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.
The fourth — I don’t have my cell phone.
Did I leave it in the office … or in my car? … or did I put it down on the counter at the
store and forget to pick it up, … and someone will take it, and use it,
and I can’t stop thinking about it until I find it?
The fifth was — Look at that child celebrate after he made the basket … he’s so arrogant.
Look at my child celebrate after he made the basket, … he’s so joyful.
The sixth was – I love you in theory, but I don’t really want to be with you.
No. That was the first one.
The second was that I was so busy. I had no time. How had this happened?
How had our lives gotten like this?
The third was that I was offended by your poverty …
parading your hungry children before me, as if it were my fault.
Ok. The first was that I could never get to the end of the list.
The second was that the laundry was never finally done.
The third was that no one knew me, although they thought they did.
And that if people thought of me as little as I thought of them then – – what was love?
The fourth was I didn’t belong to anyone.
I wouldn’t allow myself to belong … to anyone.
The fifth was that I knew none of us could ever know what we didn’t know.
The sixth was that I projected onto others what I myself was feeling.
The seventh was –– I’m really quite sure that if everyone would just try
to see truth the way I see it, … if I could just get God to see it my way,
that everything would be much, much, better …
and that I don’t need to listen to you … or to God …
because I don’t need to change. I never need to change.
Underneath it all, — that was the first demon. It was always with me.
… And that I didn’t think you — if I told you — would understand any of this —
Copyright © 2008 by Marie Howe.
So, what are your demons? What are the things that distract you from what you were created to be? It doesn’t have to be big things, or dramatic things. In fact, it’s often the unimportant things that we obsess over, that really aren’t important, that are our demons, getting in the way of what we should be concerned with.
Life’s demons are constantly changing. They sneak up on us. They seem so righteous, they seem so clear, so important, but they are those things that are not inspired by a life-giving Love for God and for one another.
Demons often appear to us, disguised as truth, disguised as principle, disguised as fact, sometimes even disguised as Biblical insight, but they it’s demon because the divert our attention from those things that are truly of God. Demons push people away, rather than embrace them in love. Demons stand in judgment rather than seeking understanding and healing.
But the more important question is: how does Jesus heal us? How does Jesus free us from all those distractions. And that is what our faith does for us: helps us see clearly what’s important, infuses in us, God’s Spirit of love, instills in us and abiding hope rather than despair. Brings us a Spirit of peace and joy.
Jesus healed Mary Magdalene, setting her free from big distractions, from small demons. And from that day on, she followed him.