I’m in the Holy Land this week—for the first time since my life-changing experience back in 2011, which has continued to bear fruit in my life and ministry. One completely new (to me) site that I visited is the excavation of the ancient city of Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2; Matthew 28:1; John 20:11-18). Rome destroyed the town after the Jewish revolt in A.D. 67, and its ruins reflect first-century Jewish life in Galilee moments before that world came to its cataclysmic end.
The most important discovery in Magdala is what’s known as the “Magdala Stone,” which likely served as a desk for reading scrolls of the Bible in the synagogue. The stone was sculpted to symbolize the Second Temple, which was destroyed in A.D. 70. Since this sculpture pre-dates the temple’s destruction, it is, for historians, a reliable source of information about the temple and its activities.
There’s a recently built church next to the Magdala ruins, which commemorates Mary Magdalene. Since I’m trying not merely to be a tourist on this trip but also a pilgrim, I took the few moments between the talking of the tour guide and the inevitable gift shop at the exit to reflect on Mary’s life, as revealed in the scripture above, and to pray in the sanctuary.
Mary’s story of deliverance reminded me of Simon the Pharisee and the “sinful woman” in Luke 7:36-50. I’m not suggesting for a moment that Mary was that sinful woman—she wasn’t. But Jesus words contrasting that woman and Simon are pertinent:
“Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The extent to which we love Jesus is directly related to the extent to which we perceive that Jesus has healed us, rescued us, forgiven us—saved us. Mary herself, whom Jesus had delivered from seven demons, loved Jesus as much or more than most, as reflected in her steadfast refusal to leave him—either during the shame of his cross on Good Friday or after his death. She had the privilege not only of being the first eyewitness to the resurrection, but also the first to proclaim the good news of the resurrection, because she wanted more than anything to be with Jesus.
Indeed, being with Jesus is the first responsibility of a disciple. We see this part of our job description in Mark 3:14-15: “And he appointed twelve (whom he also named apostles) so that they might be with him and he might send them out to preach and have authority to cast out demons.”
Before we do anything as disciples, we are to be with Jesus—which, today, we do through reading God’s Word and prayer.
But even putting it like that—contrasting “being” with “doing”—is misguided: because it implies that the time we spend with Jesus—which in my tradition is called having a “quiet time”—isn’t doing anything.
Yet we know that being with Jesus is the most important thing we can do.
Isn’t this the lesson of (a different) Mary and her sister Martha in Luke 10:38-42. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
What was Mary’s “good portion”? To sit at Jesus’ feet alongside the other disciples and learn from him—rather than helping her sister in the kitchen—being “productive” or “working” or “doing.”
To say the least, according to Jesus himself, Mary was hardly “doing nothing”; she was doing the most important work of all.
Through the Holy Spirit, through the scripture that the Spirit “breathed out” (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and through our access to our Father in the heavenly throne room (Hebrews 4:16), we may choose the same good portion.