May 23, 2013
Dear brothers and sisters,
I am taking the good news today from Mark 15:42-47.
When it was already evening, since it was the day of preparation, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a distinguished member of the council, who was himself awaiting the kingdom of God, came and courageously went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was amazed that he was already dead. He summoned the centurion and asked him if Jesus had already died. And when he learned of it from the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph. Having bought a linen cloth, he took him down, wrapped him in the linen cloth and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses watched where he was laid.
This is the first time that Joseph of Arimathea appears in Mark’s gospel. He is included in all four of the gospels, which to me means that he must have been an influential figure worth noting.
He’s a bit of a puzzling figure. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, which had condemned Jesus. Luke regards Joseph as a virtuous and righteous man and tells us the he did not consent to the actions of the Sanhedrin. But did he object? Did he argue against it? Matthew refers to him as a disciple of Jesus and John calls him a secret disciple, secret because of his fear of the Jews.
To Mark Joseph’s action of asking for the body of Jesus was courageous. Moloney in The Gospel of Mark believes he was courageous because the Romans might think of him as an associate or supporter of Jesus. Courageous because he was a wealthy man who had both status and riches to lose. I think it took courage for Joseph to risk the disdain and alienation of his Jewish peers and, hence, his position of influence and his good reputation. Maybe it was fear of both consequences that required courage.
There was little time to spare. Jesus died at three o’clock and would have to be buried before sunset or else left to hang on the cross until the day after the sabbath. At a practical matter, rigor mortis begins setting in three to four hours after death reaching maximum stiffness in about twelve hours, longer if the environment is cold. Removing the body and preparing it for burial would have been extraordinarily difficult until 48 to 60 hours after death at which time malodor and decomposition are advancing particularly if the body is exposed to the sun. It seems likely that Joseph must have had made his decision to act very quickly, almost instinctively. Also, he must have had ready access to Pilate, access that would have been denied to all but a small number of Jews.
What motivated Joseph? He must have believed that a terrible mistake had been made by the Sanhedrin in condemning Jesus and persuading Pilate to have him crucified. He may have felt a tremendous burden of guilt either for not intervening successfully in the Sanhedrin council or for remaining silent. It may have been a desire to atone for Jesus’ death that motivated him. He may have wanted to be exonerated as an individual and perhaps on behalf of the Sanhedrin.
I think it was something else. Joseph was likely present at the time of Jesus’ death after which he left immediately to seek out Pilate. I think Joseph also witnessed what the centurion saw that convinced him that Jesus was in fact the Son of God. It’s curious that Mark tells us that Joseph also was awaiting the kingdom of God. It seems clear that he had heard Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God being at hand. Like most others including the disciples, he probably wasn’t quite sure what Jesus meant by that or when it was coming. However, like the centurion, I think he saw the transformation of Jesus at death crossing over from human to divine. He realized then that the kingdom of God was indeed at hand in Jesus’ dying.
Suddenly grasping that Jesus was truly the Son of God and hearing the centurion confirm it as well, he had to act quickly and do all he could regardless of the consequences to be sure that the Lord’s body was properly honored and buried. To leave his corpse to the elements, to the animals, to decomposition, to the stares of passersby was an unthinkable blasphemy. So, he took his chances with Pilate and the Sanhedrin. He allowed his love for Jesus as the Son of God overrule his fears. In love he took Jesus’s body down from the cross, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and carried him to the tomb where he gently laid him down and rolled the stone across the entrance.
When I let myself go and fully love Jesus as the Son of God it enables me to overcome my fears and to act in love to do things I probably wouldn’t otherwise do just as Joseph of Arimathea did. That love is much more empowering than guilt and much more fruitful.