St. Mary Magdalene, Penitent 2018
Today the Holy Church commemorates a woman of whom little is known. Today we give thanks to God for the witness of Saint Mary Magdalene, the one whom Church history has labeled as “Penitent.” Although the sinful woman in today’s Gospel is unidentified, tradition has identified her as Mary Magdalene, the same Mary out of whom seven demons were cast, who was believed to be the sister of Mary and Lazarus, the one who would later be honored as “the apostle to the Apostles” for bringing them word of Christ’s Resurrection. But today we hear of her conversion, of her faith in the One “who even forgives sins.”
What St. Luke records is one of the most excessive displays of devotion in all of Holy Scripture. A woman, who was a sinner, comes to Simon the Pharisee’s house during a dinner party. Apparently she has a reputation, shown in Simon’s internal dialogue: If only Jesus “would have known who and what sort of woman this is” He might have reacted differently. So, this suggestion implies she’s not the type of woman you would want to be anywhere near you in public. Simon seems to suggest that she is sexually impure, a prostitute or an adulteress. Whatever the reality is, she knows that she will be judged and humiliated by Simon. But she comes anyway. She endures the shame and scorn because she wants nothing more than to be where Jesus is.
If you close your eyes you can see the situation unfolding. The distinguished group sits down to dinner when suddenly there bursts in the weeping woman of ill repute. She doesn’t linger in the back of the room and try to be inconspicuous. Instead she dashes for the Guest of Honor and does not do the polite thing and grab His arm or hand, but goes for His feet, the most lowly and looked away from part of the body. Her weeping is so great that her tears are enough to wash His dusty feet. In a confession of her uncleanness, she even dries His feet with her hair, making His dirt hers. She anoints these holy feet with fragrant oil. During all this the guests watch, embarrassed, speaking to each other in hushed tones, judging this woman and the One who would not rebuke her. And we get that, to some degree. It’s excessive, a little too intimate, and comes across as obnoxious. If someone starts weeping at your feet, washing them with their hair, and rubs expensive perfumed oil into them, you probably would tell them to go away, knowing that some clear boundaries had been crossed.
Excessive as it may be, she came in penitence. She came, sorry for her sin, looking for forgiveness, life, and salvation in the only place it can be found. Instead of rebuking Mary, Simon, the one who counted himself as upright, is rebuked. Our Lord labels Simon as “the one to whom little is forgiven.” Why is this? It is not because his sins were unforgiveable, but because he would not confess his sin. Simon received Jesus as if he was of the higher place, not Our Lord. He did not offer Him water to wash his feet. He did not greet Him with a kiss. He did not anoint Him. These were all things one did for a person of higher status. To withhold these staples in etiquette was to label yourself as higher and worthier of honor than your guests. Simon did not receive Jesus as the God, but as an ordinary man, the latest fad to sweep the town. Little is forgiven of Simon because he does not recognize his need for confession, let alone his need for a Savior.
Too often we, like Simon, look at ourselves as “the undefiled in the way, who walk in the law of the Lord.” We see ourselves this way by our own merit. We believe that deep down we are good people who lead good lives, unaffected by all the sinners who surround us. We don’t claim to be perfect, but close to it. Like Simon, we think we deserve to have fellowship with Jesus, that He should feel honored to be invited into our company. But this self-righteousness sheds light on a deeper, more eternally damning reality. Our self-righteousness shows our lack of devotion for Jesus, our attitude that we have little need of Him and ask precious little of Him, only turning to Him when it will benefit us the most publicly. This is indicative of a faith that is self-reliant and cold. There is no longing for Jesus, only disgust at the filthy sinners He receives.
But that is not how the true Church is. This is not how true faith encounters Our Lord. True faith is like Mary Magdalene, who came to Jesus, despising herself, and looked to Him in penitence, looked to Him alone for mercy and life. This is precisely why the Christian Church remembers these faithful men and women who have gone before us, these saints of old. We do not remember them to worship them or exalt them, but, like them, to cling to the One to whom they also clung. We see in them how the Christian lives. In Mary Magdalene we see one who fully understands her fallen state, sees how miserably sinful she is, and how she longs for the One who alone can cleanse her and raise her up. We see one who is foul to the world but the most precious and beautiful to Christ because of faith. Our Lord says of Mary Magdalene that she “loved much.” This is not a polite way of saying that she was promiscuous, but is rather a statement of her faith. This love which Mary Magdalene possesses is one animated by faith, one which clings solely to its God and Savior. She is the fulfillment of today’s Old Testament reading, going about the city, in the streets and the squares to seek the One she loves. Once she has found this One, she holds Him and will not let Him go. This is exactly what “loving much” looks like. By Christ’s absolving Word, her tears of repentance become tears of joy.
So what of you? You are the one in the parable who owed much and Our Lord is the creditor. He sees that you come to Him this day like Mary Magdalene, weeping and shedding the tears of repentance, bearing nothing but the fragrant oil of faith. He extends to you full forgiveness of the debt which you could not pay. He extends this forgiveness because the feet at which you have fallen and wash with your tears were pierced. These feet walked the road which you should have walked. They walked the road to Calvary, bearing the Cross and bearing the full weight of the world’s sin. Then these once lifeless feet were raised to life and walked to Mary Magdalene to announce full victory over death and Satan.
These feet walk to you this day. They walk to you by Word and Sacrament. They bid your tears of sorrow become tears of joy. You are God’s clean and perfect child according to His Word. You are not a sinner; you are forgiven! No matter what you have done, by the grace of God through Jesus Christ you are forgiven. You are holy. You are Baptized in Christ and no one, no thing—not the devil, not your sins, not the disdain of others—can snatch you away. You belong to Him, you are set as a seal upon His heart, just as He was set upon yours at your Baptism. You will follow Him out of this vale of tears, out of this den of iniquity, out of your own sinful flesh, to Himself in heaven. If that brings tears to your eyes, as it did to Mary Magdalene, so be it. You have been forgiven much, you are a new creation in Christ.
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Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.