Mary, who loves Jesus
I noticed Mary a lot this Lent, as I walked through the familiar stories of Jesus’ life and death. It is Mary who first sees the empty tomb and then the risen Christ himself, who recognizes him at the sound of her name. It is Mary who tells Jesus’ close friends and followers the Good News: that He lies dead no more but walks among the living. Mary — this brave, faithful woman — who loved Jesus and walked with him all the way to the cross and the tomb.
Mary, who history labeled a whore.
Of course, scripture never tells us that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute: that idea is more the product of historical imagination, folklore, and melding of scriptural characters (see note below). The gospels do tell us that she had 7 demons cast out of her by Jesus (Luke 8:2). Whatever burden she was carrying, it was a heavy one, and she found freedom in the person of Jesus. From the moment of her redemption, she followed Jesus and supported his ministry.
Mary, who still walks the streets
I’m not going to spend time correcting the potential misinterpretation that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. There are plenty of destitute women in the Bible, even if Mary Magdalene was not among them, whose stories can reveal God’s heart toward them. It is the association made by pop culture (and sometimes Christian culture) between this heroine of faith and prostitution that has been on my mind.
We can get so comfortable telling the story that Jesus spent time with “tax collectors and prostitutes,” with the hated “sinners” of society. We can get so comfortable talking about Jesus stepping in to save the adulterous woman in John 8. We recount these truths and remind each other to drop the stones from our fists and the judgment from our lips. We feel warm and close to Jesus, remembering that he loved the “least of these.”
But can we get comfortable with the reality that Mary still walks the streets? Can we get comfortable with the story that women around the world still bear the chains of slavery, chains that have changed shape and form but are still just as heavy and unbreakable? Can we get comfortable with the knowledge that America’s legal system often punishes the prostitutes but not the johns? Can we get comfortable with the intertwining of prostitution and drug addiction? Can we still reach out to these women, as Jesus did?
I want to be courageous enough to open my eyes to prostitution as a current reality, not just ancient history, to be faithful enough to join my voice to the abolitionist movement that says ‘no more!’ to sexual exploitation of any person. I want to speak, with honesty and grief, about slavery and oppression as real truths lived today by my sisters and brothers around the world. And when I speak of Jesus’ love for the “least” of his society, I want to turn my eyes and heart toward the “least” of my society.
Silent No More
This issue has been on my heart the last week since I was moved by a powerful NPR series about a prostitution recovery program in Nashville that bears the same name as Christianity’s faithful (although not necessarily a prostitute) heroine: Magdalene. I highly recommend listening to the 3-part series, found here: Up From Prostitution. The stories in this series brought me to tears more than once. Also, I want to encourage you to support Thistle Farms: a social enterprise run by women recovering from addiction and prostitution (in the Magdalene program), that sells bath and body products.
There are also lots of organizations that do powerful work on all the forms of modern-day slavery and exploitation. Here are some to check out:
Not For Sale is a modern-day abolitionist movement that fights back against human trafficking in all its forms.
International Justice Mission is a human rights agency that advocates for victims of slavery and sexual exploitation.
One Voice to End Slavery is using social media to combat the forms of modern-day slavery.
There are plenty more organizations involved in this work. I just wanted to offer a few with which I am familiar. I hope you will join with me in praying that together we can “loose the bonds of injustice and undo the thongs of the yoke to let the oppressed go free” (Isaiah 58:6).
I have re-written this post many times, attempting to express myself in a way that does justice to the suffering of women in the world. Thanks, Emily & friends, for encouraging me to let it stay imperfect:
What do you think scripture has to say about prostitution or slavery? How do the two issues connect? What forms do you see slavery or prostitution taking in our world today; how are those issues similar or different than they were in Jesus’ world? What challenges you or comforts you about Jesus’ care for the “least” of society?
A note on Mary(s)
There are a lot of Marys in the gospels, and it’s a bit confusing to distinguish which stories go with which Mary. But, some distinctions:
This is definitely not Mary, the mother of Jesus.
This is probably not Mary, the “sinful woman” who washes Jesus’ feet in Luke 7:36-50.
This is probably not Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha (who also washes Jesus’ feet.)
Regardless, I’m less concerned with making sure I separate the Marys and more concerned with telling the story of Jesus’ radical love and hospitality to all of these women. But all the Bible scholars out there are free to help me out with the details.