In today’s Gospel reading, we are introduced to a woman, whose name is familiar to most everyone: Mary Magdalene. She gets more attention in the telling of the story of Jesus than most of Jesus’ disciples do; and in fact, the only woman in the New Testament we hear more about is Jesus’ mother, Mary. Mary, the mother of Jesus is important for obvious reasons, but there’s something especially intriguing about the Mary who, it is assumed by her name, came from the town of Magdala.
Conspiracy theorists, see Mary Magdalene as someone who doesn’t get her proper place, because she’s a woman. Scandal enthusiasts see Mary Magdalene as either a prostitute of even a possible love interest in Jesus’ life. If you’re into conspiracies or scandals, it makes for a good story, but there’s no evidence for either one.
The reason Mary Magdalene is sometimes identified as the prostitute who anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume is because that story comes just before today’s reading. No name is given to that woman so I suspect it is not Mary Magdalene, but we don’t know for sure. So let’s instead turn to what we do know about Mary Magdalene.
I find what today’s Gospel story tells us about Mary Magdalene to be even more intriguing that conspiracy theories or scandals. As Jesus begins his ministry Luke tells us that,
“Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. His twelve disciples were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities:”
And the first person mentioned as one of those women is “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out.” Mary was healed by Jesus; and Mary was one of the women who followed Jesus and “provided” for Jesus and his disciples “out of their resources.”
But it’s that first thing we learn about Mary Magdalene that I find most intriguing. Luke tells us that she was a woman “from whom seven demons had been cast out.” When I read that and it doesn’t sound like something I can relation to. It’s not something that’s familiar to me. I don’t know of anyone that I would say has demons. One demon is strange enough. Seven demons? I don’t really know what that looks like. So this reference to “being freed from seven demons” is usually dismissed by people today as an ancient misconception of something that they didn’t understand.
But a couple weeks ago, I heard someone address this very passage in a way that completely changed the way I look at it. It was on the public radio show entitled, “On Being”, and the host was interviewing a poet named Marie Howe, who read one of her poems she entitled “Magdelene—The Seven Devils”. And her poem suddenly made Mary seem real to me, and in fact, a lot like all of us.
In this poem, Marie Howe imagines what Mary’s seven demons, might be. And it got me thinking, “What are my demons?” What are the things in my life that I need to be freed from? We all have demons in our lives, that cause us to slip a little out of touch with reality. What attitudes do I have that reveal my self-centeredness? Or distract me from the things in life that are truly important? What are the things, –call them demons if you will,– that distract me from the truth, distract me from the people I am called to love, distract me from God? What are they, ––big things, small things –– and what would it look like for me to be set from them?
So I took Marie Howe’s poem and reinterpreted it rather freely, leaving some of it as she wrote it, and rewriting parts of the poem to make it something I understand and relation to better. So here it is, “Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had been cast out” —Luke 8:2.
“The first was that I was very busy.
The second — I was completely different from you:
whatever happened to you could not possibly happen to me, not like that.
The third — I worried.
The fourth — envy, disguised as compassion.
The fifth was that I hate spiders, … their creepy legs, … 8 sinister legs scurrying around;
and I hate centipedes, … even more … 100 creepy legs slithering around,
as if they have something to do.
and mosquitoes …
Ok the first was that I was so busy.
The second was that I procrastinate –
I got through today just fine not doing it, …
I think tomorrow will be a better day to do it,
which is what I thought yesterday, and what I thought the day before.
The third was – why would anyone choose to live like that. How disgusting.
How repulsive. What’s wrong with them.