Mary Magdalene – Maligned and Misunderstood as a Leader
By: Ali Summers
Taking some time out to study and reflect on Mary Magdalene is fascinating. She is, I have to admit, not someone I have previously done a lot of reflection on and yet, as I write this, there is currently a whole plethora of focus on her in the media with a new film, Channel 4 documentary and Easter headlines in The Independent and Times of Israel of with the headline of “Long maligned, Mary Magdalene now seen as stalwart disciple” (The Independent / The Times of Israel – 1 April 2018) and comments such as: “If there’s a feminist figure from the Bible for the #MeToo era, it could very well be Mary Magdalene”…
Mary Magdalene is mentioned in each of the four gospels in the New Testament but, as with many of the women in the Bible, we only really get glimpses of her journey and indeed her life as a leader of influence.
We are first introduced to her in Luke’s gospel as a woman who travelled with Jesus and the twelve disciples:
“After this, Jesus travelled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; 3 Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. (Luke 8.1-3) This description of her is again referred to in Mark 16. 9 which brings us to the first of the things we are reminded of for any of us as followers and disciples of Jesus:-
A woman who knew deeply what it meant to be rescued, healed and set free
Whatever the speculation of where the demons had come from, for we are not told of the specifics of her past, Mary knew what it meant to be rescued, healed and delivered from a place of darkness to a place of light. A place where she was free to be herself, to spend time with Jesus in a way that broke through the barriers of middle eastern culture, to be accepted as one who followed him (i.e. a disciple), to sit at his feet and listen to him as a rabbi. These are the marks of a leader – one who first and foremost follows Jesus intimately and is fully aware and thankful for the life and freedom He has given them which then overflows to those we lead. It’s so easy for us as we go on in years of leadership, to take for granted our own stories of the hugeness of freedom and grace and the complete and utter darkness, loss and mess we would be in without it.
Question – Do the people you lead know your story of freedom? How transparent should we be as a leader?
A woman of generosity and faithfulness
Not only a life of freedom, but Mary Magdalene also models a life of generosity and faithfulness as a leader. She is forever marked in the gospels as a woman of means who gave in sacrificial generosity, supporting the needs of the group as the Kingdom of heaven brought transformation through Jesus. At the cross she then remained faithful; Mary is present at Jesus’s crucifixion, supporting him in his final horrific moments and staying with his body as Joseph of Arimathea placed it in the tomb and rolled the stone across. This is also seen in her role along with some of the other women in bringing the additional costly spices to lovingly anoint Jesus’s body when she discovers the empty tomb.
Question – What does it mean for you to lead the way in a life of generosity and faith? Are leaders called to take bigger risks than anyone else?
A woman who knew an intimate close walk with Jesus.
It’s very apparent, too, that she walked a close and intimate walk with Jesus. Mary is listed as one of the women who watched as Jesus’s body was laid in the tomb and then returned on the first day of the week to bring the spices to anoint his body as per middle eastern custom. It is later on this day that Mary then stays behind at the tomb and Jesus appears to her first in this most significant and beautiful of moments. Mary’s use of “my Lord” and the story of John 20 reveal this both close and private encounter where it is Jesus who, in the midst of her tears and bewilderment, gently speaks her name. There is so much in this moment of friendship, of intimacy in the way he says “Mary”, that Mary realizes who it is and cries out in recognition and response to him. She responds “Rabboni” teacher – indicative of their close trust and relationship. Leadership is built on intimate moments between us and Jesus where he speaks our name and gently moves us from our moments of doubt and pain into fresh calling and sending out for the next adventure of faith.
Question – Reflect on a time when you were stuck in doubt or pain…what did it look like for Jesus to meet you there and gently move you on?
A woman who took risks and preached the news of resurrection life
Mary’s place in John 20 is a spectacular one – she doesn’t feature in John’s gospel until now but here she is the first apostle – known as the ‘apostle to the apostles’ – the first sent and commissioned to bring the news that the tomb was now empty. She was entrusted and chosen to be the first to meet with and speak with the risen Jesus himself, called to declare “I have seen the Lord” v18 and to pave the way for us all to do the same.
Mary also models for us the life of someone so devoted to discipleship that she not only travels around with Jesus, supporting him and learning from him despite the cost and the risk, but as Jesus is arrested, sentenced and crucified and when all the male disciples but John had fled into hiding, she remains standing and faithful at the cross. Beyond this she is sent out to tell the good news of the resurrection despite the fact that Luke tells us that the women are not initially believed. This perhaps a final reflection on Mary Magdalene… that history and culture has often misunderstood her and wrongly judged and labelled her.
In the centuries that followed she has often been portrayed in art as a prostitute, yet not once does it say this anywhere in the scriptures. This was forever confused in history by Pope Gregory I (c564-604) who very influentially wrote that the sinful woman in Luke 7 was Mary Magdalene who had been involved in ‘forbidden acts’ and from that perspective others would, for over a thousand years, see her through these eyes, defining her as a prostitute instead of the strong woman leader we see in the gospels. In 1969 the Catholic church did declare this was not the case, and later in 2016 Pope Francis declared that Mary Magdalene was the ‘Apostle to the Apostles’, and issued a decree giving her a feast day, putting her in the same rank as the rest of the Apostles. But by that time, a lot of misunderstanding and maligning had already gone on!
It can often be challenging and wearying to be misunderstood or even maligned as a leader and yet to remain standing and continuing to press into all that we are called to. Mary’s story and example ultimately reminds us that God is our defence. Our leadership calling and passion come out of close and intimate relationship with a risen Saviour.
Question – Have you ever felt misunderstood or wrong assumptions made about you as a female leader? How have you responded?