“I tell you, her sins—and they are many—have been forgiven, so she has shown me much love. But a person who is forgiven little shows only little love.” (Luke 7:47)
Of all the women mentioned in the New Testament, few compare with Mary of Magdala. Set along the Sea of Galilee, the town of Magdala was very unclean—filthy and unkempt—and known for its rampant prostitution. Many of the city’s young girls grew up learning how to sin. Mary was one of them.*
At a young age, Mary learned the dark trade of selling her body for money. She became a harlot, a woman of the night. As an adult, she moved to the village of Nain in Galilee. Like most people in Palestine, Mary had heard the grand reports of a miracle-working prophet named Jesus of Nazareth. Everywhere He goes, Jesus heals the sick and casts out demons. At this point, Mary is a desperate soul. For years she has been vexed with evil spirits, seven to be exact (Luke 8:2). All of her adult life she has known torment, degradation, and utter defilement (Matt. 12:45).
The day comes when Jesus enters her town. She sees a large crowd gathered and spots Him. She is riveted by the authority with which He speaks. She also detects a graciousness and purity that she has never witnessed in any man.
Jesus finishes His message and begins praying for the sick. Without any timidity, Mary approaches Him. Jesus looks upon her with surprising familiarity. In a flash of divine revelation, the Lord remembers. He remembers that she was chosen to be part of His glorious bride before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).
As He puts His hands upon her head, Mary weeps. With uncommon authority, the Lord utters this simple word: “Evil spirits I command you to come out of her, never to enter her again!”
Immediately, Mary lets out a loud wail and collapses before Jesus as if in a coma. Those looking on wonder if she is dead. The Lord assures them that she is just sleeping.
An hour goes by, and Mary awakens. When she rises from the ground, she feels clean and whole. She can only remember feeling this way in the innocence of her childhood, when she was a little girl. She begins to weep again. Mary looks for Jesus, but He is gone.
She has with her the most valuable asset she owns: a small vial filled with costly perfume that hangs from a leather strap around her neck. This vial represents her savings account. The money has come from her trade. Without forethought or deliberation, she wishes to give it to Jesus as a gift, a token of her gratitude.
As she diligently inquires the exact whereabouts of Jesus, someone points to the home of Simon the Pharisee. He has invited the Lord to be his guest for dinner.
Simon belongs to the class of “nonsinners” called Pharisees. They are the self-appointed monitors of the kingdom of God. They are the self-proclaimed and self-anointed experts at sin management. They are beyond sin in their own eyes, and their “ministry” is to make sure that others keep sin to an absolute minimum.
Simon and his Pharisee friends are now afforded the opportunity to interview the Nazarene prophet up close and personal. Jesus is the guest of honor. Simon, however, ignores all of the common courtesies of an Eastern home. He fails to greet Jesus with a kiss. He doesn’t anoint His head with oil. He also fails to wash His feet.
Jesus makes no mention of Simon’s neglect as a host. Instead, He graciously reclines at the table with Simon and his friends.
The door opens, and in walks Mary of Magdala. She is uninvited. Yet she enters unashamedly. As Mary enters, she quickly spots Jesus. And she begins to weep. She walks straight over to Him and positions herself in the highest place possible, at His feet.
As she kneels before Jesus, her tears fall upon His feet. She opens the vial of valuable perfume that’s suspended from her neck and pours it out upon the feet of Christ. She anoints His feet with the perfume, mixing it with her tears.
She then does something outrageous. Scandalous even. She begins to kiss His feet. And she does not stop. (In the Greek, the thought conveyed is that she “smothers” His feet with kisses.)
What happens next horrifies both Simon and his fellow Pharisees.
She unbinds her hair and turns it into a towel. She then proceeds to wipe the Lord’s feet with it. In that day for a woman to unbind her hair in public was no small scandal. The Pharisees are in shock. They are mortified. Her attire makes clear that she is a prostitute. A sinner. There’s no question about it. And they are livid.
Why? Because Jesus, this so-called prophet, does not stop her from engaging in what they consider to be highly inappropriate acts: unbinding her hair and kissing His feet.
Yet Jesus never rebukes her.
The Pharisees think to themselves that Jesus cannot possibly be a prophet. If He were, He would not allow this sinner to perform such disgraceful acts upon Him.
Jesus perceives their thoughts. But He doesn’t seem to care what they think. The Lord knows exactly who she is. She is part of His glorious bride, chosen in Him before creation. And she is doing what the bride was designed to do: loving Him shamelessly, passionately, and extravagantly.
And your Lord is not offended.
Never in His entire ministry has the Lord been loved like this. What is Mary doing? She is simply returning the love that He poured upon her earlier that day.
What are Simon and the other Pharisees doing? They are passing judgment upon her. To their feeble minds, they are in a different class than this woman. She is a sinner. They are nonsinners. They are also engaging in something far worse: They are unwittingly passing judgment on the God whom they are trying to serve.
Jesus launches into a parable: “There are two men who owed money. One owed a great deal; the other owed very little. The money lender had a wide heart, and he forgave them both.”
Jesus then turns to Simon and presses him with this query: “Simon, which one will love the most?”
Simon answers reluctantly: “I suppose the one who owed more.”
Jesus commends Simon for a correct answer. He then proceeds to reprove him: “I came into your home, and you did not greet Me with a kiss. This woman not only kissed Me. But she has kissed My feet, and she has not yet stopped. Simon, you didn’t anoint My head. But this woman has anointed My feet with her life’s fortune. Simon, you didn’t wash My feet. But this woman has washed My feet with her tears and she has dried them with her hair. This woman’s many sins are forgiven. So she loves much. But the person who has been forgiven little will love little.”
I find this story so very encouraging on many levels. But the point that I am most impressed with is in who Mary Magdalene was.
To my mind, she embodies the very depths of the fall. She was a harlot, sold into sin, possessed by seven devils. Yet despite all of that, she was chosen to be part of the spotless bride of Christ. Even more startling, despite her tragic condition, she believed that she was worthy to love the Lord Jesus Christ.
Somehow, Mary touched His grace. Somehow, she saw in His eyes the love He had for her. And with an unbridled audacity, she accepted His forgiveness and she loved Him with a blind passion. Mary’s love for her Lord was but a reflection of His unconditional love for her. Mary of Magdala is a study in undying love.
I ask you: What provoked such devotion? It was simply this: Mary believed the Lord’s opinion of her. She took His opinion of herself rather than her own. In so doing, love was awakened within her own heart for Christ.
Who, then, is Mary Magdalene? She is you and she is me. Deeply fallen vessels. But chosen in Christ before time, holy and without blame, a part of the loveliest girl in the world.
If Mary of Magdala could love her Lord and enjoy His presence boldly, flagrantly, extravagantly, shamelessly, and without inhibition, then so can you. And so can I.
* This story is based on Luke 7:36-50. According to most traditional scholars and the testimony of ancient church history, Mary Magdalene is the “unnamed woman” (the prostitute) mentioned in Luke 7. Luke doesn’t name her for obvious reasons, but he mentions her by name in Luke 8. Mary Magdalene is not to be confused with Mary of Bethany, who anointed Him near the end of the Lord’s earthly life. Some modern scholars question all of this, however. But it’s impossible to tell either way. Even if you don’t believe that Mary Magdalene is the “unnamed woman” in Luke 7, it doesn’t affect the main plot-points of the story. Just insert “the unnamed woman” for Mary.