Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking at a service we hold at a local care home. We've been doing a series called, "People Jesus Met," looking at different encounters people have with Jesus in the four Gospels. My turn came around to talk about Mary Magdalene. As far as I know, this had been in the pipeline long before the recent film of the same name came out.
I haven't watched the film, but critics apparently weren't kind, and from the little I read about it, it seemed that the filmmakers were importing a whole agenda into the film that would hide or spoil some of the wonderful truths about Mary Magdalene we read in the Bible.
This isn't to be a rant about a film I haven't watched, but a lovely comparison I came across in my readings for this talk. During the service, we had three readings:
• Luke 8:26-39 (Jesus heals a demon-possessed man)
• Matthew 27:50-61 (Jesus dies on the cross)
• John 20:1-18 (Mary Magdalene meets the risen Jesus)
If you look up these passages, or if you're already familiar with them, you'll realise that only two of them mention Mary Magdalene: The first is the account of how Jesus went to a region called either Gadarene or Gerasene (or Gergesene, or possibly Genneseret) and cast out an army of demons from a man. If you know the story, you know how this man lived naked out in the graveyard, bursting free of his chains any time the locals tried to restrain him.
I chose this reading to get an idea of what Mary Magdalene's life must have been like before she met Jesus. She may not have had an army of demons, but in his Gospel Luke tells us that Jesus drove 7 demons out of her (see Luke 8:2). Sometimes, the Bible speaks about demons as "impure" or "unclean" spirits. We've no idea how similar Mary's experience would have been to the naked, cemetery-living man of Luke 8:26-39, but we at least know that - besides anything else - being demon-possessed would be a defiling, isolating experience. If you had a demon and people knew about it, they would cast you off - they wouldn't want anything to do with you. You would lose the friends and family you had, because the Jewish culture of the time was deeply concerned with ritual purity. There was nothing more unclean than an unclean spirit! It wouldn't just get your clothes dirty - it would stain you from your very deepest self - from your soul, out.
As I thought about these two people that Jesus saved, I realised, as it would be for any lepers Jesus healed ("leprosy" in the Bible usually means any skin diseases that makes a person unclean), the driving out of their demons would have been a purifying experience. Far from the lonely, damaged, defiled people they were before they met Jesus, we see a man "dressed and in his right mind" (Luke 8:35) - or in Mary's case, a once-lonely woman given a family and a purpose. No doubt, Mary Magdalene was grieved beyond imagining to see Jesus being crucified, but it was a trauma she shared with the whole community of servant-hearted women who followed Jesus with her.
These people give us a very clear sense of what it means to be cleansed by the saving power of Jesus. He saves us from Hell, yes; he pays for our sins and the punishment we deserve for them, hallelujah! But as well as that, he makes us clean. As God said through Isaiah, "Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow." (Isaiah 1:18)
In our lives, as we sin - or as people sin against us - we become defiled. We become impure - unclean. The natural reaction to certain terrible things that are done to us is to wash; to try to let water wash away the dirtiness we feel inside. As any victim of abuse will tell you, there's not enough water in the world to wash away those stains.
But Jesus makes us truly clean. He could purify Mary Magdalene, though she had been possessed by 7 demons. He could purify the Gadarene man, who had a whole army of demons poisoning his soul! There's no measurement for that level of uncleanness, and yet Jesus' word alone was enough to make him whiter than snow.
As Mary Magdalene discovered that first Easter Morning, Jesus has risen. He's alive today, and still has the same power he had 2000 years ago. Whatever we've done, or whatever may have been done to us - whatever spiritual dirt we accumulate through our lives - he has the power and the will to make us clean.
If only we would ask him, and like the man from Gadarene; like Mary Magdalene; follow him.