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July 23, 2006

A Loose Woman

Sarah Dylan Breuer
The Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, July 22, 2006
Canterbury House, the University of Michigan

Mary Magdalene has never gotten so much press as she’s getting now. With The Da Vinci Code, everyone’s talking about her. And what do we know about her?

She had this reputation in art and popular imagination as being literally a whore, a prostitute. A close reading of New Testament texts about her shows that this is a very silly thing to say. We find out in Luke chapter 8 that seven demons had been cast out of her, and we also find out in Luke 8 that she and a few other women who traveled with Jesus funded the mission they shared — they “provided” for the band of Jesus’ disciples “out of their resources.” In other words, they had wealth of their own, and the freedom to travel with it and do with it what they saw fit. And neither Luke nor any other New Testament writer identifies Mary and these women by their family relationships. There’s no note that this was “Mary, the wife of George” or “the mother of Fred,” or even “the daughter of Jamal” — she’s just “Mary, called Magdalene.”

All of these clues — her lack of family identifiers when people speak about her, and even more than that her freedom to travel with Jesus and spend her money as she felt best — suggest that Mary Magdalene was unattached in conventional terms. Literally, she was a “loose woman.”

And there we have the likely source of that persistent rumor that she was a sinner or a prostitute — neither of which is even implied in any canonical gospel.

So thank God we have The Da Vinci Code to set the record straight. The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction, admittedly, but it’s got this page at the front of it that says that all of the historical claims forming the background of the novel were meticulously researched and are true, true, TRUE! — though those villains in the church who compiled the New Testament canon have tried to keep the truth from us. The truth, according to The Da Vinci Code, is that Mary Magdalene was really a person of inestimable importance in early Christianity because she was secretly the wife of Jesus of Nazareth and the father of a number of children by him.

And I’ve got to say that The Da Vinci Code really, really pisses me off on this point.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I want to scream. After all that women and supportive men have struggled for in the movement for women’s suffrage in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after the early feminist movements of the sixties and seventies, after women became prime ministers in governments around the world, after women were ordained as priests and consecrated as bishops and now elected — Hallelujah! — as our next Presiding Bishop — after all of this, the only way The Da Vinci Code can think of to say that Mary Magdalene was or is important is to say that she was married to and had babies with a really important man?

Come on!

I have problems with this as a historian. For starters, in the first century, the norm for spiritual leaders in both Jewish and Roman cultures was NOT that they should be celibate. Celibacy was seen as weird and more than a little threatening for both men and women. For the vast majority of Jews, God’s word in Genesis to “be fruitful and multiply” was seen as a COMMAND, not just a warm wish, and any rabbi who didn’t marry and beget Jewish babies was breaking God’s command and threatening the very existence of Israel. And Roman culture had a lot of the same pressures.  Caesar Augustus was the original “family values” politician — ruling an empire decimated by civil wars, his domestic policies were crafted to encourage people to marry and have as many children as they could. Roman culture was also big into machismo — a man who didn’t have children was the object of pity or the butt of jokes, and a man who didn’t want to prove his manhood and “Prove It All Night,” as Bruce Springsteen would say, by having sex with women, was just plain weird.

All that’s to say that if the early Christians could have convinced anyone that Jesus of Nazareth did marry and have children, they would have been shouting it from the rooftops, not lying and murdering to conceal it. “HEY!” they would have been shouting to potential converts, “Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t as weird as you might have heard. He was a REAL man — and here are his beautiful wife and strapping sons to say so!”

The bottom line was that Jesus’ disciples couldn’t get around the embarrassing truth: that Jesus never married, never had children, and the “loose women” who traveled with him weren’t around for Jesus or anyone else to prove their manhood.

But the real problem I have with what The Da Vinci Code does to Mary Magdalene isn’t about historical truth, but about theological insight and prophetic vision. In a sentence, here’s my problem with The Da Vinci Code on Mary Magdalene:

It isn’t anywhere near radical enough.

Not nearly. Not by a long shot.

The Da Vinci Code wants to say, in effect, that THE importance and the very identity of a woman is defined by her relationship to a man. You couldn’t get a more conventional view out of some first-century “Focus on the Roman Family” or the “Sadducees’ Committee to Keep Women Barefoot and Pregnant in the Kitchen.” I’m not pissed off by The Da Vinci Code because I think sex is bad and good people don’t have it. God made sex, and sex is good — if we’re lucky and get the opportunity to practice it — a lot — over the years in a really good relationship, it’s mind-blowingly good. But for God’s sake — and I mean that — for the sake of the God who sent us Christ Jesus, let’s not look at ourselves and our sisters and brothers in Christ so darn CONVENTIONALLY.

We get enough of that, don’t we? All of us live in a world that is constantly trying to evaluate our worth based on our attachments. Who’s your daddy? Who’s your girlfriend or your boyfriend? What school do you go to, and what fraternity or sorority did you join? What company do you work for, and what’s your title? And believe you me, as an openly gay woman, I meet lots and lots and LOTS of people who want to say that my identity and my vocation is ALL about who I do and don’t sleep with.

Honey, that ain’t liberation. That’s not the freeing, joyful, gracious, saving word that God has for us tonight.

So tonight, I want to claim Mary Magdalene as my patron saint. Tonight I want to invite all of us to claim Mary Magdalene as a patron saint. And I want to say a few words from scripture about what that might mean.

It means hearing and choosing to respond to God’s call — not just once, but every day. Mary heard and responded with all that she was and with all that she had. She found in the community of Jesus’ followers a group of women and men who weren’t going to define her by who she slept with or by any other attachment — and she claimed her identity and her vocation in Christ as an apostle — as one sent and urged on by the love of Christ, called to “regard no one from a human point of view.” And she wasn’t going to let go of that. So when so many of Jesus’ other disciples — his male disciples — looked at Jesus in chains, Jesus on a Roman cross, and regarded him from a human, conventional point of view as a failure and a lost cause, Mary didn’t give in, but went to the tomb. And that’s why scholars call Mary Magdalene “the apostle to the apostles.” She was there at the tomb, and she saw the risen Jesus, and she was sent by Jesus to tell the guys who were busy wondering whether they could get their old jobs and their old roles back that the world was coming to new life in Jesus, who was and is alive.

And I dare say that following the Risen Christ who chose Mary Magdalene as the first apostle of Easter means being a “loose woman” or a “loose man.” It means refusing to be bound by our attachments to anything that might compromise the radical freedom we have to follow Jesus, to relate to one another as human beings made in God’s image and called to full, joyful, abundant life. I’m sure that Mary had plenty of people in her life who were quick to remind her of who she was supposed to be, people who tried to teach her to know her place. But she already knew her place, and it was in Christ — going where God called her and living with the kind of freedom to bring all of who she was to God’s service in the community of sisters and brothers God called. You know, there are basically three words for women in Greek: there are wives, virgins, and whores. Mary Magdalene as a “loose woman” following Jesus taught us another word for a woman that I want to claim for myself and I hope you’ll claim too. When everyone around her wanted to figure out whether Mary was a wife, a virgin, or a whore, she claimed her identity as an apostle, a woman or man sent by Jesus to proclaim the kind of freedom in Christ that Mary found as a “loose woman.” And woman or man, young or old, rich or poor, and whatever other descriptor anyone might want to present as THE definitive thing that should keep us shut in to the roles that “from a human point of view” make us worth anything or nothing, we can thank God in the tradition of the Apostle Mary Magdalene that in Christ we are loosed from all of those conventional bonds and freed for life in the Risen Christ, the life that brings life to the world.

Thanks be to God!

July 23, 2006 in Year B | Permalink


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I have always conceived of the God of the Bible as an engineer before he is a king. Unlike any other king, he is the maker of his realm, and as a perfect being, he must clearly put perfect thought into perfect design and then into perfect form. I admit that I believe in the creation story, if just not quite the timeline that is literally associated with it by young Earth creationists. For certain reasons, reasons I won't go into, I can conceive of how it is possible.

Posted by: timeline of Jesus life | Aug 28, 2008 10:14:14 PM

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