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.




Filed under Ethics, Theology and Faith

7 responses to “Magdalene

  1. Thank you, yes yes! That’s all I really have to say: you already said it here. And thanks for the reminder.

  2. oh, bristol, a thousand times, thank you… for making us aware. for teaching us. for humbling us to pray. this is such an important issue… bless you.

  3. I feel like this is the opportunity for my generation. We can tackle this or walk away in shame. This issue lies so heavy on my heart sometimes. The latest figures I heard were that million people lived slavery today, million of them women and children (primarily sex slaves.) I think we have to do more than rescue those capitive but stop the demand for their “services.” I have friends who moved to Europe to be directly involved in red light district ministry. So I understand from them that it is a complicated issue but it makes my blood boil and my heart break at the same time.

    • I meant to say 27 million in slavery with most of them being women and children. To compare the USA/American colonies held 11 million slaves over a period of 400 years. Now we’re talking 27 million at one time.

      • Thanks for giving us some actual numbers to think about, Joybird. The shock of those kind of statistics should tell us something. I relate to what you said about the difficulty in discerning how to respond. It is definitely complicated! It seems like the issue of sex slavery has been getting more press lately… I’m curious whether the greater awareness about modern-day slavery will motivate more action, or whether it will make people feel overwhelmed and shut down. I hope to have the courage to end up in the former category!

  4. Mary – what a precious one. No? How many demons did Our Lord drive from her 7? Too many. We forget that demons dwell in those without protection – but they do I think. The Bible says so at least. I heart and trust my Bible. And I heart your description “the hated “sinners” of society.” These are the ones he hung out with – they needed him. They also listened. And hmmmmm. maybe a post sometime on all the Mary’s – a series – I might like digging into that 🙂 Anyway, I hearted this Bristol – I really did. God bless and keep you and all of yours this day – this Mama’s day!! God bless.

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