Mary of Magdala
When Jesus mentioned the Decapolis and Perea in his list of places to visit, he must have been speaking of future travels. Fortunately before our return to our home base in Capernaum, we would only visit major towns near the Sea of Galilee, such as Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Magdala. Jesus had not yet selected all of his disciples. This concern was important to him too. We knew he would do this one day, but it wouldn’t happen until we returned to Capernaum. Another pattern, that had begun in Nazareth, and which had been more successful in Capernaum, would be repeated in each town: Jesus would preach in the town’s synagogue, a crowd would gather and, after the words were spoken, we would baptize those initiates coming forth. It would have become monotonous if it had not been for the miracles occurring now and then. Though the miracles slowed us down they were often spectacular. People would emerge pitifully from the crowd—blind, deaf, lame, or diseased—begging for a cure. Sometimes, as in the case of the sick, who were delirious with fever or with infected wounds, the crowd would scatter, fearful of contagion, but often the ailments were minor matters, such as the woman who had been deaf in just one ear.
Jesus, however, was growing very weary of this trend. He couldn’t refuse showing compassion and curing people waiting in line, and yet matters were getting out of hand. In Peter’s words, “These people don’t want salvation; they just want to be cured! That’s not the purpose of Jesus’ message!”
In Bethsaida and Chorazin an assortment of illnesses were cured, which interrupted Jesus’ sermon and even baptisms in progress because of the commotion the supplicants made. More serious in Bethsaida and Chorazin was another familiar pattern Jesus encountered before. Those actually accepting God’s grace and being baptized, though significant in numbers, were greatly outnumbered by the idlers in the crowd. Most of these men and women, many of whom heckled Jesus in the background, were more interested in his performance as a miracle worker rather than a preacher. Jesus gladly cured the sick, lame, deaf, and blind, but his appearances were not meant to be entertainment. Worse than the curiosity-seekers and frequent hecklers was a more serious pattern: the suspicion of Pharisees and scribes, who saw Jesus doctrine as a threat. They were, as a group, Jesus’ worst problem. Often scribes would interrupt his message with questions, such as ‘what does that mean?’ or ‘where is that written’ or they criticized his statements by quoting points of the law. I could fill a scroll with the comments made by these men as Jesus went about his business. While the scribes were crafty and calm, the Pharisees were obnoxious and perverse. At times their criticisms were insulting and even slanderous. One particular question Jesus would hear again, “By whose authority do you cure the sick, God or Beelzebub?” was so outrageous Peter charged after the man and had to be retrained by Andrew, Philip, and myself. These delays, like the stream of supplicants, also slowed us down, because each time a complaint or question arose, Jesus felt compelled to answer. Working against the replies Jesus gave his critics was the Pharisees and scribes mindsets. Like Caiaphas’ agents lurking in the crowd, they had already made up their mind: Jesus was a blasphemer, who perverted their religion with his heretical doctrine.
Though the towns around the Sea of Galilee were situated closely together, we ran out of daylight because of the delays and were forced to camp outside of Magdala that day. As we sat around the campfire, thoroughly exhausted, Jesus finally shared his frustrations with us. It was the first time during our travels that we saw him not merely irritated but actually angry. At the top of his list of problematic towns were Bethsaida and Chorazin.
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida.” He shook with rage. “Your puffed up Pharisees and toady scribes are filled with conceit for themselves. The scribes play at words , while the Pharisees behave like children, whose temper has no reason, other than preserving false sanctity. All the scribes wish to do is please their fellows, not God. But my Father isn’t pleased with these toadies nor is he pleased with the Pharisees who think they know the mind of God. One splits hairs to interpret doctrine, while the other spouts trifling matters of the law, showing great malice to those having opposite views. I bring to the world a new hope and reminder of salvation that has been dampened by the doctors of the law: that all people have to do is believe, repent their sins, and be reborn for a life everlasting. All the laws and dogma stuffed down the throats of common folk has clouded the most important issue facing men and women: eternal life. Those doctors of the law seek to squelch the good news. Is it any wonder that uneducated folk reject the news if their teachers predispose their minds? Rabbis, too, who are supposed to be the shepherds of townsfolk, also resist the truth, as do the priests, the most to blame, who are molders of the law. Priests pollute what I give them with backbiting and slander.” “But their day is coming!” Jesus stood up and shook his fist. “To not know the truth and die is one thing. Those ignorant of the word, who are righteous, shall find heaven too. To hear the truth, close your mind against it, and die is quite another. They—the priests, Pharisees, scribes, and rabbis—shall be barred from heaven and punished for preventing others from seeking the truth...”
Jesus voiced trailed off into a whisper. “Father forgive them and set their minds straight. Protect your children against their machinations and wiles.”
More clearly than ever before Jesus had summed up our conflict with the religious establishment. From almost the beginning of our mission, we had been at odds with it. Only a few of the rabbis we encountered would at least give Jesus a hearing. With the exception of a few enlightened Pharisees, the doctors of the law, along with the scribes and priests, hated Jesus. They considered his message heresy and saw his growing popularity with common people as a threat. Peter, who appeared to be Jesus’ deputy now, spoke our thoughts:
“Master, you’ve made great headway with our people. Those graybeards and scribblers are a lost cause. Forget them. It’s the little people that matter. Unfortunately, many of them are too stupid to see the light. The Pharisees and scribes know better. Their sin is much greater.” Rising up, the glow of the fire illuminating his face, he added, with a trembling voice. “You are the light of the world, master. If they can’t see the light, they’re spiritually blind. All the fine words and miracles in the world won’t soften their hearts or change their minds. The miracles may be forgotten but the words of hope will spread from town to town like a great force—a wave off the sea, unstoppable and unshakable.”
Greatly moved by his illumination, Jesus embraced Peter and kissed his cheek. “Well said!” he exclaimed. “My Father put those words in your head, Peter. Why haven’t you opened up like that before? You will make a fine preacher.” “Don’t you think so?” He looked around the fire.
Everyone except Bartholomew (who was asleep) nodded his head.
“Yes, in deed,” I took the initiative, “a first rate speech!”
Though beaming with pride, Peter shrank from the idea. “Preacher? Me?…I don’t know about that. I get tongue-tied.”
“Don’t be modest.” Andrew teased. “We have here another Elijah. Jesus is right: God must’ve put that in your head!”
“He must have,” John muttered in disbelief. “I’ve never heard him talk like that!”
“So, what’s next?” my brother James voice came as a wet blanket. “When do we go home?”
Jesus looked down tolerantly at him. “You consider Capernaum as home, not Nazareth? That’s an improvement, brother. Do consider us to be your family now?”
“…Yes,” James answered hesitantly, “I have two families.”
“Are we all not your brothers?” Philip asked playfully.
“That’s a good question.” Jesus stroked his beard.
“Sure…. Of course we’re brothers.” James broke into a smile. “The town of Capernaum is a lot nicer than other towns. Chorazin and Bethsaida were nothing compared to Nazareth. I’ll never forgive Nazareth for treating you that way.”
“It’s like I said, James.” Jesus sat down beside him. “A prophet has no honor in his own country.”
“Then you’re just a prophet?” James looked at him quizzically.
“Perhaps.” Jesus sighed wearily. “But I don’t like labels. I told you that. That comes later.”
“If not a prophet, who are you?” James persisted.
“I’m a teacher,” he obliged reluctantly, “a preacher if you wish.”
“No!” John said, shaking his head. “You’re more than that!”
“It’s obvious,” Andrew agreed. “a forgone conclusion. “You’re not like other men, Jesus! You think we’re stupid? Why’re you so secretive? Earlier you admitted you were the Promised One. Are you denying it now? Are you or are you not he?”
“Please, men,” Jesus grew impatient, “let it rest. There’s a problem with this definition. You’ll understand this later. My Father will define me. He’ll let me know. Right now I want to focus on the message: the good news. The stage is being set for greater things.”
On this cryptic note, the subject was dropped. In the near future on just such a night, Jesus would turn Andrew’s question around to his disciples, asking, “Who do you think I am?” At this hour, as he surveyed his exhausted men, he knew it wasn’t the right time. It was clear to me, however, that he was struggling with his own identity, a problem he also had as a child.
“… Anyone can be a prophet,” he explained, after a pause. “There are too many false prophets to respect that name… I am the one John foretold, but that man my cousin referred to has other names: Redeemer, Deliverer, Liberator, Messiah—none of which John used. For most of our people, he’s a warrior king. My role, at least for now, is that of a teacher as well as a preacher, but a man of peace. I repeat—get this into your stubborn heads: my mission is to spread the word. Those people out there have been conditioned by the priests, Pharisees, scribes, and rabbis to expect the warrior king. I am no such person. My message must prepare their minds for who I really am, so let’s not confuse them. I want all of you, including Bartholomew when he wakes up, to remember this command: Don’t try to define me. Don’t even discuss it amongst yourselves…. Let my Father tell you, Himself, as he put words into Peter’s head. For now, I want you to concentrate on preparing yourselves for the work ahead of us. You, too, must become teachers and preachers. I have listened to God again. In the coming days our number will grow to twelve.” “…Why twelve? you ask,” he paused thoughtfully. “Perhaps, this number commemorates the twelve tribes of Israel, but this is my Father’s decision. None of you are here by accident or whim. Each of you have been selected by Him. Now your group includes a fishermen, a scribe, and a wanderer—diverse personalities that must, at times, work as one. Soon more diversity will be brought to your group, that, like James, Jude, and Bartholomew, aren’t fishermen. You can’t yet imagine how important all of you will one day be, when you must go out alone as sheep among the wolves.” “All you have to do now is watch and learn,” he added rising again to his feet. “Don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will worry about itself! We have a long day ahead of us….Get some sleep!”
The next morning, after being shaken awake by Jesus, we struggled to our feet, grabbed handfuls of dried fish and moldy bread, and stood munching this snack, waiting drowsily for our shepherd to lead the way.
“Come my men.” Jesus snapped is fingers. “Back to work.”
James looked at Jesus in disbelief. “Aren’t we going home?”
“Yeah, that sounds good!” John rubbed his hands.
“I could use some of your wife’s stew,” Andrew patted Peter’s back.
“Me too!” Philip beamed.
Jesus eyebrows plunged in irritation. “I told you men where we’re going. We haven’t visited Magdala yet!”
Everyone groaned. Now that we were on the outskirts of Magdala, this meant Jesus would tackle this town at once. I had a restless time last night, trying, as I pondered Jesus’ last words, to blot out the fishermen’s snores. If it was true, as Jesus implied, that he was conditioning us for the task ahead, this morning would be especially hard. “You must go out alone as sheep among the wolves!” he had said. “How soon,” I asked myself, “would we met these wolves?” James, who must have had a hard night, too, shuffled along as a sleep-walker. John and his brother James lagged behind in a daze, and Bartholomew, who should have been rested up after falling asleep last night, had to be lifted into his cart. Not one of the fisherman, even Peter, seemed up to this task.
Magdala was barely awake when Jesus positioned himself on the shores of Lake Gennesaret near the town, his energy contrasting our lethargy and lack of vigor. It seemed ludicrous to me at first.
“Why did we have wake up at the crack of dawn?” James complained. Yet fishermen were already casting their nets in the lake when we arrived. One fellow, who happened to be standing by the water’s edge, must have recognized Jesus. Running into town at breakneck speed, Jesus’ had his first herald. “He’s here! He’s here!” he shouted. A second and third citizen of Magdala, who were emerging from nearby houses, looked out then and caught sight of our group, chattering excitedly amongst themselves. Soon, as Jesus had planned, people began trickling down to the lake—men, women, and children, wide-eyed with expectation now that the miracle-worker was here.
“Another pattern, eh Jesus?” Peter grinned.
“That’s how it works!” Jesus replied, turning to the crowd.
Immediately following his reply, Jesus preached to the gathering townsfolk. His words were very similar to previous sermons, always with an added flare of words or turn of a phrase. It was, considering the state we were in, the most difficult mass baptismal service we had ever undertaken. Like most of the disciples, I grew hoarse saying the words. James was beside himself as he was forced to baptize some of the less desirable souls in line, and Bartholomew passed out and had to be carried back to his cart. Other than a few hecklers in the distance and the normal problems of keeping an orderly set of lines, the emersions went as Jesus planned. Four hundred and twenty men, women, and children were baptized and became members of the Way. All eight of Jesus’ disciples were ready to drop in their tracks, when suddenly Jesus held up his hand. Promising the remainder of the crowd future baptism, if they wished to visit Capernaum our next stop, Jesus explained that his men needed rest from their labors.
Those moments, as we began our trek back to our camp in the nearby hills, praying that no more sick, lame, or blind people would stop our exit, Jesus led us through Magdala, instead of going around it to avoid more interruptions. It was the quickest way to our camp near town and yet we were filled with trepidation.
“Something’s going to happen,” James groaned.
“Oh,” I tried making light of it, “you’re a prophet now?”
“I have a bad feeling too,” admitted Bartholomew.
Suddenly, just as Bartholomew finished his sentence, something dreadful crossed our path again. An angry crowd were gathering at the end of town, blocking our exit.
“Let’s detour here!” Philip pointed to alley.
“Yes, master,” John wrung his hands, “that doesn’t look good.”
Jesus, whose eyes closed momentarily, as if God was communicating to him again, shook his head. “When will you learn?” he snapped irritably. “In my company, no harm will befall you!”
Jesus, who knew everything, probably knew what lie ahead. Having this gift, I realize now, must have been terrible for him. A curse more than a blessing, it would fill his head with dreadful foreknowledge. Now, he appeared to accept his immediate insight begrudgingly. He knew we were totally exhausted. Looking back at us, as if to apologize, however, he motioned us on.
“I think I’m going to faint,” James informed him.
“Take a deep breath,” Jesus counseled, “and hold onto the cart. Hopefully, men, we’ll return to camp soon.”
Jesus words of encouragement gave us little comfort. Directly ahead of us, blocking the right-of-way, the crowd continued to grow. As before, Jesus had a determined look on his face. He saw something we didn’t see. Though I wasn’t sure the others understood, I knew what that look meant. Once again, God was leading him. This time we appeared to be heading straight into harm’s way.
“Peter’s right,” Andrew muttered, “we should have detoured back there.”
“What’re they doing?” Peter asked, shielding his eyes from the sun.
“They’re angry about something,” Bartholomew said, cupping his hear. “Listen to that mob!”
“Those people sound afraid.” Jesus frowned.
That moment we heard, “What’s wrong with that woman? She looks possessed!”
“She’s an adulterous and harlot!” an old woman screamed.
“Mad as bat, she is!” shouted a man.
Similar shouts erupted. Jesus was right: fear as much as outrage, appeared to have gripped the crowd.
“Madgala is famous for prostitution,” Peter said to Jesus. “What else is new?”
At the edge of the crowd, Bartholomew stopped the mule, shrinking fearfully into his cart. For a few moments, as we remained a safe distance from the scene, Jesus moved through the crowd, reminding me very much of the day in Nazareth when he walked fearlessly through such a mob. Climbing onto the seat, next to Bartholomew, I was able to finally see what was in the center of the crowd. Standing there, jerking and muttering to herself, was a woman tied with ropes, bereft of her senses.
“What do you see, Jude?” asked James, climbing into the cart.
“This is going to break!” Bartholomew looked down at the creaking boards.
“This is serious!” I announced, looking over the crowd. “That woman has the biting disease or she’s insane!”
“Moses beard!” James recoiled. “Look at her: she’s foaming at the mouth!”
“That’s the miracle worker,” someone cried. “Let’s hear what he says!”
“This woman was caught in adultery,” exclaimed one of her captors. “I caught her with Haggai, the weaver. Pulled her off him, I did, but then she went berserk. She came at me like a demon. She tried to scratch and bite me. I threw my net over her, but she tore out of it like a mad thing. Haggai ran away, scared half to death. Lucky for me Jamel was handy with the rope; I’d have the biting disease too!”
“Roped her like a wild beast, we did,” Jamel gave it a yank. “It both Ira, me three strong men bind her. That woman’s possessed!”
“Can’t you see?” Jesus pointed to her. “I understand your fear. Call it what you will, but her mind’s sick. She can’t help herself. Untie her at once!”
“So you, a holy man, don’t condemn her?” A familiar sort elbowed through the crowd.
“No, I don’t.” Jesus shook his head. “No more than someone whose body’s sick!”
“Sick?” spat the Pharisee, “it’s more than that. Look at that woman. Are you blind?” “Don’t you dare untie her!” He wrung a finger at them. “Keep those ropes tight, Ira and Jamel. “I’ve seen evil,” he reasoned with Jesus, “before being caught, that woman was an adulteress and whore. The devil has his grip on her now. Any fool can see that!”
“She’s still a prostitute!” the old woman shriek.
“Judge and you shall be judged!” Jesus pointed at the Pharisee, his finger moving to the crowd.
“I know this man,” the Pharisee snarled at Jesus. “He’s that blasphemer who practices sorcery.” “Stone her! Stone her!” He turned to the mob.
For a brief moment, as the crowd hurried around gathering rocks and one man brandished a large board, I once again wondered if Jesus had gone too far. Considering the woman’s mad eyes and foaming mouth, I couldn’t blame them.
Nevertheless, Peter straightened his shoulders. “We have to stand by him,” he said bravely.
“Are you insane?” James asked in disbelief.
“Follow me men,” Peter said, hopping off the cart
All of us, even Bartholomew, who grabbed his cane, pushed our way through the crowd, until we stood beside our leader. Looking at the sky now, Jesus shouted in his loudest voice, “Father in Heaven, how do you withstand this stiff-necked people?”
When the crowd appeared to freeze in their tracks, stunned by his rebuke, Jesus moved quickly to the woman, who relaxed in her in her restraints, collapsing onto the ground. Squatting beside her, he stroked her matted hair, then shooing the feet of onlookers away with a flurry of his hands, he drew a circle around her quivering frame. Though apparently exhausted from her efforts, she continued spouting obscenities in her bindings. I had never heard such words from a woman. Suddenly, the mad thing described by Ira and Jamel, looked up with bewildered eyes, as would any frightened girl, as if Jesus blazing blue eyes was piercing her soul. A growl from her throat belied this impression. “What do you want with us, Jesus?” an icy chorus poured out of her mouth. Ignoring this response, Jesus looked down into a portion of the circle and knelt down to write in perfect Hebrew now, ‘He who is without sin, cast the first stone.’ For those in the crowd whose vantage point prevented them from seeing the writing and for those just arriving on the scene, this couldn’t have meant anything. The Pharisee, however, looked down, read it, and then spat on the woman.
Perhaps, as I reflect now, in preparation for the miracle he would soon perform, I heard Jesus utter, “Be silent woman! Your redeemer is here!”
The woman stared glassy-eyed straight ahead, giving the audience the impression that the deed was already done. Rising up then, Jesus spoke the message aloud, “He who is without sin cast the first stone!” The sound of rocks thudding on the ground followed soon after. Everyone, except the Pharisee, in fact, backed away, ashamed or confused. When he raised up his stone, several hands reached out to restrain him, dragging him back into the crowd. Jesus asked Ira and Jamel to unbind her, which they did quickly, backing away and disappearing into the crowd. He prayed silently then said shrilly, “Now depart from her—all of you!” Though was directed at the woman, the command seemed to include the crowd too. As I write this, I still get a prickling at the back of my neck. Despite what I believed before, the woman’s second captor, Jamel, had been correct: she was possessed. Though I thought she had the biting disease, Jesus now exorcised her of her infernal spirits.
Moving back several paces, the crowd watched in fascination and disbelief as Jesus cast her demons out. They appeared to be a multitude. A commotion of voices similar to a demoniac I once heard in Antioch flowed out her mouth, and then just as suddenly, her body relaxed completely, and a peaceful expression fell over her face.
“What happened?” she blinked.
“Mary,” he said gently, “the darkness was upon you, but now you’re well.”
With his own robe, he wiped her face. The fishermen, James, Bartholomew, and I stood with a remnant of the crowd, deeply moved by this scene.
“…. Who are you?” she asked hoarsely.
“I’m Jesus.” He looked down with a smile. “… Mary.” He said, after a pause “Look around you; where are your accusers now?”
“They’re gone?” she gazed up dully.
“Yes, Mary, they’re gone,” he said, helping her to feet. “I won’t accuse you either… Go and sin nowhere.”
As if on cue, an older woman—a friend or maybe even her mother appeared beside Mary, escorting her from the scene. She was still dazed and wobbly and mumbled incoherently to herself. We had no idea how important Mary of Magdala would be to Jesus one day. Compared to some of his other feats, this miracle seemed tame, but we were greatly moved by Jesus’ compassion. After this event, several witnesses, who claimed to have heard Jesus earlier and had witnessed his latest miracle, asked to be baptized in the new faith. Rather than lead them to the lake, where a great crowd had assembled before, we performed the rite at a well instead. We were all spent, but not nearly as much as Jesus, who had shepherded his band tirelessly, eating little and never seeming to sleep. We knew that his miracles drained his energies too. Each time he was completed with a batch of cures, his face would turn ashen and his eyes would become glazed. Yet each morning his energy returned, his expression became radiant again and he was ready for a new day. We had wanted, after the ordeal with Mary, to get him away from the crowds for awhile so he could rest, but once again they came. This time, after Peter’s coaxing, Jesus stood by and let us do it by ourselves. Before, while he performed the rite himself, he might look over and bark out a command when our efforts flagged, but on this occasion, he watched quietly on the sidelines, proud of his band.
All of us, including Bartholomew, found ourselves at least one initiate to say the words to and sprinkle water upon. Compared to the baptisms earlier in Magdala, it went rather quickly. A selection of mostly men was represented in this bunch. Among the new converts that day was Mary of Magdala, who John rushed in to baptize, himself. I didn’t blame John, when he elbowed me out of the way. Mary was quite beautiful now that she had been cured. Her soiled clothes had been replaced with a white dress. Her face and hands were scrubbed clean. Sandals had been placed on her pretty feet. Her matted hair had been combed out, falling shamelessly to her shoulders in dark curls. What caught our attention first, however, were her beautiful almond shaped eyes. Two dark crystals sparkled happily in the sunlight. When she smiled, which caused her eyes to almost shut, she displayed a mouthful of white glistening teeth. Though the rest of us were goggle-eyed with this vision of loveliness, James, his mind still locked on the quivering, sweating, foaming-at-the-mouth Mary of before, gave her a wide berth, picking out a harmless looking youth in the group, while I wound up with one of the loud-mouth ruffians, who had a short while ago wanted to stone Mary to death.
Jesus had politely insisted on Mary going home after John baptized her. For Mary, however, who was starry-eyed with her savior, the advice he gave converts to spread the word among family and friends fell on deaf ears. Though never becoming part of Jesus inner circle of men, she was determined to stay. Earlier in our mission, another attractive woman, Deborah had been sent on her way, as had been Anna, the old crone. “This is men’s business,” Peter informed Mary. “Women have no business tagging along.” Of course Peter had a wife. As a married man, it was easy for him to be rude. For the rest of us, except perhaps Bartholomew who was too old and James who thought she was still contaminated, Mary would be a pleasing sight.
“Awe, let her come along,” John said, walking backwards. “What’s the harm?”
“Yeah.” Andrew waved at Mary. “She’s a marked woman. Where else can she go?”
James shuddered at the thought, but the remainder of us agreed with Andrew and John. In a hurry to put this town behind us, Bartholomew made clicking noises, egging his mule along. Looking back at us, Jesus sighed patiently, as Peter tried shooing her away. He couldn’t very well argue with Peter after the request he gave converts in general. He had, moreover, told us that there would be only twelve disciples. It seemed only logical, given the status of Jewish women, that twelve would contain only men…. Still, I wondered, glancing back at this comely woman, it would be a nice touch.
It was an uncomfortable feeling to be dogged by such a beauty and have to discourage her not to follow. When we approached the end of town, not far from our camp, I wondered just how far Mary would follow us. And then, to our dismay, it happened again…. They came.
“Not again!” James slapped his forehead.
Bartholomew drew up his reins. “Moses beard!” he cried. “There’s more of them.”
Though the curing was taking its toll on him, Jesus was confronted with a new batch of unfortunates. The response from his disciples now was unanimous.
“Ignore them, Jesus,” Peter waved his hands. “You can’t cure them all!”
“Yes, ignore them! Ignore them!” we chanted.
“You know very well that I can’t do that,” Jesus gave us a scornful look. “These people are here for a reason.”
“They don’t want baptism,” James informed him. “They want to be cured. You’re ready to drop dead in you tracks Jesus. Come back tomorrow if you must, but tell them no!”
James had spoken all our minds: Jesus was totally exhausted. All of us, in fact, were ready to drop, but, of course, we were driven by human logic. Jesus answered to a greater power.
“When will you understand?” He scolded us. “I listen to God!” He pointed to heaven. “He alone is my guide!” “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” he counseled. “Be strong and steadfast men. The extra mile is always the hardest. You’re not ordinary men; you’re disciples, who must follow God’s will!”
Some of these words, in a darker time, Jesus would repeat verbatim. Right now the reminder that our flesh was week, called attention to how we felt, whereas his words, “You’re not ordinary men, who must follow God’s will!” reminded us of the unreasonable demands he placed upon us and himself.
As the supplicants lined up, it was plain to see that most of them had minor ailments. Only one serious affliction was found in this bunch, aside from a cross-eyed youth: a man with a withered arm. Then, out of the crowd, two Pharisees arrived escorting a third man between them. We were very protective of Jesus by now and were ready to do battle with these kind of men, but this time, the two Pharisees seemed friendly enough. The man between them, in fact, was beaming with happiness. Introducing themselves as Simon and Jonathon, the religious men had, upon closer inspection, troubled looks on their faces.
“I heard about that episode in town,” Simon sighed, “very troubling. Your reputation precedes you, Jesus. A friend of mine in Cana told me about the water being turned into wine. Why would he lie about such a thing?” “And now this,” he presented the third man. “This young man, who once a leper, arrived whole last night with a story that seems impossible to refute.”
“Hello Jonas,” acknowledged Jesus.
“He’s my son,” Simon announced.
“And my nephew,” said Jonathon.
Finally, we had made a breakthrough with Pharisees, I thought. But this would prove to be only partially true. Jesus talked with Jonas, now a member of the Way, as the two Pharisees looked on. It must have been difficult for these conservative purveyors of the law to accept Jonas’ conversion, but they made no protest. In fact, Simon insisted, perhaps as a reward for curing his leprous son, that we dine with he and friends tonight. Knowing the mind of these type of men, none of us thought that this was a good idea, and yet Jesus accepted the offer. There were times in the past when a sumptuous meal would suit us just fine after our labors. Rabbi Jethro and Moses bar Nablis, the rich merchant, had once given us fine feasts, as did Nicodemus in Jerusalem, but they had been our friends. Simon and Jonathon, despite Jonas’ miraculous cure, were still Pharisees. As such, they still looked upon Jesus and us with quiet disdain.
That evening, as we entered Simon’s house, my appetite was great despite my apprehension. The fishermen and my brother James, who were sweating profusely, seemed even more worried about the Pharisees’ reaction, and yet they seated themselves quickly at the long table in the center of the room. Almost immediately, Simon expeditiously said the Shema, gave a short benediction, clapped his hands, and seven steaming courses of food as well as fruit and sweetmeats were brought out to the guests. As the food arrived, he introduced his other guests, and Jesus reciprocated, but the introductions lacked affability on the part of the Pharisees. All of them, conditioned to ferret out unorthodoxy, wrinkled their noses, which cancelled out their perfunctory smiles. It wasn’t a promising beginning, especially when we attacked our food with gusto, while the others waited for all the entries to arrive. We had no preparation for this. When Simon invited us for dinner that evening, he had anticipated that Jesus would accept his invitation, so we were allowed little time to rinse ourselves off. I wondered if Jesus might be testing his host. Other than expecting us to wash our hands with well water, he insisted that we go as we were. Our grimy, travel-worn appearance, odor, and mannerisms at Simon’s table couldn’t help annoying his friends. Because Jesus had cured Jonas, his son, of leprosy, Simon and his brother Jonathon naturally appeared gracious, smiling tolerantly at Jesus and his disciples. Though the other men frowned with disapproval and whispered amongst themselves, they, too, kept their peace. Perhaps, because of the miracle, our host had asked his friends to be tolerant of his guests, but it came off as forced and insincere.
In spite of the efforts made by the Pharisees at the table, only Jonas seemed genuinely pleased we were here. Sitting closest to him, I marveled at the improvement made to his once-ruined face. I couldn’t help staring at him. Judged by a woman’s standards he might even had been considered handsome.
“You’re Jude,” he acknowledged with a nod of his head. “You’re blessed to be Jesus’ brother!”
“So am I,” James exclaimed. “Jesus has four brothers!”
“We’re all Jesus’ brothers,” corrected Peter. “We’re all blessed!”
I barely had time to answer when James and Peter set Jonas straight. Jesus, who was several seats down, raised forward now and piped. “That’s true, Jonas. Because you’re one of us now, you’re my brother, too,”
This statement didn’t set well with the Pharisees at the table. Like everything else they did, which was based on a jot or tittle of the law, they defined matters literally. At this point, a graybeard, identified as Obadiah, sitting across from Jesus, muttered, “How so? Are theses men of your flesh?
“No, of the spirit,” Jesus answered promptly, “which is greater than the flesh.”
“The spirit?” Obadiah snorted. “In what way?”
The sound of munching and slurping of wine almost drowned out Jesus’ answer: “The flesh counts for nothing; the spirit gives life.” I know now, his answer had a greater meaning, which John would incorporate in his work. Obadiah looked at Jesus blankly not comprehending his meaning.
“What does this have to do with blood?” he looked askance at a friend. “Does that make sense to you?”
“No,” Agabus grumbled, “not a bit.”
Now that the Pharisees polite veneer was disappearing, Simon took the opportunity to entertain his friends with the story of Jonas’ miraculous cure. From the point when the miracle was performed, as told to him by Jonas, until the day his son returned whole, he recounted this wondrous event. Jonas added his own details, as did his father, who regretted the dreaded time when Jonas came down with the disease. No one asked Simon if he cast out his son for having leprosy or if Jonas left of his own free will. I imagine his son had heard about Jesus as did other people seeking a cure and traveled to Capernaum where he thought Jesus might be. What I found particularly unsettling was the faces made by the guests as they listened to Jonas and Simon, some of whom stuck out their tongues, muttering “yuck!” Clearly in the minds of the Pharisees, probably even Simon and Jonathon, having leprosy was a sign of God’s displeasure. Just the mention of the disease seemed polluting to the graybeards. If our grimy appearance and mannerisms weren’t enough, something happened now, that appeared to be unforeseen. As I reflect, however, I think Jesus knew this might occur. When Mary entered the room, carrying an alabaster flask, both the disciples and Pharisees were startled, but Jesus quietly welcomed her. It was obvious, after she pulled out the stopper, that the jar contained perfume. The smelly room was instantly filled with a delightful fragrance.
“What’s she doing now?” James muttered.
Immediately, as the room broke into hushed murmurs from the disciples and graybeards, she positioned herself behind Jesus, anointing his hair with the oil. It was done gently yet quickly least someone stop her rash act. While the disciples were deeply moved by this action, the Pharisees and elders were silently outraged. I could almost feel their anger. After this stunt, encouraged by the inaction of the graybeards, she knelt on the floor below Jesus. After pouring oil onto his feet, she anointed them as she done to his head, this time wiping them with her own hair, then kissing them reverently, an action that was, in the minds of our host, the last straw.
Standing there, looking at them in disbelief, Simon was shaken by what he saw. “What is this Jesus?” he asked in a strangled voice. “I-I don’t understand.”
“I don’t understand either,” James, who sat next to me, whispered in my ear.
Obadiah, who rose up alongside of Simon, pointed accusingly. “If this man were really a prophet, he’d know what kind of woman this is who is touching him, pouring perfume on his head and feet.”
“Yes, I know,” Simon nodded slowly, “I’ve seen this woman in town. She’s a sinner. I was told she’s an adulterous, caught in the act.
Jesus answered him with a question. ”Did you see what happened Simon? Where you there when I caste out her demons?”
“I didn’t see it,” he confessed, “but she has led a most sinful life.
“Do you believe in the forgiveness of sins?” Jesus pressed.
“Not that one!” Obadiah interrupted. “She was a lost cause!”
“I wasn’t talking to you,” Jesus dismissed him. “I know your mind; it’s like a steel trap. I was talking to Simon.”
“…Yes, I believe in forgiveness,” he answered finally, glancing at his son.
“I will tell you a story.” Jesus held up two fingers and a thumb, as he often did.
“…Very well,” Simon replied, descending apprehensively into his chair.
As Mary stood in the corner of the room, holding her jar, Jesus walked around the room, totally captivating his audience with what would one day be his first parable, later recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
“It’s goes like this,” he said, his hands clasped methodically behind his back. “…Two people owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he forgave the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”
Simon replied thoughtfully after a sip of wine, “That’s a trick question Jesus. The answer is obvious: the one who had the bigger debt was forgiven.”
“You have judged correctly” Jesus laughed softly.
Turning toward Mary, he motioned her over, put his arm protectively around her slim waste and led her to the head of the table. “Behold this woman,” he presented her anew to his audience. “…. I came into your house. You didn’t give me any water for my feet, but she anointed my head and wiped my feet with her hair. Neither did you give me a kiss, yet she kissed even my feet. Therefore, I say to you, because of her great love, her many sins have been forgiven.” “On the other hand,” he added looking down at the graybeards, “those who have been forgiven little by the lender will love little.”
Most of the disciples understood his words as praise for Mary’s faith and a rebuke for her critics in the room. The Pharisees gave him blank looks, while Jonas bar Simon appeared to be amused.
As if to stoke the graybeards resentment that much more, Jesus paused a moment with his eyes closed in prayer, looked in Mary’s tearful eyes, and exclaimed with finality, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you. Go in peace!”
Though it was said more forcefully, Jesus had merely restated his previous words, but the Pharisees were taken back.
“Who is this fellow who forgives sins?” grumbled Obadiah. “Is this not God’s right?”
“Yes,” agreed Agabus, “and now she’s saved. Saved from what?”
“From damnation,” Peter leaped to his feet. “Didn’t you notice? Before hand, he prayed to God. What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing.” Jonas looked at Jesus with admiration. “Nothing at all.”
“Well, it makes sense to me.” Simon looked around for agreement. “We all seek eternal life.”
A few of the Pharisees, who had been startled at first, nodded their heads, while most of Simon’s friends sat there in silence, their expressions buried in faces full of hair hard to read. Jonas, though, now a convert to the Way, sipped his wine contentedly, illumination lighting his face. All was well for him. Like the disciples, he had felt God’s grace. Then, acting as a damper, Obadiah broke the silence, with a second challenge: “I’m sorry Simon, but it doesn’t make sense. How did Jesus know God forgave her sins? I don’t think that’s what he meant at all. It sounded to me like he forgave her sins.”
Agabus rose up and pointed accusingly. “Blasphemer! Heretic!”
“No, no,” Simon bolted up, waving his hands, “how dare you accuse this righteous man. Jesus isn’t a heretic. No man could do such things and blaspheme God!”
Jonathan stood up with his brother now, as did most of the Pharisees and elders in the room, united in alliance with their friend if not in agreement with Jesus’ actions. Walking over to Simon, Jesus embraced him, and then shook the hands of those men standing in support.
Signaling for his disciples, he said before exiting, “Thank you Simon for your hospitality. You and the men who didn’t show rebuke stood by principle: our traditional hospitality to strangers. I would rather it was because you had heard my message and believed. You have spent your lives serving God; why not let God’s grace serve you?’
The play on words must have mystified Simon and his friends, but our host gave Jesus a look of respect, bowing deferentially. “As you said to Mary, Jesus, go in peace.”
After leaving Simon’s house, Jesus decided it was time to go home. After the treatment he was given in Nazareth, Capernaum was now my home. I couldn’t wait to taste Dinah’s lamb stew and Esther’s special cakes and walk with Jesus and our brethren along the Sea of Galilee (which Peter had had informed us was also called Lake Gennesaret). As we exited Magdala, Jonas ran after us, once again thanking Jesus for saving his life. Though Jonas had been talked into staying in his hometown to spread the word, Mary was adamant about following Jesus. Peter and my brother James attempted to shoo her away, but she tagged along at a distance, a dejected look on her lovely face. We weren’t certain at this stage if this woman was love-struck or truly illuminated with the Spirit. Finally, with good reason, Jesus let her join us on our way to Capernaum.
“She’s an outcast in Magdala,” he explained to James. “Our mother took in outcasts, whom no one else wanted. Are we better than her?”
Bartholomew, who had once been one of Mama’s outcasts, himself, gave Jesus a startled look. I knew that Jesus had no intention of disclosing his identity. James on the other hand had several times in the past, by careless remarks, almost given him away. Fortunately, his mind was locked in on the issue at hand.
“Jesus,” he said, glancing over his shoulder, “I’m glad you rescued Mary from her wiles, but she was a prostitute. She’ll bring discredit to you if she joins our band.”
“Mary was born again,” Jesus reminded him. “She’s repented of her sins and promised to live righteously. Have you forgotten that, James? What more do you ask?”
“So,” John said with disappointment, “Mary’s not joining our band?”
“Of course not.” Jesus looked at him in disbelief.
“Where will she stay then?” he probed more delicately. “In Peter’s house? Where else can she go?”
“Peter’s house, of course.” Jesus cocked an eyebrow. “At least for awhile.”
“I don’t believe this discussion.” James clasped his forehead in dismay “You’re risking your reputation for that woman? Already they think you’re a heretic and blasphemer. Must you consort with prostitutes too?”
“I told you,” Jesus grew testy. “Mary’s not a prostitute! She’s cured and saved by God’s grace. She’s a new person, James. After her transformation, she changed completely. Forgot all that rubbish Nicodemus put in your head. That’s the old way. This—what we’re doing now—is new. Mary’s new. You’re new too!”
“I am?” James said in a small voice.
“Yes,” Jesus studied him a moment. “…I understand were you’re coming from. You were training to be a scribe, but you must use your knowledge for the Way. You must embrace your sister in the Spirit. She’s clean in the eyes of God!”
“Embrace her?” James shuddered. “Are you serious?”
“I’ve never been more serious.” Jesus wagged a finger. “Mary’s one of us now.”
“Come on,” I teased him, “go give her a hug!”
Looking back at Mary in horror, he exclaimed in a whisper, “No, she did unspeakable acts. She’s unclean!”
Andrew and Philip frowned at James with disapproval. John shook his head.
“Shame on you!” he admonished playfully. “Who are you to judge?” “Look at her!” He turned and pointed. “Mary’s not unclean. We can scarcely recognize her now. That’s not the same woman we saw in Magdala. She’s beautiful!”
“Yes, James,” his brother prodded, “you’re acting like a Pharisee. Give her a chance!”
“What do you say men?” Philip looked around for approval. “We can make room for her. Don’t you agree? She’ small, pleasing to the eyes, and won’t take up much room.”
“Seems reasonable to me.” Andrew scratched his head.
“I think it’s a great idea!” John beamed. “Let’s take a vote.”
“All right.” I raised my hand. I vote yes!”
“Me too!” John and his brother cried.
“I’m in,” Bartholomew came alive.
“That makes five.” Philip grinned. “What about you?” He turned to Andrew.
“Sure.” Andrew shrugged.
Jesus, who had been scrutinizing his men, gave us a wry smile. “Let’s agree for the right reasons,” he scolded us gently, “and not simply because Mary’s pleasing to the eyes.” “What do you think?” He looked over at Peter. “It’s your house.”
“I’m not voting,” Peter huffed. “I’ll stand on the facts. There’s no more room, Jesus. My house is already crowded. Shouldn’t we at least ask my wife and mother-in-law first?”
“Very well,” Jesus sighed patiently. “We’ll ask them first, but I’m sure they’ll agree. It’ll only be temporary, Peter. In the future when matters cool down in Nazareth, I was thinking of having my mother watch over her. As I said, she’s taken in outcasts before.”
Peter raised his palms heavenward, in silent acquiescence. At a distance, Mary had listened to Jesus defense of her. Unimpressed by James and Peter’s protests, Jesus beckoned for her to catch up. John, his brother James, Philip, Andrew, Bartholomew, and I greeted her warmly as she arrived in our midst. Out of breath, embracing each of us eagerly, she exclaimed, “Oh thank you! Thank you! I won’t be a bother—I promise. I can make money for you. Really, I can. I once raised doves for the temple. I know how to capture and take care of them. I can also train them to be pets.”
“Well, there’s an idea.” Andrew snapped his fingers. “Added to our catch on the lake, Esther’s cakes, and Dinah’s cured lamb strips and dried fish, it’ll help support our needs.”
“Yeah,” James replied with scorn, “doves are a big business—especially in the temple!”
“What’s wrong with that?” Philip looked at him curiously. “Pilgrims need them for temple sacrifice. Raising and selling doves isn’t a crime.”
“That’s true,” Jesus said thoughtfully. “It’s an honorable profession. It’s what they charge in the temple that’s wrong. Mary’s a bright girl, James. I’m not sure about her selling doves in Capernaum, but she can lend a hand in the kitchen and help around the house.”
Everyone, even James, agreed with that. What happened in Magdala had proved to be a highlight in Jesus’ ministry. Those moments, though, the sun sat low in the sky. With Mary in our company, we continued our journey to Capernaum, hoping to make it before nightfall. By evening, after passing through a grove of trees, we looked out at the great lake, shimmering under the setting sun, and heaved a collective sigh. Mary had walked quietly amongst us at first, wrapped in her thoughts. At times it seemed as if her ordeal as a demoniac had left her addled in the head. She would hum to herself, and, after being asked simple questions, such as “Are you all right?” and “How’re you feeling?” answer perkily, then, at other times, chatter happily, just glad to be alive. Jesus was very fond of Mary. With the temporary exception of James and Peter, we were too. At no time, however, as his critics would later claim, did Jesus act improperly toward her or allow us to treat her with disrespect. In the beginning, I wasn’t so sure about Mary of Magdala’s frame of mind. After all, Jesus was her savior. To her untutored mind, she might not have understood what that clearly meant. That would come later, of course, with great illumination, as she grew into a central character in Jesus’ life