Keys to the Kingdom – Paul Tillich, Martha, & Mary

The Life of Mary of Egypt. 17th century Russian icon.

The following is based on an essay I wrote two years ago.

A few weeks ago on the 3rd of the Coptic month Paona (June 10) was the commemoration of one St. Martha of Egypt. According to the Coptic Orthodox Synaxarion (lives of the saints):

On this day also, the ascetic and fighter St. Martha, departed. She was born in the city of Mesr (Cairo) to wealthy Christian parents. She loved fornication and unchastity in her youth and her works became known. However, the mercy of God from above encompassed her, and moved her to go to the church. That was on the Nativity of Our Lord. When she came to its door and wished to go inside, the servant delegated to watch the door told her, “It is not meet for you to go into the holy church, for you know what you are?” A confrontation took place between them, and when the Bishop heard the clamor, he came to the door of the church to see what had happened. When he saw the girl, he said to her, “Do you not know that the house of God is holy, and only the pure enter it.” She wept and said, “Accept me O father, for I am repentant from this instant, and have decided not to go back to my sin.” The bishop replied, “If it is true what you have said, go and bring back here all your silk clothes and gold ornaments.”

She went quickly and brought back all of her clothes and ornaments and gave them to the Bishop. He ordered that they be burned immediately, then he shaved off the hair of her head. He put on her the monastic garb and sent her to one of the convents. She fought a great spiritual fight, and she frequently said in her prayers: “O Lord, if I could not bear the disgrace from the servant of Your house, so please do not put me to shame before Your angels and saints.” She continued the spiritual fight for twenty-five years, during which she did not go out of the door of the convent, then departed in peace.

I had the pleasure of having breakfast with a friend a couple days later and we talked (among sundry other things) about the irony that having been raised with relative freedom, we now are interested in Orthodoxy, a religion of many rules and injunctions, while other friends of ours who were raised in very strict Christian homes are currently living the wild life at college. The conversation reminded me of the story of St. Martha above and how I had wanted to write about it but hadn’t had the chance. So what does St. Martha have to do with going wild at college?

According to the Synaxarion, Martha was born to wealthy Christian parents. She could easily be the spoiled daughter of rich (conservative, tradition-valuing) American Christians. And yet, even though she had Christian parents and was almost undoubtedly raised Christian, “she loved fornication and unchastity in her youth.” Don’t we all…

Anyway, because Orthodox Christianity does not operate on a “once saved always saved” model, and because it is not assumed that just because your parents are Christians that you must be, apparently she fell away from the Church because “her works became known.”

It’s hard for me to imagine both the exhilaration and simultaneous fear she must have felt. I chose to go to college for undergrad in the city in which I was born and raised, and to live with my parents for the sake of saving money, and because frankly I was so used to it. Not all kids are that stupid and many of my friends took the leap of faith and decided to move away for school. I can understand why young people, especially college students “fall away” during their college years. It can be difficult to relocate and find a new church family or community when you’ve gone to a particular church since you were little. Depending on how intense and difficult your studies are, you might genuinely not have time to go to church. Plus, if your beliefs are in the process of changing when learning new things in a new setting, you may not even feel intellectually honest in going to church. There is also the relief of being relatively on your own for once, out of the sight (but not minds or hearts) of your parents. If your parents were strict or controlling, leaving home for school can be very liberating. (2017: I only recently experienced the joy of living on one’s own now that I’m in grad-school.)

Having your family life and your social life abruptly intrude on each other can be stressful. Often the last thing you want is for your parents to find out who you are dating, the friends you hang with, the things you like doing, or the fact that your beliefs have changed. It must have been very stressful for Martha’s “works” to becoming “known,” (probably through gossip and friends, family, and exes talking shit). She stopped going to church. In this way, she mirrors almost the entire millennial generation.

Despite the fact that she was distant from God, “the mercy of God from above encompassed her, and moved her to go to the church” on Christmas Day no less. This is very similar to the imagery in the parable of the prodigal son in which the Father is watching and waiting eagerly for his son to return home and runs to meet him when he finally does. Here there should be a scene of Martha barging into the church, answering an altar call, weeping on her knees, and a feeling of unconditional love and acceptance washing over her like a waterfall during worship.

But there’s not. The jerk at the door won’t even let her in on Christmas! In some early Orthodox churches, there was a vestigial office called the porter or door-keeper whose job was to make sure that only faithful Orthodox Christians entered the service. To this day, in the Byzantine liturgy of John Chrysostom, the priest will cry “The doors! The doors!” just before the Nicene Creed which was the point at which the porters would see if anyone unworthy had sneaked in. The porter of this Cairo church told Martha, “It is not meet for you to go into the holy church, for you know what you are?

Damn. Do you know what you are? What, not who.

Needless to say, a confrontation broke out. The bishop heard the commotion and went to see what all the hubbub was. Here’s the part where the higher more spiritually sensitive authority is supposed to chide the porter for being a judgmental ass and invite Martha in to experience the joy and love of Christ on Christmas. But that doesn’t happen either!

The bishop tells Martha, “Do you not know that the house of God is holy, and only the pure enter it?” This is radically different from the approach so many of us are used to, having been raised with the liberal mainline Protestant acceptance of everyone and even the conservative evangelical “come as you are” approach. In this hard-core church, sinners are even too unworthy to come to the altar call! Yet Martha begs to enter on the grounds that she is repentant. “If it is true what you have said,” says the bishop, “go and bring back here all your silk clothes and gold ornaments.” Martha does this and the bishop burns the clothes immediately. Then, he shaves her head, and tonsures her a nun. After that she lives as a nun for 25 years never once leaving the convent, and finally died. WTF?

This story is interesting, inspiring, frustrating, and infuriating to me for several reasons. For one, it is almost completely the opposite of a much more famous (and much better) story: that of St. Mary of Egypt, one of the most famous and popular saints in the Orthodox Churches. In the story of St. Mary of Egypt, Mary runs away from home at 12 years old. She goes to Alexandria (the big city) where she lives for 17 years as a prostitute, not out of desperation or need, but because she likes sex. She even has a fetish for wallowing in mud. One day, Mary takes a trip to Jerusalem with a caravan of pilgrims. When she comes to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, she feels a strong desire to enter the church but finds that an invisible force-field is holding her back from entering. She understands that it is because of her sinful life and begins weeping. Then, in a moment of spiritual clarity, she looks up, and sees straight across a large distance to the icon of the Virgin Mary in the church. She prays to the Virgin to allow her to enter into the church and promises to repent. The Virgin grants her request and after entering the church, Mary hears a voice telling her to “cross the Jordan and find peace.” Taking only 3 loaves of bread, Mary crosses the Jordan to the wilderness where she spends the rest of her long life in spiritual accomplishment.

In the story of St. Mary, Mary comes to a private understanding that her life is keeping her from God, and she makes a private arrangement with Him to repent and change her ways. No one questions her, no one challenges her sincerity, and she successfully becomes a great saint without apparent guidance from anyone but God and the Virgin Mary. Her accomplishment was so great that she could even levitate and walk on water. Later, Mary even meets a priest named Zosimas who recognizes her holiness. In the story of St. Martha, Martha is prevented from entering the church by an arrogant minor official who publicly slut-shames her. Rather than be affirmed by the bishop, he immediately forces her to change her life, destroys her property, and commits her to a religious lifestyle without any apparent consent on her part. WTF?

This is one of the stories in which I can appreciate and sympathize with the Protestant hatred of priesthood and institutional structure. It’s exactly what millennial young people hate and fear most about the idea of going to a traditional church: being coerced, abused, and humiliated by self-righteous pastors and priests and who think they know who you are and what God wants from you.

The traditional stories of Christianity preserved in the lives of the saints are bound by the material and social conditions which gave rise to them. But to attempt to be faithful to the history of the Church, one must believe that there is at least something we could learn by examining the unpleasant parts of the tradition. I could just be over-willing to justify the primitive, sexist double-standards of the  patriarchal, hyper-conservative, slut-shaming Coptic Orthodox Church in my somewhat over-the-top obsession with playing devil’s advocate. Everyone knows that (perhaps along with the Russians) the Copts are like the Orthodox extremists. Surely their profoundly dry, constantly fasting, genophobic, superstitious, desert religion is precisely the sort of thing that would treat a woman this way. And  yet, and yet…. Here it goes.

I was recently reading a sermon in the book The New Being (1955), by the late Protestant, existentialist, Heideggerian, theologian Paul Tillich. This sermon, given at a college campus, was on the passage in Luke 7:36-47: the story of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. He points out that like the story of the Prodigal Son, this story is unique to Luke. Paul Tillich writes:

In this story, as in the parable, someone who is considered to be a great sinner, by others as well as by herself, is contrasted with people who are considered to be genuinely righteous. In both cases Jesus is on the side of the sinner, and therefore He is criticized, indirectly in the parable by the righteous elder son, and directly in our story by the righteous Pharisee.

We should not diminish the significance of this attitude of Jesus by asserting that, after all, the sinners were not as sinful, nor the righteous as righteous as they were judged to be by themselves and by others. Nothing like this is indicated in the story or in the parable. The sinners, one a whore and the other the companion of whores, are not excused by ethical arguments which would remove the seriousness of the moral demand. There are not excused by sociological explanations which would remove their personal responsibility; nor by an analysis of their unconscious motives which would remove the significance of their conscious decisions; nor by man’s universal predicament which would remove their personal guilt. They are called sinners, simply and without restriction. (pp 4-5).

I think that in modern times, especially those of us who are really Christian, i.e. compassionate, loving, merciful, etc., have a tendency to mitigate the circumstances of peoples’ sins. Paul Tillich was an amazingly progressive and liberal theologian. Some conservative evangelicals even consider him an atheist because of his teachings on God (which are actually fairly amenable to Orthodoxy) and his writings are cited a lot in Buddhist-Christian dialogues. Yet here, surprisingly, there is no attempt by Tillich to be “progressive.” He is not prepared to exonerate even the sinful woman or the prodigal son. And surely the reason these two stories from Luke, the parable of the prodigal son, and the episode of the sinful woman, appeal to and touch our hearts so much as modern Christians, is that on some deep level we are the prodigal sons and sinful daughters.

So many of my friends from high school and college, who were raised in “Christian” homes, who would never think of voting Democrat or endorsing gay-marriage, have nevertheless had pre-marital sex with their boyfriends and girlfriends, shacked up with their partners, strayed from their churches, changed their beliefs. They do this with the knowledge that they are “covered by the blood” and the assurance that if God is really a God of love, that He will understand their predicament. And He does understand their predicament!!! But that, (hard though it is for a hardcore anarchistic all-things-queer liberal like me to admit, and according to Paul Tillich), does not necessarily make their predicament right.  

And actually, the truth is I’m not that hardcore liberal. Actually, as my other Orthodox-minded friends would probably agree, we’re the good kids. I never stayed out later than my curfew, never had sex, never had a serious relationship, (never had a relationship at all actually), never talked back (OK, this is exaggeration), never did anything remotely juicy. In a way I don’t understand St. Martha or St. Mary’s position at all. I never like getting my hands dirty, let alone wallowing in mud. And though with all my heart I’d rewrite history just to give some of my friends a good obituary, I don’t know what it means to be prodigal or “sinful” in the sense we are talking about. Tillich is saying that we cannot explain away the sins of the prodigal or sinful woman by speculating that after all, they’re not that bad, and that we’re not that good. That’s simply not true. But despite that fact, Jesus still takes our side as sinners. Tillich writes:

The sinners are seriously called sinners and the righteous ones are seriously called righteous. Only if this is clearly seen can the depth and the revolutionary power of Jesus’ attitude be understood.

… Simon the Pharisee is shocked by the attitude of Jesus to the whore. He receives the answer that the sinners have greater love than the righteous ones because more is forgiven them. It is not the love of the woman that brings her forgiveness, but it is the forgiveness she has received that creates her love. By her love she shows that much has been forgiven her, while the lack of love in the Pharisee shows that little has been forgiven him. (ibid)

This is incredibly important stuff. In his Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes something very similar. Thinking in the mindset of today’s world, I feel that we moderns are very likely to misinterpret this part of the story of the Sinful Woman by thinking that when Jesus said, “Therefore I say to you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (Lk 7:47) he meant that she was forgiven because she “loved” much. But this interpretation would almost make it seem that somehow the woman deserved to be forgiven because she was sinful. This, at least according to C.S. Lewis and Paul Tillich, is not what Jesus means.

Jesus does not forgive the woman, but He declares that she is forgiven. Her state of mind, her ecstasy of love, show that something has happened to her. And nothing greater can happen to a human being than that he is forgiven. For forgiveness means reconciliation in spite of estrangement; it means reunion in spite of hostility; it means acceptance of those who are unacceptable, and it means reception of those who are rejected. Forgiveness is unconditional or it is not forgiveness at all. Forgiveness has the character of “in spite of,” but the righteous ones give it the character of “because.” The sinners however cannot do this.” (ibid).

In other words, what is amazing about God’s forgiveness, is that He forgives us despite the fact that we do not deserve it. This might sound ridiculous and elementary. Of course forgiveness in unconditional. But in the modern world, we have somewhat subversively added conditions which we do not notice, merely because they are conditions we actually feel able to live up to, and this betrays our fierce sense of pride in modernity.

If, like me, you were outraged by the fact that the porter denied Martha access to the church, it may be because you believed that on some deep level, despite her many sins, Martha deserved to be or belonged in the Church. But this is untrue. It is untrue of you, and myself. Even if, as a baptized Christian, one belongs in the Church, it’s difficult for me to see how even then, one could deserve that membership. No matter how much Christ loves us, no matter how true it is that in His abundant philanthropic love He willed to be incarnate and die for us, this does not render us inherently worthy of that sacrifice. I know that this is very hard and frustrating to read, because in the Protestant denominations, the theological emphasis on justification is so strong, I believe that it has even led most of us to justify our sins to ourselves. We believe that because Christ loves us, we must be loveable. And in some ways, this is not an entirely false message, but the emphasis has crept onto our selves rather than on God.

We are afraid as humans and Christians, of accepting our own unworthiness. Don’t misunderstand me. The current evangelical/charismatic fad of humiliating yourself in dramatic conversion scenes is just as self-righteous as justifying you sins to yourself. Why? Because the righteous minded always want to contribute something to the “deal” or “plan” of salvation, even if it is negative. We are afraid of being ultimately useless, because we have turned salvation into a transaction.

If that were the way to reconciliation with God, we should have to produce within ourselves the feeling of unworthiness, the pain of self-rejection, the anxiety and despair of guilt. There are many Christians who try this in order to show God and themselves that they deserve acceptance. They perform an emotional work of self-punishment after they have realized that their other good works do not help them. But emotional works do not help either. God’s forgiveness is independent of anything we do, even of self-accusation and self-humiliation… Forgiveness creates repentance – this is declared in our story and this is the experience of those who have been forgiven.” (Tillich, ibid).

If this is true, then the story of Saint Mary of Egypt and Saint Martha of Egypt are not so different after all. If like me, you preferred the story of St. Mary to St. Martha, it might be because you preferred the idea of secret (and undocumented) inner repentance more than the idea of public, humiliating repentance. But the truth of the matter is that both holy women experienced the exact same forgiveness, even though in time and space it manifested in slightly different ways.

Saint Mary experienced the forgiveness of God sometime between leaving Egypt and entering the church in Jerusalem. This forgiveness created in her the repentance which led her to the Jordanian wilderness to become a great saint. In the story of St. Martha, it seems as though repentance preceded forgiveness, and this thought frightens us with the idea that maybe we will have to dramatically repent at the door of the church, burn our belongings, and shave our head, before God will forgive us. But this is not so. For the Synaxarion says, “The mercy of God from above encompassed her, and moved her to go to the church.” Just as in the story of the Prodigal Son, God had already forgiven Martha. She experienced God’s forgiveness sometime between living her life of sin and going to church. It was this experience of forgiveness which led her to submit to the porter and bishop, and to prove her repentance by burning the symbols of her sinful life: her silks and jewelry.

These outward signs of repentance were not prerequisites of God’s forgiveness. They were the outcome of God’s forgiveness. If God required us to change before He forgave us, then St. Mary would have had to live as a hermitess before God forgave her, and only experience forgiveness at the end of her life. Martha would have had to burn her belongings and become a nun before she was admitted to the church. But the opposite occurred. God’s forgiveness in their life caused transformed them, after they experienced His forgiveness. And in this way, both stories are the stories of us in the modern world.

Some of us experience God’s forgiveness inwardly when we experience the feeling of discontentment with this world and its pleasures. We begin to search spiritually for a way out, and are granted a path by the mercy of God. Others of us are blessed with the accident of being born in a sacramental church where we are constantly reminded of saints like Mary and Martha and have the ability to go to confession and be absolved by a priest. However, even here, the priest does not forgive us. He announces that we are forgiven. In the Eastern Orthodox Churches, and I believe in the Coptic Church, the priest announces that the sinner is forgiven through the Blood of Christ, and not by the personal authority of the priest. In this way, the act and sacrament of confession and repentance in the Orthodox Churches mirrors the experience of repentance in real life.

What this world needs, from the Orthodox Christian perspective, and particularly what the desperate, spiritually starving young people need is forgiveness. But this forgiveness must be pure and genuine on both parts. Against the more staunch, pharisaic side of some of the unfortunately conservative Orthodox Churches, we must insist, that forgiveness is not conditional on some outward act of humiliation or repentance. At the same time, against the proud and hard-hearted sinners, we must insist, forgiveness is not deserved as a matter of course. The sinners of this world are actually sinful, and the righteous ones of the Church really are righteous. But the beauty and glory of forgiveness in the Church is that there is reconciliation and reunion despite all of this. None of these things is stronger than the love of God in our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ. He loves us not because we are sinful, but even though we are sinful. It is this “even though” which the world needs.


Text Cited: Paul Tillich, The New Being,  (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1955), 4-5.

NB: This post presents material published elsewhere at

While I still agree with my main point, I would, and intend to, reword my argument now.


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