Last week another American darling got caught in “shockingly” rebellious behavior. Miley Cyrus, who became famous for her lead role on Disney’s hit series Hannah Montana, was captured on video smoking from a bong 5 days after her 18th birthday. This is perfectly in line with Cyrus’ recent campaign to shed her “good girl” Disney image, following on the heels of increasingly provocative videos and attire, obscenity-laced public talk, and several sexual picture scandals in recent years.
Although it’s easy to dismiss Cyrus as another Hollywood starlet gone nuts, or maybe even another teenager “just being a rebellious teen”, what often goes underestimated is the widespread effect that behavior like Cyrus’ has on those whom she is a natural role model to. She is helping to adjust what millions of American girls deem “normal” behavior. And if you don’t think these young starlets truly have an impact on the girls of this country, consider the ridiculously over-sized sunglasses you see on the next teenage girl and understand where the influence came from.
Look at the most influential young women in our country of the past decade: Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, Miley Cyrus. What do they all have in common? More fame and money than they know what to do with. Yes. All formerly employed by Disney, which although it doesn’t necessarily mean a ton, it does mean that they were employed by a company known for tv shows & movies that supposedly promoted “family values”. Perhaps most telling though, all of them exist currently in broken homes. To put it differently, these girls were all loved by the world for their beauty and talent, but they couldn’t find the love they really wanted (i.e. needed) at home – family love. The end result was that they’ve all engaged in destructive behavior (either “acting out” or “acting in”) through drug/alcohol abuse, truancy, and overtly sexualizing themselves, which along with cutting and eating disorders are considered the telltale signs of severe mental health problems for females in this age bracket.
While we’re obviously not going to solve the problem of young Hollywood gone bad in this article, or even all the problems surrounding female teens in our country, one point becomes abundantly clear……according to God, the most primal need that a woman has is to be loved and understand that she is loved by those who matter most (Eph 5:25). I believe that this truth has profound implications for another young woman, the Bride of Christ, i.e. the Church. And to illustrate that, I’d like to share with you the story of a very self-destructive (even demon-possessed), overtly sexualized young woman who was desperate for true love.
(for the sake of this article, I am operating with the fairly conservative and traditional view that Mary Magdalene is indeed the unnamed woman described in the Luke 7:36-50 account)
Much has been made in recent years about a young woman who was one of Jesus’ closest human friends. Controversy has surrounded the false Gnostic Gospels which suggest she may even have been Jesus’ girlfriend. This was NOT the case though, and the claim is gross not only from a sacrilegious but also historical accuracy standpoint. The woman we’re talking about here is the “other Mary”, Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ chief supporters in his life…..and death. So loyal was she that even as a corpse, she was still taking care of him (Mark 16:1). In fact, this woman becomes so beloved by Jesus, that she is the very first human to whom Jesus appears upon his resurrection from the dead. “They (the angels) asked her (Mary Magdalene), ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away,’ she said, ‘and I don’t know where they have put him.’ At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there…” (John 20:13-14).
So who was Mary of Magdala? Magdala was a city along the Sea of Galilee that was known for its rampant prostitution. Girls grew up in that town learning from an early age how to sin with their bodies. Mary was likely no different. On top of all that baggage, Mary was plagued by seven evil spirits (Luke 8:2). Undoubtedly she would have consequently struggled with more modern-sounding conditions like depression and suicidal tendencies then as well. She needed relief. She needed help. She needed to be the recipient of true love, not lust.
Like most everyone in Galilee at that time, Mary had heard of a miracle-worker in the region named Jesus. Maybe, on a long-shot, he had some help to offer, she thought. Having heard that this man even had powers to raise the dead (Luke 7:11-17), Mary decided to seek him out in a Galilean town called Nain. There she found a large crowd gathered around Jesus and she heard him speak. Jesus spoke unlike any man she’d ever heard before. Somehow he spoke with authority and gentle humility at the same time. Somehow, in a sinful world, he expressed complete purity and yet did so without coming across as “better than thou”, but with genuine interest in the benefit of others. As Jesus began to express concern for the sick who were swarming around him, Mary Magdalene found her way to Christ. He placed his hands upon her and cast out the demons that had troubled her for so long. She was cleansed and probably experienced a feeling of purity that she had not known since childhood, since before she began dabbling in the flesh trade. For the first time in her life, a man had now loved her for a something other than her body and the pleasure it could bring him. He had loved her and helped her simply because he chose to do so, because he’s simply just that good of a man. And Mary was enamored with him.
Jesus had been invited to the home of Simon the Pharisee for the evening. This Simon character clearly had no good intent, but was merely seeking to trip up this man who was promoting a message contrary to the self-righteous agenda of the Pharisee party. You see, these Pharisees viewed themselves as above sin itself and condemned all whom they labeled as “sinners”.
Although Jesus was a guest at Simon’s house, no hospitality was shown towards him. There was no greeting with a kiss, no anointing of his head with oil, no washing of his feet – somewhat common expressions of friendliness and warmth shown in ancient Eastern culture. But Jesus didn’t complain.
Through the open door, in walked Mary Magdalene, who had found her way to Simon’s house. Understand that ancient culture didn’t have access to front door padlocks. Privacy in general (as evidenced by the public bathing habits of the Roman Empire) was not our 21st century concept. So it wasn’t too uncommon for someone to just walk into the house off the street. As Mary entered, crying, she positioned herself at Jesus’ feet. She began kissing Jesus’ feet. She poured on his feet the expensive perfume that she’d been carrying around her neck in a vial (probably her life savings). She even unbound her hair to wipe off Jesus’ feet. This unbinding of hair would have been considered scandalous and inappropriate for a woman at this time to do in public. It was considered too “revealing”. And on top of it all, this woman’s clothes clearly indicated that she was a prostitute.
The Pharisees were mortified that Jesus would allow this to go on, because they didn’t understand who he was or what was happening here. They were too spiritually smug, self-righteous, and judgmental to deem themselves needing of forgiveness. They felt they had earned God’s love and they felt this awful, sinful woman didn’t have God’s love. They didn’t appreciate or desire God’s grace (undeserved love), so they are shut out from God’s grace, and therefore God’s kingdom.
Mary Magdalene, however, was a believer. She was part of the Bride of Christ. As such, she was doing exactly what the Bride of Christ is supposed to do: she was loving Jesus shamelessly, passionately, and extravagantly. Mary was simply returning the love that this great man had shown to her earlier. She was loved. She knew she was loved. And so she joyfully expressed that love to God – the thing we call “worship”.
If you’re wondering how the story ends, the Gospel writer Luke records Jesus saying to Mary, “Your sins are forgiven…..Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7:48,50). And for my money, this is one of the most beautiful stories in all of Scripture.
Mary chose to accept Jesus’ opinion of her rather than her own opinion of herself. She valued herself because she understood that she was truly loved by someone who truly mattered. His love saved her.
And if you haven’t figured it out yet, Mary Magdalene really is you and me too. We are so deeply flawed and defiled by sin that it’s often tough to look in the mirror and see anything of value. But part of the mystery of Christianity is understanding that it doesn’t really matter what we see in ourselves. What matters, what dictates whether or not we have value, is how God sees us. And Galatians 3:27 helps us understand this: “And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes.” Imagine if you took a homeless woman off the street, gave her a makeover from the world’s top stylists and put her in a designer wedding dress. This is what Christ has done for dirty sinners. He has cleaned us of sin. He has clothed us with his own righteousness. He has made a Bride for himself – the Church. At the same time he has also made a home, built with people, for his Father to live in – again, the Church.
As a member of the Christian Church, this is what you need to understand about yourself: God chose you, as he did Mary Magdalene, before the creation of this world. He chose you despite knowing all of the mistakes you were going to make. Jesus’ love would deal with them and cover them completely. He did this because you are simply that valuable to your Lord. Realize how loved you truly are. Go in peace, and love your Lord like Mary did.
The Bride of Christ, God’s woman (the Church), needed to be loved and to know that she was loved in order to be saved. I understand firsthand that it’s easy for local churches to get caught up in things like ministry programs, worship styles, budgetary concerns, and attempting to push the right buttons to program as much morality as possible in members’ lives. First and foremost, what a local church needs to remind itself of though, is that as a visible extension of THE Church (capital “C”, communion of saints, etc.), that church is loved with an undying love from her groom, Jesus Christ. If that beautiful bride recognizes how loved she is, the rest of the details, if they’re even that important, will fall into place as needed.
This Christmas, may our churches be filled not with Pharisees, but with former prostitutes who have come to celebrate the arrival of the One who delivered them from their demons and their sins, who have come to celebrate God’s grace.