Chapter 2

Back to School

We seldom move from one comfortable level of learning and knowing to another unless we are forced in some way to move. I benefited most from teachers who made me think instead of letting me parrot the textbook or my lecture notes.

We don’t do ourselves a favor if we insist on staying at one learning level when we need to move to another one. We often don’t like the circumstances that push us to change. We’d prefer to be left alone in our comfortable tranquility. But that is not the path to growth.

Nor is it the path to true discipleship. If we are to grow as Christians in our understanding of God, we have to expect the tough circumstances that confront and disappoint us. It takes grim life experiences to build muscle into our souls.

The process of following Jesus as His disciples is the process of making room for new ways of looking at life and at ourselves. Jesus was a master teacher. We might have expected Him to use only one method for getting His message across, but He taught different people in different ways.

We might have thought He would choose only the most promising pupils for His class. Instead, He included men and women other teachers would have ignored. One choice pupil of the Master Teacher was Mary Magdalene. She possibly spent more time with Jesus than any other woman in the Gospels.

Mary of Magdala found that her discipleship as a follower of Jesus Christ was a constant learning process. She had already learned much as one who traveled with Jesus. But in one of the final scenes in the Gospels, she was once again back in school, learning something new about being a disciple.

Though she is mentioned by name fourteen times in the Gospels, we actually know only four things about Mary Magdalene.

Though she is mentioned by name fourteen times in the gospels, we actually know only four things about Mary Magdalene.

The first two we see in Luke 8:1–3:

Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with Him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.

The first fact we know about Mary of Magdala is that Jesus cast seven devils out of her. We don’t know when or where. Both Mark and Luke give us the fact, but neither gives us the story. We do know from her name that Mary came from Magdala, a town about three miles from Capernaum on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was the territory that Jesus continually criss-crossed in His itinerant ministry in Galilee. At some point they met and the miracle of her deliverance took place.

Delivered from seven devils. What must that have meant for this woman? We do not know how long or in what way she was tormented by demon possession.

But we do know that any possessed person was an outcast from normal society. Some afflicted people were more animal than human, living in caves, roving around the countryside terrifying people with their distorted faces and wild eyes. Created by God, they were being destroyed by Satan. What it meant for Mary to be possessed by seven demons we cannot guess. But for her, deliverance must have been a life-changing liberation. Her bound spirit was set free. Her cramped limbs relaxed. Her contorted face became serene. 

For Mary, deliverance must have been a life-changing liberation. Her bound spirit was set free.

The second thing we know about Mary is that she traveled all over Galilee and down into Judea with Jesus and the Twelve. If you suffered from a terrible affliction for years and then found a doctor who could release you from your suffering, you would probably want to stay as close to that doctor as possible. Mary Magdalene became a permanent itinerant with Jesus’ band of followers.

Most of us probably assume that Jesus and His disciples traveled around strictly as a male group—the Savior and the twelve men whose names we may have memorized in Sunday school. There are a number of reasons we might assume this.

For one, during the first century in Israel, some rabbis taught that good religious men did not speak to women in public. A Pharisee would not speak even to his own mother if he met her on the street. The careful segregation of men and women in that culture would make anyone traveling with both male and female followers too countercultural to be listened to.

Furthermore, the Law declared that a woman during her menstrual period was ritually unclean. Everything she touched was defiled. At such a time she needed to be tucked away where she could not contaminate anyone else. How could Jesus and the Twelve risk contamination by these women traveling with them?

Public opinion about a mixed band of followers traveling around with Jesus might have raised moral questions. When we think about Jesus and His disciples in the Gospels, the people involved are the men we’ve come to know—Peter, James and John, Andrew, Nathanael, Bartholomew, Judas, and the others. How could this group of women travel as members of Jesus’ band without raising eyebrows?

The gospel writers don’t answer that question for us. What we do know is that while Jesus’ enemies accused Him of Sabbath-breaking, of drinking too much wine, and of associating too closely with tax collectors and other disreputable types, at no time did they ever raise a question about sexual immorality. We must assume that these men and women traveled together in a way that avoided scandal.

First named among the women in that band was Mary Magdalene. We know nothing more about her background. Some commentators believe she came from a wealthy family and was thus able to help support Jesus and His other followers. That may or may not have been the case.

You may have heard of the musical stage show called “Jesus Christ Superstar.” In it Mary Magdalene was portrayed as a woman who practiced the “oldest profession on earth,” prostitution. Yet in the Scriptures we find no basis for that idea.

This myth about Mary Magdalene started in the sixth century when a pope named Gregory linked her with the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfumed oil. Ever since, throughout the past fourteen centuries various artists have portrayed Mary Magdalene as a voluptuous hooker. Churches have named homes for rescued prostitutes Magdalene houses. Despite the myth, Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute. Furthermore, we have no evidence that demon possession led to immorality in anyone’s life.

The first two facts we know about Mary are that Jesus cast seven demons out of her and that she was a permanent part of the group that traveled with Him.

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