A recent PrimeTime report has brought our attention once again to the ‘Magdalene Laundries’. Originally set up to care for young women involved in prostitution, they became institutions run by the church and supported by the state for those, who for various reasons were in need of a home. While the intention may have been good they soon became prison-like and those ‘caught in sin’ were sent and forced to work in terrible conditions as a form of penance and restitution. A very different response to the grace Jesus shows to all of us.
The name ‘Magdalene’ comes from a true story found in the Gospel of Luke*. The woman in the story is not named, perhaps to highlight her rejection in society. Church tradition tells us she was Mary Magdalene but there is no evidence of that within Scripture. The lady in the story however is described as ‘one who had lived a sinful life’ which suggests she led a sexually promiscuous life, but again we are not told what the sin is. So what has the story in the Gospel got to do with the Magdalene Laundries? Well Luke’s story shows us the failure of grace-less religion and contrasts the restoring grace that Jesus offers to those who are most in need.
Before the story begins Jesus is accused of being a ‘drunkard and a glutton, a friend of “sinners”’. Clearly his association with certain people got him a bad name – but he was neither embarrassed nor ashamed with those he met as the following account tell us.
One of the Pharisees (The Religious Ruling Elite) named Simon invited Jesus to dinner. Jesus obliged. During dinner an uninvited ‘woman who had lived a sinful life’ gatecrashed. Ignoring all religious protocol she ‘began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them’. It’s the response of the Religious Leader that is both surprising and shocking. His private thoughts; ‘If this man (Jesus) were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.’, are an indication of his heart attitude – judgemental, critical and superior.
This woman needs grace not criticism, restoration not condemnation. Those who claimed to be ‘God’s representatives’ failed those whom God came for.
But Jesus is a prophet and he knows what Simon is thinking. He tells a story. “Two men owed money to a certain money-lender: One owed fifteen months wage, and the other one months wage. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now which of him will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said.
Jesus however, not only knows the heart of Simon he knows the heart of the woman. “Do you see this woman? (In contrast to Simon)… she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair…she has not stopped kissing my feet…Therefore, I tell you her many sins are forgiven – for she loved much.” Jesus is not saying she earned forgiveness by being loving. No! He is saying her many sins are forgiven and this is how I know – she loved much. Her love is a sign she has received forgiveness. This is the restoring grace the woman was in desperate need of, that should have been evident in Simon. Jesus knows her heart. Jesus sees that her extravagant devotion is a sign that she knows her failing and therefore receives the loving and accepting welcome of Jesus.
While this woman went away renewed and restored Simon was left with the words of Jesus confronting his critical heart; “But he who has been forgiven little loves little.” The story in Luke’s Gospel assures us that in Jesus we find the home, the refuge we all long for. A home full of grace, where the rejected are welcomed, the sinner forgiven and the broken restored.
* The story can be read in the Bible. Luke’s Gospel Chapter 7 verses 36 – 50.