Mary’s Resolutions and Resilience: A Historical Narrative

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Published:
January 15, 2022

Bewildered and in shock, Mary half runs, half stumbles away from Simon’s ornate home. The chill night air reddens her face as she clutches at her torn robe and wipes away blinding tears. Minutes ago Simon had compelled her to have sexual relations.[1] He then threatened to have her cast out of the temple if she told anyone or if she didn’t return every Tuesday evening. Mary knows, that as a highly respected Pharisee, Simon has the power and influence to back up his dire warning.

From that day forward, Mary suffers sexual abuse on a regular basis at the hands of her well-known neighbor.[2] At some point Mary becomes utterly desperate. The only option she can see is to run away. She dreads leaving her beloved Bethany, her sister Martha, and brother Lazarus, but there appears to be no alternative.

Four days later she secretly packs a few essential belongings, sneaks away before sunrise, and joins a caravan headed to Magdala, over 50 miles away. [3] It is the farthest city from home that still speaks her native Aramaic. Perhaps in order to hide her identity, Mary of Bethany now becomes Mary Magdalene (from Magdala). [4]

Magdala is a bustling metropolis on the fertile western shore of the Sea of Galilee. It occupies an economically advantaged position on the turnpike from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean.

In order to survive, Mary turns to the only profession available for a lone, female stranger—prostitution.[5] Her many customers run the gamut from lower class to well-to-do. She manages to survive, but suffers from grief compounded. The loss of family, self-esteem, and worst of all, the favor of her cherished God. The Old Testament was all too clear that people in her profession were spiritual outcasts. (Proverbs 5:3-5)

Each customer, each new day of indignity, chips away a little more of Mary’s emotional stability. Headaches, insomnia, periodic depression, infect her living. Her weight drops. Her cheeks look increasingly sallow. She can sense her spirit gradually shriveling within her. In order to function, she becomes a robotic practitioner.

To avoid rebuking stares and hurtful remarks, Mary only leaves her apartment for essential errands. She occasionally allows a slight grin to steal across her face as she stares out the window at playful children on their way to school.

One day, word reaches Mary that Someone people are calling the Messiah is preaching nearby. A fellow prostitute stops to tell her about the multitudes that are gathering on a mount in the little village of Tabgha to hear His revolutionary teachings. [6] “I saw prostitutes like us come up for His blessing. I saw it with my own eyes!”

Distrustful now of almost all men and constrained by shame, Mary holds back but despite her hesitancy, a seed of hope sprouts within her. The next day she thinks, “Perhaps I will go… just to observe.”

Standing on the fringe of the immense crowd, Mary is drawn to the gentle, empathetic tone of the Speaker. She is also captivated by the remarkable words He shares—so unlike the Pharisees back home. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matt 7:7-8 NIV emphasis supplied)

Mary’s mind is reeling as she meanders back to Magdala. She has never heard such stirring insights. His words attach themselves to her desperate heart and lodge there with an innate power to calm and soothe.

The next day she returns. At the end of His teaching, Christ invites people to come forward for a blessing. Mary’s mind shouts a compelling list of cautions, but her feet are nonetheless moving, shuffling ever closer to the front. She ultimately finds herself standing only a few feet away from the Teacher. Her heartbeat quickens.

After a couple of minutes, Jesus approaches Mary. His large, muscled hand presses lightly on her head. Pent up tears stream down her face. Her shoulders involuntarily shake with wracking sobs as her sad story tumbles out.

Mary eventually becomes silent, wondering what will happen next. She now hears the unforgettable pleadings of this compelling Man’s earnest prayer, “Oh God, you have loved Mary since she was born. She is so precious. She has been treated so badly by this world. Please reach down into her broken heart and bring hope and healing.”

Mary looks up into Christ’s smiling face and watery eyes fully engaged with hers. Inwardly she can sense a new openness come over her like an unexpected, invigorating gift. Emotionally she reaches out and grasps tightly onto the Lord’s words. Jesus squeezes her shoulder, utters a blessing, then moves on to another seeker.

On the return trek to Magdala, Mary resolves to change, to find a God honoring way of somehow making ends meet. But soon the grip of her old life of harlotry draws her back in. Her sincere determination is overwhelmed by a renewed sense of guilt, worthlessness, and futility, plus the intense pressure from her insistent clients.

Weeks later, against all odds, Mary again resolves to find the Man who accepted her, who offered her such a rare ray of hope. Through inquiries she discovers He is again teaching nearby. Her mind screams at her that it is all so useless, but she persists, choosing instead to take one deliberate step after another toward the light.      

Again Mary hangs on every word from the mouth of this revolutionary Rabbi. She dares to approach Him. He recognizes her instantly and spends time with her long after the crowds have dispersed to listen and to offer words of forgiveness and encouragement.

And here it is that we find some of the most arresting words ever written by the Spirit of Prophecy. Describing Mary’s encounters with Christ, Ellen White writes, “Seven times she had heard His rebuke of the demons that controlled her heart and mind.” [7] The Lord didn’t cast seven demons out of her on one single occasion, He cast a different demon out of her seven separate times.

Seven times Mary relapsed. Seven times she slipped back into her old desperate, sinful ways. And seven times the Lord joyfully accepted her back and restored her without any reservation, just as eagerly as He had at the beginning. 

It is an amazing story of Mary’s broken resolutions and Holy Spirit inspired resilience. She fell back repeatedly, but each time she fell back a little less. Like a green plant pushing up through a tiny crack in a concrete sidewalk, Mary’s new life persisted and grew and ultimately won.

Beginning in the autumn of A.D. 29, Mary joins Christ and the disciples during their second missionary journey throughout Galilee, serving those in need and gaining spiritual strength and maturity. [8] After several months, Mary decides to return home to Bethany. At long last she is able to renew much of her former life as a much stronger person in so many ways.

 About one year after her return, Mary hears Jesus’ awful prediction of His impending death. Wanting to honor her Deliverer, she decides to anoint His body during the burial with the most precious ointment she can afford. Happily, however, she hears from the disciples that Christ is not going to die but will, instead, be crowned king of Israel and overthrow the Romans.

Thrilled, Mary decides to use the perfume to honor the Lord for His upcoming victory. [9] She goes to a special hiding place and retrieves the bag with her savings from her years of prostitution then makes her way to the best perfume shop in all of Jerusalem.

“I would like to see your most exceptional oils,” she tells the owner. Having little confidence in this simple, single lady’s ability to pay, he retrieves a bottle from the countertop. “Here is a lovely item that anyone would be proud to possess,” he intones, naming the price.

“Actually, I am looking for something more elegant and rare,” Mary retorts.

The owner continues presenting a variety of perfumes of increasing value. Each time Mary pushes it back toward the pudgy owner. Exasperated at what he is sure is a waste of time, the man decides to close the discussion by retrieving the one bottle that no shopper has yet been able to afford in his twenty one years of business.

“I’ll be right back,” he advises, and disappears into a back room.

The man returns and explains, “Madam, this perfume is fit for royalty. It is made with pure nard from the distant Himalayan Mountains. [10] I don’t mean to embarrass you, but it is worth 300 denarii, a full year’s wages for an average laborer. [11] King Herod himself would be pleased.” He carefully puts the wrapping back around the alabaster bottle.

Mary fingers the coins in her bag, counting them again silently to herself. As the owner begins to walk away, she declares, “I’ll take it.”

In a stunning display of courage, Mary chooses to anoint Christ in a very public way at the home of her former abuser, Simon the Pharisee. While the Lord is reclining at the banquet table with the others, she stands behind Him, then kneels, breaks open the bottle, and generously pours the entire contents over both His head and feet, which makes her deed very noticeable.[12] By this conspicuous deed, she is making a bold statement saying, “I will return now to this place of pain on my own terms. Jesus deserves great honor and as long as I am with Him I have no fear. No one here can have any power over me!”

Having forgotten to bring a towel, she inadvertently resorts to an old habit from her time in Magdala and lets her hair down in public in order to wipe the excess oil away.[13]       

Simon spots Mary and has the audacity to label her a “sinner.” Christ quickly intervenes in a way that gloriously affirms Mary.

“Then [Jesus] said to Simon, ‘Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, \

BUT SHE wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.

You did not give me a kiss,

BUT THIS WOMAN, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.

You did not put oil on my head, 

BUT SHE has poured perfume on my feet.

Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown.’” (Luke 7:44-47 NIV emphasis supplied)

In front of all the distinguished men at Simon’s dinner, Jesus also states that both her and her selfless deed will ultimately be immortalized throughout the world as a vivid illustration of what the gospel is all about, “Wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matt 26:13 NIV)

 

References

[1] Simon compelling Mary to have sexual relations seems to be the most logical conclusion from the available evidence. We are told by Ellen G. White that Simon the Pharisee had “deeply wronged” the youthful woman and led her into sin. (The Signs of the Times, May 9, 1900 “At Simon’s Home.” Also, Desire of Ages, p. 566) The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary ( 5:763) indicates that Simon had “seduced” Mary.

[2] This seems to be the best explanation of why Mary would leave Bethany. We need to remember that she is a victim, not a perpetrator. While in Bethany, it was Simon who took the lead in getting her to do something sinful. She was “wronged.” It was not something she chose. It is Mary Magdalene who becomes known as a harlot, not Mary of Bethany. Tragically, when she later returns to Bethany, her reputation follows her.

[4] On Luke 7:37, the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary Vol. 5, p. 762, states, “Mary of Bethany, otherwise known as Mary Magdalene.” See also the extended “Additional Note On [Luke] Chapter 7” in the SDA Bible Commentary pp. 764-767 that identifies Mary of Bethany as the same person as Mary Magdalene. See also, “Is Mary Magdalene the Sister of Martha” by Angel Manuel Rodriguez, Seventh-day Adventist Biblical Research Institute, https://www.adventistbiblicalresearch.org/materials/is-mary-magdalene-the-sister-of-martha/

[5] In his reference to her in Luke 7:37, William Barclay states, “The woman was…a prostitute.” William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1975) 95

[6] Ibid, 5:322.

[7] Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1940) 568

[8] The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1956) 765

[9] Desire of Ages p. 560.

[10] The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, 762.

[11] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992) 648

[12] Matthew 26:7 says, “which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.” Luke 7:38 says that Mary stood behind Christ while He was at the table and then knelt down. She didn’t sneak up from behind. See also Mk 14:3; John 12:2. Putting all four Biblical accounts together, we understand that Mary anointed both Jesus’ head and feet.

[13] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: 1975) 576-577.

 


Kim Allan Johnson retired in 2014 as the Undertreasurer of the Florida Conference. He and his wife Ann live in Maitland, Florida. Kim has written a number of articles for SDA journals plus three books published by Pacific Press: The GiftThe Morning, and The Team. He has also written three sets of small group lessons for churches that can be viewed at www.transformyourchurch.com (this website is run by the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists). He is also the author of eight "Life Guides" on CREATION Health.

Kim has recently started an exciting new ministry to teachers at www.hi54teachers.com, which is currently accepting donations. Read an interview about this organization here.

Photo by OSPAN ALI on Unsplash

 

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