Year C Proper 6: the sinful woman and Mary of Magdala

The question came up during our Tuesday bible study week whether the sinner who anoints Jesus’ feet in the Gospel according to Luke is, in fact, Mary Magdalene, mentioned further down the page. There is a long tradition in the West of saying so, but I promised to explain this morning why I don’t think that this is the same woman. In fact, I think that we do these women something of an injustice when we try to mush them all together to fit one story. What’s more, it is my guess that Jesus had no difficulty telling them apart.

There is a story in each of the four gospels about a woman anointing Jesus with precious perfume. In the Gospel of Luke, which we just heard, Jesus is just getting into the swing of his Galilean ministry, travelling the country and cities around Capernaum, preaching, teaching and performing miracles. This story is about a woman who recognizes him as one who delivers those imprisoned by sin, and restores them to health and salvation, and she weeps with gratitude and wipes his feet with her hair. The response that Jesus gives is to defend her prophetic act of love, which he says is provoked by her own recognition of her sin and its forgiveness. He speaks directly to the woman in words he usually uses to the healed: your faith has saved you; your faith has made you well; and those around him are shocked.

There are obvious parallels with the other gospel stories, but there are also differences. The other three anointing stories are all told as Jesus is journeying towards Jerusalem and his death. All three set the scene not in Galilee but in Bethany, just a little way outside of the holy city. While the house belongs to Simon, he is now called “the leper”. In all three, the woman is criticized by the disciples not for being a sinner, but for wasting money. Again, Jesus defends her act as a prophetic gesture, this time one which prepares him for the trials to come. In two of the other three stories, the woman anoints Jesus’ head. Only in the Gospel of John is the woman identified by name, Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, and she anoints Jesus’ feet, like the sinner of Luke’s Gospel, and wipes them with her hair.

Fun fact from one of my teachers: of the sixteen women named in the New Testament, seven are called Mary; so one Mary does not have to be the same woman as the next Mary, if you follow me.

There are very few other reasons why Mary Magdalene became associated with the sinner woman from Luke. The woman cries, and her tears fall on Jesus’ feet. Mary Magdalene is weeping when she goes to the tomb of Jesus, carrying oils and spices, and is among the first to witness the resurrection. Perfumed oils, tears, and the name Mary seem to have been sufficient to tie Mary Magdalene firmly to the notorious woman of the city unnamed by Luke.

By the sixth century, Pope Gregory, later to be known as the Great, seemed quite certain in his identification of the woman in today’s Gospel story:

“She whom Luke calls the sinful woman, whom John calls Mary, we believe to be the Mary from whom seven devils were ejected according to Mark. And what did these seven devils signify, if not all the vices? …It is clear, brothers, that the woman previously used the unguent to perfume her flesh in forbidden acts. What she therefore displayed more scandalously, she was now offering to God in a more praiseworthy manner.”[1]

And so the die was cast, at least in the West, and Mary Magdalene, from whom seven demons were cast out, was branded an albeit penitent prostitute.

Why does it matter? you might ask. If seven out of every 16 women was called Mary anyway, why does it matter whether this one was called Mary, and whether she came from Magdala in Galilee or from Bethany in Judea, and since we are all sinners, and her sins were forgiven her, why should it matter what went before?

Well, here’s the thing. Mary of Magdala, whom we know as Mary Magdalene, is one of few women in scripture identified by her place of living rather than by her husband or father; she is a rare example of an established, independent, and apparently respected female figure. She was a constant companion, supporter, and follower of Jesus. She was, according to most accounts, the first to witness his resurrection. She was given the charge by Jesus to proclaim that holy and high event to the other apostles, including the men. She could have been used to represent the equality of women in the eyes of God, the dignity of women in the economy of the church, but instead, she was diluted and insulted by the church for centuries of its history.

Consider this: nowhere else, no one else who suffers from demons and is cured by Jesus is identified therefore as a notorious sinner. No one else’s demons are equated with their sins. But Gregory decides on a whim that the seven demons cast out of Mary are the seven vices, and suddenly she is a whore. There is no reason to accuse Luke’s sinful woman of specific crimes or lifestyle violations. Yet by mixing her up with the Magdalene, and adding in a little bit of imaginative interpretation of the demons Mary fought, we end up with a picture of Mary not as a faithful disciple and supporter of Jesus, the strong one who would carry forth his mission, but as a fallen woman, sidelined by her sin, by her sex and by her tears.

There is a problem that occurs when we conflate people, and groups of people, and we define them by the pigeonholes we can put them in, and we cease to see individuals as beloved children of God, each one uniquely made in the divine image, and we fall far short of loving them.

I am sorry to say that this has happened to women for many centuries, and the problems of inequality, not to mention of sex-trafficking, of exploitation and oppression are unfortunately real and alive in our communities. It happens also to anyone that we lump into a category instead of affording them the dignity of individuals: think about racial minorities, or those we choose to identify as such; people whose marriages or families fail to reflect our adopted ‘norms’; people with disabilities, people with criminal records, people with physical or mental illness; when we talk about the homeless guy, instead of seeing a man who doesn’t have a place to sleep tonight, or we talk about the druggie, instead of seeing someone’s child who is struggling to put the monsters back in the closet.

Any time we put a label ahead of the person wearing it, we are doing the same thing that Gregory did to Mary Magdalene and the women he made her absorb; making the oppressed responsible for their misfortune, we fail to do justice; making the victim responsible for her helplessness, we fail to administer mercy.

Rowan Williams calls it, “’Using other people to think with’; … When you get used to imposing meanings in this way, you silence the stranger’s account of who they are; and that can mean both metaphorical and literal death…living realities are turned into symbols, and the symbolic values are used to imprison the reality. At its extreme pitch, people simply relate to the symbols. It is too hard to look past them, to look into the complex humanity of a real other.”[2]

We would do so much better to listen to the stories of individuals than to lump them together as fallen, sinful or willful people. After all, one of them might just be a witness to the resurrection.

It is my guess that Jesus had no problem telling Mary of Magdala apart from Mary of Bethany, the woman at the house of Simon the Pharisee from the woman at the house of Simon the Leper. He seemed to have a knack for affording each person his or her own deserved and God-given dignity. He knows each of us by name, he justifies us and defends us, and he forgives us our sins.

And as his named disciples, we would do well to follow his example.


1] Pope Gregory’s Homily 33, delivered c. 591, quoted by Susan Haskins, Mary Magdalene: The Essential History (Pimlico, 2005) 96

[2] Rowan Williams, Writing in the Dust, after September 11 (William B. Eerdman, 2002) 64-65

Also read:

Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority (Harvard, 2003)

Mary R. Thompson, Mary of Magdala: What The Da Vinci Code Misses (Paulist Press, 1995)

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