Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).
The 13th Disciple
Abiding myth and popular culture pictures Jesus as a wandering preacher traveling in the company of 12 men, much like Robin Hood roamed around Sherwood Forest with his boys. But Scripture doesn’t support this. While a handful of male disciples—Peter, James, John, and Judas—take predominant share of the spotlight, numerous women also receive mention by name. The most prominent among them, of course, is Mary Magdalene, whom regrettably has yet to get a fair shake from church leaders and Christians in general.
Mary poses a problem, because her importance to Jesus and His mission directly swims against later policies confining ministerial leadership to men. In what is undoubtedly the most egregious smear campaign hatched by church politicians, Mary has been labeled as a former prostitute and/or the adulterous woman the Pharisees bring to Jesus. Modern artists from Nikos Kazantzakis, author of The Last Temptation of Christ, to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, creators of Jesus Christ Superstar, to Mel Gibson in The Passion of the Christ have mindlessly promulgated this legend. It’s patently untrue. In fact, Luke 8.2 directly contradicts it, identifying Mary as a woman Christ freed from seven evil spirits. And repeated New Testament sightings—especially at the crucifixion and tomb—encourage us to redefine our image of Mary. Rather than attempt to “sex up” the story by casting her as a corruptive influence hanging on the fringes, nursing a crush on Jesus, we’d do well to judge her relationship with Him by the nature of their interaction after His resurrection. Her presence at the graveside, her response to the risen Christ, and His instructions to her settle any and all questions about her status. Mary Magdalene was the thirteenth disciple.
The four Gospels feature slight variations of the tomb episode, including who’s there. Matthew places Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary”—presumably Lazarus’s sister—at the grave. Mark has Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James (i.e., Jesus’s mother or aunt), and someone called Salome. Luke simply mentions “the women.” John says Mary Magdalene goes to the grave alone, sees the open tomb, thinks someone stole Christ’s body, and hurries back to get Peter and “the other disciple” (John). While the differences raise questions about the others, Mary Magdalene is the only person all four writers agree is there. They likewise agree she’s the first disciple to meet and speak with Jesus.
According to John, she visits the tomb before sunrise. Mark and Luke say it’s “early morning;” Matthew is mute. John’s timing makes the best sense, though. First, it’s urgent she get to the grave with ointments to preserve Christ’s body. He dies at three p.m. on Friday. Allowing time to remove Him from the cross and arrange His burial, Sabbath’s sundown arrival makes properly treating His corpse unlikely. (Matthew reports Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy disciple, asks for Jesus’s body “as evening approached,” wraps it in clean linen, and lays it in his own tomb.) One suspects Mary Magdalene impatiently waits for Sunday, when she can anoint Jesus’s body in customary respect for the dead. Second, going to the tomb in darkness protects her anonymity. At this point, the disciples’ safety is far from assured. While the Romans respect the Sabbath—if only to keep Jewish leaders at bay—Sunday could bring a rash of arrests for Jesus’s followers. Very possibly, Mary plans to get in and out of the cemetery before His enemies stir.
John’s account reinforces suspicions the disciples fear for their lives. After Peter and John see the empty tomb, they head back home, leading us to believe they want to avoid being caught graveside. But Mary stays, weeping inconsolably. Having lost Jesus in life, losing Him in death is unbearable. Being discovered and arrested no longer matters. Two angels ask why she weeps. “They’ve taken my Lord,” she answers, fearlessly identifying with Jesus. She turns to find Jesus, whom she mistakes for the gardener, asking the same question. “If you’ve moved Him,” Mary says, “tell me where and I’ll get Him.” Jesus calls her name: “Mary.” She instantly recognizes Him and cries, “Teacher!”—not “Jesus,” or “Savior,” or “Master,” or “Lord”—“Teacher!” Maliciously fabricated doubts about Mary’s character and credibility don’t surface beside the tomb. Jesus charges Mary with the greatest task ever assigned to a disciple: “Tell my brothers I’m alive.”
The resurrection indubitably takes precedence as the Easter headline. Yet Mary’s story provides a fascinating sidebar exemplifying true discipleship. In following Christ, we reach a point where nothing else matters. “Safety concerns” vanish. We risk all to find Him. It’s then He calls us by name and we know Him by the sound of His voice. Our first response is “Teacher!” It defines our relationship with Him. In Matthew 11.29, Jesus beckons us, saying, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Today we rejoice in the risen Christ. But there’s also a prayer tucked inside the Easter story. “Teach us. Teach me.”
Easter blessings to all, as we follow—and learn from—the risen Christ together.
(Based on a sermon by Dr. Alma Crawford, co-pastor, Church of the Open Door, Chicago.)
(Tomorrow: A Tiny Cloud)