Tag Archives: comfort

Mary Magdalene

[Mary Magdalene is traditionally remembered on 22 July, so many churches will replace the routine readings this Sunday to turn to her story]

The “Saints” in New Testament language are defined as all faithful Christians.  Still, we often use the term for those best known, perhaps for their place in the New Testament. These have a place in our education, as examples of the grace and work of Christ in believers, and of the diversity of vocation. They also challenge our limited horizons:
to those inclined to say “This is me, this is all I am ever going to be, and all I want from religion is a bit of comfort” they offer a resounding “NO” This may be where you now start, but by God’s grace you will grow into His purposes, as they did.

Mary Magdalene was “rubbish”: a woman, and one possessed by demons until Jesus freed her (Luke 8:2)! Yet she is remarkably honoured:

  •  she is mentioned as one of the group of women who followed Jesus. Indeed, it may be significant that she is usually mentioned first.
  • she is granted the first appearance of the Resurrected Jesus (John 20), and is the “apostle to the apostles”{a medieval term from several theologians}, sent to tell them the good news
  • she has a clear place in the gospel story – not bad for a nobody (and good reason for us to revise our ideas of who “matters”!)

But be careful not to get her story wrong. Dan Brown in the da Vinci Code took ideas from the Gnostics, (and their late and untrustworthy writings, the “Gospels” of Thomas and of Mary) that she was Jesus’ lover or wife, mother of his child/children, teacher of the apostles. Wishful thinking? Inability to believe that a close relationship could not be pure? Ben Witherington notes there is NO early historical evidence that Mary’s relationship with Jesus was anything other than disciple to Master/teacher.

But let’s go back to what we know with confidence, and ask “Why, or in what way, is her life an example for us?”

  • Firstly, she accepts what God does for her. Healing, change, becoming part of a new group (and no doubt adapting to it).
  • Secondly, she re-makes her life around God’s purposes. We can only speculate about her life before: did she have family (or had they given up?) Certainly she recognises the source of her healing, and she follows. A very important part of Christian life is finding where God wants to put us, and being content to work at fitting there.
  • Thirdly and very importantly, she invites us to look again at the way Jesus relates to people. He has funny ideas about who is important. He avoids making people dependant, yet is of first importance – to beggar, scholar, and fisherman.

Saints are useful to make us think of what God does, and wants to do, with his people. We need to be careful not to read into their stories what we want to find, but there is plenty here to instruct and challenge us.

Comfort and Healing – that we must share

As Jesus travelled, ” he saw the crowds, his heart was filled with pity for them, because they were worried and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”  no surprise there – we expect Jesus to teach, heal, be compassionate. But think what else he could have done:

  • this is ridiculous, I need a holiday, I’m off!
  • here’s a real commercial opportunity, if I charge them £5 a head, we can all retire next month
  • if I organise them properly, I can have any position I want just by asking for it.

But Jesus isn’t like that, and won’t do those things (not that they are necessarily bad! – there’s nothing essentially wrong in making money by supplying what people want, or organising people to voice their demands and promote their leader, but)  As Mt summarises the first part of his gospel, he reminds us that Jesus had taken the initiative. He travelled, and taught (free of charge), and healed people. His reaction to the crowd is not even “here we go again”, but one of concern for them, for their real wellbeing. He doesn’t wring his hands or bemoan the situation, he gets on with working to tackle it. I hope you find all this encouraging. It’s the sort of thing that makes me want to be a Christian, a better, more effective Christian, a Christian in action, not just words or theory.  It is evidence of love, of quality love which is not interfering do-goodism, nor ego-boosting “I told you my way was best”ism, nor anything else but deep, effective concern for the best for the other person.

There’s a bit of a sting in the tail!  Jesus reaction to the need is v37 (” Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few”) and 10:1,7 (” Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.”, “go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. “). The 12 (only here does Matthew call them apostles – those sent out) are given authority, and their marching orders.  Again, we’re not terribly surprised; heard it before, perhaps. But shouldn’t we be?

  • Jesus could have called for volunteers – the extrovert, perhaps?
  • he could have sent those with that sort of gift
  • he could at least have kept a couple back, to keep him company, to get things ready for the others when they came back. You know the sort of people – “don’t expect me to do the religious stuff, but if you want practical help, I’ll be there.”

But just as Jesus worked for the good, the real benefit of the crowds – in the same way he sends all his disciples, to work in the same way. It’s a bit daunting, very much against our culture.  Imagine the complaints, and their answers:

  • I just want a bit of comfort; – fine, but go and give it
  • I like religion the way I like it; – go and love people
  • I’m hurt, damaged, tired, too old; – welcome, find the healing, energy, renewal – but even as you find it, share it with others.

It’s very easy to get used to Jesus, active in practical love.  It is distressingly easy to get used to our own willingness to admire that, even benefit from it, but not take him seriously.

Target?

We begin Lent with the story of Jesus temptation.  He has just been baptised by John (Matthew 3:13-17), recognised not only by the Baptist, but by the heavenly voice affirming him as Son.  Then the Holy Spirit leads him away from the crowds to the wilderness, and we read Matthew 4:1-11.  It is as if the heavenly father adds, “But before anything else, there are a few things you need to sort out, Son.”  His forty days of fasting and struggle, the origin of our Lent, remind us both of the cost of Jesus’ ministry and also the strength he brought to this work.

Sometimes we focus on the three particular temptations – things which have so often made leaders corrupt and compromised:

  • there is the temptation to make life comfortable, a compensation for the stress of leadership.
  • there is the temptation to be a celebrity – to use power to make people take notice and obey.
  • there is the temptation to be the person who makes God do miracles.

Some of these affect us, too, and we can usefully be warned off.  But there is another thing here we can miss.  Jesus is struggling.  There is a real fight – but against who?  Many expected a Messiah to fight the Romans, but we don’t hear Jesus attacking Pilate, the Roman governor.  Herod was criticised by John the Baptist, but Jesus will not be his enemy.  He will warn people against the teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees, religious teachers, but they are not to be fought.  Even Judas receives kindness.

We have to understand that the fight against temptation is a fight against evil, but not a fight against other people.  (Paul says this in another way in Ephesians 6:12). No matter how stupid, how difficult to deal with patiently and in love, the enemy is not another human (for whom Jesus lived, died and rose again!), but the evil at loose in the world.  Evil will appear as pride, anger, self-pity, or in many other disguises eg as if concerned about the rights of others.  The grace is to recognise evil and temptation as cheats, with half truths and false promises.  Then with God’s help, we can go the way of real life, and freedom.