January 6, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Matthew 27:57-61.
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph, who was himself a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be handed over. Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it [in] clean linen and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock. Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb and departed. But Mary Magdalene and the other Mary remained sitting there, facing the tomb.
Luke tells us that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin but that he had not agreed with the council’s judgment against Jesus. Luke and Mark use the phrase “awaiting the kingdom of God” instead of describing Joseph as a disciple of Jesus as Matthew and John did. The meaning is the same, though, Luke and Mark may also have intended to reflect the belief that Christian Jews expected that the kingdom of God was imminent, that Jesus was coming again very soon.
Jewish law as stipulated in Deuteronomy required that a man who was sentenced to death and hung on a tree must be buried on the day of death. Under Roman law the relatives of the dead criminal could claim the body for burial; otherwise it was left for the dogs. There was a problem, though. Jesus’ relatives were from Galilee and most certainly didn’t have a burial tomb in Jerusalem or nearby. Additionally, the Sabbath was quickly approaching, which meant that nothing could be done with the body the next day.
Joseph provided the solution to what was surely a deep anxiety for Mary and the others. The synoptic gospel accounts make it sound like Joseph alone took down the body, transported it to the tomb, and prepared it for burial. John adds that Nicodemus, who had earlier come to speak to Jesus under the cover of darkness, brought a hundred pounds of a mixture of myrrh and aloes to dress the body. Just as during his life, well-to-do followers provided for Jesus in death.
Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses are inserted here so that they could verify both the location of the tomb and the fact that Jesus was laid there. Matthew adds the human detail that the women remained there facing the tomb, sitting with their shock and grief over what they had witnessed.
The gospels are not historical records; they are not long, detailed accounts of the life of Jesus or his ministry. So, it’s easy for us to miss a lot of the backstory, what was going on all around Jesus. Jesus’ crucifixion was a very public event. I can imagine that nearly all his followers were aware of what was going on as the hours of his crucifixion wore on. People shuttling back and forth between Golgotha and private homes and places all around the city where people gathered together to wait for news, to support one another, to seek a sense of safety in numbers. The report of Jesus’ impending death and then his last breath spread quickly. Most of his followers, being Jews, immediately realized that decisions had to be made quickly regarding what to do with the corpse. Word went out. Who can claim the body? Who can gain access to Pilate to make the request? Who will take his battered body down from the cross? Where can Jesus be buried? Who has a tomb? Who will help clean and dress the body? Hurry, we don’t have much time before sundown.
Joseph and Nicodemus stepped forward to volunteer. They knew they had sufficient status to get to Pilate. They had the money and resources at hand. They could get it done. No matter that they would probably be ejected from the Sanhedrin and reviled for going against the will of their peers. No matter that it might cost them business or risk the confiscation of their wealth. They knew in their hearts what was the right thing to do, what had been the right thing all along. They hadn’t been able to stop the crucifixion, perhaps hadn’t even tried. That didn’t matter any more. Their hearts overwhelmed their good sense and they did what was needed.
I can’t help but think about the times I have failed to have the faith and the courage to do the right think, to risk rejection or scorn by my peers. In my head I can justify my inaction. But when the time of need for courage has passed, the time when I could have taken a stand, I become remorseful. I want to make up for it someway, somehow, without counting the cost. In fact, the greater the cost, the better I would feel. It’s my way of saying, “I’m sorry.” I think that’s what Joseph and Nicodemus were going through. To their credit they listened to their hearts and responded to the requests for help without dithering.
They didn’t just give their money and assets, though. They gave of themselves. They did something quite extraordinary and unexpected. They cleaned and dressed the corpse for burial. In this intimate service to Jesus I believe they experienced what Jesus intended. Just as Jesus had shown his disciples — and me — in the washing of their feet. In personally serving others I experience love, forgiveness, and redemption. In those acts of service I become a disciple of Jesus, caring for them as if I were tenderly caring for the bloody body of Jesus. I think that’s how he wants me to look at and do for all the battered, broken, bloody people around me. I think that’s the only way I can bring myself to do it, seeing him in them.