns out, that also tells us a lot about her because we have learned a few things about that place. Magdala, in the first century ad, was an important town on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee. It would have been a fairly prosperous town when Mary was born there with three local industries: fishing, fish processing and textiles. In fact, Magdala was so prosperous that some of its citizens came together to build one of the very few stone synagogues to be found anywhere in the region at the time
The name of the town, Magdala, meant tower. Some have suggested that the name referred to some tall structure in the town built for the drying of fish or for some step in the process of dying clothes, but I suspect that the name actually came from something else. The most prominent geographical feature of the town was a cliff (the south end of Mount Arbel) that stood just outside of town. This distinctive cliff watched over the entire town like a protective bodyguard. Its distinctive form would have led fishermen like a beacon safely to their home harbour from far out over the lake. It even looked like a tower. So I believe that the south end of Mount Arbel gave the town its name.
So there young Miryam grew up for her entire life under the shadow of that tower – the cliff of Mt. Arbel. And life must have been pretty good while she was young, but then, everything changed almost overnight. In the year 20 AD – that is, about ten years before a man named Jesus showed up on the scene – King Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee, did something stunning. He totally reorganized his kingdom. He abandoned his capital city, which he had been building for years at a place called Sephoris, and decided to build a brand new capital in a brand new city that he called Tiberias.
Why would Herod do that? Capital cities are expensive and kings don’t just move them for no reason. And it is not too hard to guess what the reason might have been based on the location of the city. Herod built his new city, Tiberias, on the west coast of the Sea of Galilee, about a half day’s journey south of Magdala. So, any guesses why Herod would have made a massive investment to build a city on the shores of the largest freshwater lake in that part of the world? As with most things that politicians do, you would probably be right if you said that it was about money.
Specifically, Herod was making a bet that he could make a lot of money by taking direct control of the fishing industry on the Sea of Galilee. Herod had the power to force fishermen to take their catches to his new docks at Tiberias. He would force them to pay for the privilege of getting their fish processed in his new factories (and they were certainly not allowed to take them anyplace else). Basically, Herod was taking over every aspect of the fish trade and skimming as much money as he could off of the top.
If Mary Magdalene was born around 10 ad in Magdala, can you imagine how her world must have changed when she was about ten years old? All of a sudden, the fish processing plants in her town were shutting down, fishermen were getting less money for their catches and everyone she knew was struggling just to get by. Assuming that she was a smart, intelligent young woman (which she clearly was) how do you suppose she might have reacted? I’ll tell you how she reacted: she got mad. She spoke up and said that this was not right and that Herod was gouging his people.
How do I know that that was how she reacted? Well, that brings us to the second thing that we are told about her in our reading from the Gospel of Luke this morning. When she is introduced, we are told that, at some point in her life, she had had seven demons and that these demons have gone out from her. At some point in her life, she had been labeled by the people around her as being demon possessed.
Now what might lead people to do that? It was not uncommon in the ancient world for many different things to be diagnosed as demon possession. This would include things that we now understand to be mental illnesses or disorders such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or epilepsy. We have fortunately learned today that those problems have nothing to do with evil influences and we are much the better for it.
But it wasn’t just mental illnesses that ancient people blamed on demons. In fact, anytime anyone behaved in ways that that were not considered to be acceptable, people were very likely to blame that behaviour on demon possession.
So, what do you think that the people of Magdala might have said about a young woman of their town who, instead of being quiet and obedient as all young women were expected to be, started to speak up, to complain about the policies of the king and how they were devastating her family, friends and neighbours? I’ll tell you what they said – they said that she had a demon, or maybe even seven of them.
So I am now even more convinced that Mary Magdalene was a strong woman who dared to stand up and speak her mind about the injustice that she saw in the world. And, what’s more she paid the price for her defiance by seeing her friends and neighbours reject her and become afraid of her because they thought that she had a demon or seven. Again, Magdalena, I think you should be proud to be named after such a strong woman.
But there is one more thing that we recognize about Mary Magdalene today. Something changed for her. Her neighbours in Magdala may have feared her because they thought that she had demons, but they also recognized that something happened to her that released her from those demons. What do you suppose that was? I don’t think it is a big stretch to think that the big change happened when Mary met Jesus. But how did that go down?
The town of Magdala is only mentioned once in the New Testament (apart from Mary Magdalene’s name) and that is in the passage that we read from the Gospel of Matthew this morning. According to at least some of the original manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew, after Jesus miraculously fed bread and fish to four thousand Galilean men and probably just as many women and children in the desert, he went to Magdala. Not all ancient manuscripts say that. Different ancient manuscripts that have been discovered say that he went to Magadan or even to Magadala. You have to read the footnotes in your Bible to actually find the name of the town of Magdala. But all of those words, if they mean anything, seem to be pointing us to the same region – the region close to Magdala.
And if Jesus went to Magdala or anyplace close to Magdala soon after the miracle of the loaves and the fishes in the wilderness, I cannot help but think that that was when he met Mary Magdalene. And I believe that there was a connection between those two events. Jesus cast the demons out of Mary Magdalene’s life at that point – demons that had come upon her because she was so angry at how Herod was claiming all of the fish in the Sea of Galilee for himself.
Well, what had Jesus just done before he went to Magdala? He had performed a miracle for the people in the wilderness. We usually focus on the miraculous nature of his provision when we read the story, of course. What we often miss is that, in the political context, what Jesus had just done also had a political dimension. He had just taken the fish of the Sea of Galilee and distributed it (free of charge) to the people of Galilee. He had taken the bread of Galilee and done likewise. He had defied the plans of Herod who was in the process of claiming all of these things for himself. And then he went to Magdala, one of the places hardest hit by those very policies.
In Magdala he met Mary, whom he set free from her seven demons. How did he do that? I suspect that he had just demonstrated to her (and to all of Galilee) that there were ways to resist what Herod was doing without falling into rage and depression and violence. He had shown her another way – the way of the kingdom of God. These demons were not cast out of her life so much as the energy that had fed these demons of hers was redirected towards a noble cause.
And on that day, Mary became a follower of Jesus. And not just any follower. A leader in his group. Jesus had this habit of giving nicknames to his key leaders. He called James and John, two bothers, the “Sons of Thunder.: One of them, a guy named Simon, he liked to call “rock” because he was so tough and stubborn. We remember the Greek translation of that nickname and call him Peter. Well, I think that Jesus gave Mary a nickname too. He called her the Magdalene. It wasn’t just a reference to where she came from, though, he was calling her a tower – he was calling her the one who would watch over and protect his movement. She mattered that much.
Magdalena, you have been named after a great and wonderful woman. I hope (and honestly, knowing your mother whose quest for what is right I also admire, wouldn’t be terribly surprised) if you grow up to be a woman like Mary Magdalene who is scandalized at the injustice that happens in this world and who demands that it stops. Our prayer for you – and this is why we have welcomed you into the church by baptism today – is that you may also find (as Mary Magdalene found) a way to channel that quest for justice towards peace, reconciliation and understanding in the kingdom of God which is, we believe, the true hope for a better world.