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18. Mary Magdalene

18-6 Mary Magdalene’s Understanding

Mary Magdalene’s understanding of the Lord went far beyond that of anyone else at the time. The record of Mary after the crucifixion has many links back to the woman of Luke 7. She came to the sepulchre, to wash the dead body with her tears, for she went to the grave, to weep there, and to anoint it with the ointment she had prepared. It’s as if in her anointing of the Lord she really did see forward to His death and burial. And yet her initial motivation in doing it all was gratitude for what He had done for her through enabling her forgiveness. The Lord’s power to forgive was ultimately due to His death, resurrection and ascension (Acts 5:31; Lk. 24:46,47). Yet Mary believed there and then that all this would happen, and thus she believed in His forgiveness. Her second anointing of the Lord has within it the implication that she somehow perceived that her adoration was motivated on account of the death that He was to die. “It was right for her to save this perfume for today, the day for me to be prepared for burial”( Jn. 12:7 New Century Version). The RV of Jn. 12:7 gives another suggestion: “Jesus therefore said [in response to Judas’ suggestion she sell the ointment and give him the money to distribute to the poor], Suffer her to keep it against the day of my burying”. Mary Magdalene had kept the precious ointment to anoint Jesus with when He died; and yet Judas was pressurizing her to sell it. And yet she used at least some of it then. This would indicate that she perceived Him as good as dead; she alone it seems perceived the frequent implications in His teaching that He was living out an ongoing death [see The Death Of The Cross for illustration of this]. She fully intended to pour the ointment on His dead body, but she did it ahead of time because she wanted Him to know right then that she understood, and that she loved Him. The argument of Judas for efficiency, central administration etc. is contrasted most unfavourably with her personal, simple and deeply felt emotional response to the Lord’s death. She did it at supper time (Jn. 12:2). In Jewish culture of the time, a meal together had religious significance. It could be that she so dwelt upon the Lord’s teaching in Jn. 6 that she perceived the broken bread of the meal to be symbolic and prophetic of His upcoming death. Her generosity and totality of response to His death was therefore inspired by what we would call a breaking of bread, which made real to her yet once again the endless implications of His self-sacrifice.  The Lord stated that she had "worked a good work" on Him by anointing Him (Mt. 26:10), and this phrase was commonly referred to doing a good deed of charity to the poor- hence the Lord's comment that they had the poor always with them, but He [as the poor man] was with them right there and then. Mary perceived the Lord as poor, and we learn that on the cross, the Lord who was rich became poor for us (2 Cor. 8:9). This was true only in a spiritual sense, as Jesus was never materially wealthy in His mortal life. We can therefore conclude that Mary perceived this 'making poor' of the Lord in spiritual terms, far ahead of the other disciples.

Perhaps Mary Magdalene alone perceived [from Ps. 110?] that the Lord must ascend after His resurrection- for surely this was why she kept clinging on to Him after He rose, fearful He would there and then disappear Heavenwards. And therefore the Lord comforted her, that there was no need to cling on to Him so, for He was not just then going to ascend to the Father (Jn. 20:17). But another reading of this incident is possible, once it is realized that the OT associates clinging to another’s feet with making a request of them (2 Kings 4:27).  

Mary Magdalene was the first believer to call Jesus “the Lord” (Jn. 20:2)- despite His repeated teaching that this was his true position. They had called Him “Lord and Master” but not the Lord. Her example soon spread to her less perceptive brethren- for they likewise soon were speaking of Him as “the Lord” (Jn. 20:25; 21:7). She would have meditated upon the incidents recorded below, and perceived that although the resurrection made Him Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36), yet to her, it was as if He was risen and glorified already. This is an indication to me that she did really believe He would rise, but her humanity, her grief, the intensity of the moment, led her to act and speak as if this wasn’t the case. Consider all the descriptions of Jesus as “the Lord” even during His ministry; so certain was He that He would indeed be made Lord and Christ- and realize, how the fact Mary Magdalene too called Him “Lord” before seeing the proof of His resurrection indicates that she shared this perception: 

“For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mt. 3:3)

“And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways” (Lk. 1:76)

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Lk. 2:11)

“Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt” (Mt. 18:27)

“Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching” (Lk. 12:37)

“And if any man say ought unto you, ye shall say,  The Lord hath need of them; and straightway he will send them” (Mt. 21:3)

“When the lord therefore of the vineyard cometh, what will he do unto those husbandmen?” (Mt. 21:40)

“The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool?” (Mt. 22:44)

“The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looketh not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of” (Mt. 24:50)

“After a long time the lord of those servants cometh, and reckoneth with them” (Mt. 25:19)

The lesson for us is surely that we must realize that both in our brethren and in ourselves, we can act and speak in ways which mask our real faith and comprehension. The sheer humanity of the moment overtakes us. And yet the essence of faith and true understanding is still there, masked behind it. We can afford in some ways to be less hard on both ourselves and our brethren.  

And yet it has to be observed that her response to ‘the gardener’ reveals that despite it being the third day after the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene wasn’t apparently open to the possibility that the Lord had risen. Yet surely she had heard Him specifically, categorically predict His death and resurrection. One can only conclude that she was so consumed by the feelings of the moment that she like us failed to make that crucial translation of knowledge into felt and real faith. In gratitude for the resurrection of Lazarus, “Mary therefore” anointed the Lord ‘for his burial’ (Jn. 12:3 RV). It was as if she perceived that the resurrection of Lazarus was only possible on account of the resurrection of Jesus which was soon to come. Yet as with us as we sit through Bible studies and revel in our own perception of Scripture, her so fine and correct understanding was suddenly without power when reality called.

Mary's devotion to the Lord, based on the understanding she had, is truly inspirational. The original word translated "nard" is a foreign [non Greek] word, and appears to have originated far away from Palestine. The suggestion has been made that this bottle of nard belonged to some foreign royalty. The price of "more than three hundred pence" (Mk. 14:53) must be understood in terms of a penny-a-day employment rate for labourers (Mt. 20:2). This bottle would typically only be used at the burial of a king. Yet Mary dearly loved her brother Lazarus, and had only recently buried him. But she hadn't used the nard for him; hence perhaps the information is added that his body would be stinking after four days- implying such expensive nard had not been used in embalming his body (Jn. 11:39- the fact it's Martha who observes this may suggest she resented Mary for not using her nard for Lazarus, just as she resented how Mary didn't help her in the kitchen but instead sat at the Lord's feet). And the Lord Jesus perceived all this; for He commented to the disciples that Mary had "kept the nard for my burial" (Jn. 12:7). The Lord's reference to her 'keeping' the nard can be powerfully understood in the context of Mary not using it for her brother's burial, but rather deciding to keep it for His burial. This not only shows the clarity of Mary's understanding of the Lord's upcoming death. It also reflects how she would give her most treasured possession in an apparently senseless act of devotion to Him. She annointed Him because she understood Him to be Christ, the anointed one. But this is what we expect of a woman who won the accolade from the Lord that she sought after the "one thing" that really matters- which is Him and His word (Lk. 10:42). Our eyes have been opened to that same "one thing", and we too claim to have accepted Jesus of Nazareth as Christ; and so to place devotion to Christ above family, above retention of personal wealth and value... is the intended issue of all this for us too.