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"Great Expectations"

It must have pained Matthew to give such a detailed account of his absence; how his boldness in leaving the tax booth evaporated when he saw the soldiers come to arrest Jesus; how he failed his Lord at the most crucial moment.

by Jean Charlot, 1933
“The Empty Tomb” by Mikhail Nesterov

​Matthew 28:1-10

April 9, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright The uniform advice of preaching professors and scripture scholars is “Do not try to explain the resurrection; simply tell the story.” So that is what I’ll do today, with help from Matthew. Admittedly, it is an awkward retelling because Matthew was not there. None of the 12 were. Matthew says they all deserted Jesus and fled at his arrest. At least Peter trailed Jesus to the courtyard, but while Jesus was inside with the High Priest, “the Rock” crumbed, denying Jesus three times. And Judas tried to undo his betrayal, but it was too late, and in despair, he hung himself. But the women were there at the crucifixion – looking on from a distance. Matthew singles out a few: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph (two of Jesus’ brothers)[2], as well as the mother of the sons of Zebedee (the disciples James and John). And they were there after Joseph of Arimathea collected the body and placed it in his own tomb, sitting across from it, Matthew reports, when the great stone was rolled across the entrance.

 

It must have pained Matthew to give such a detailed account of his absence; how his boldness in leaving the tax booth evaporated when he saw the soldiers come to arrest Jesus; how he failed his Lord at the most crucial moment. He did not have a cock crow moment like Peter or place a rope around his own neck like Judas, but he writes of them with the empathy of one who felt every bit of what they did, rather than as a mere recorder of the facts. Few of us, when we tell a story, are so brutally honest about our failings. Mostly we are silent about such things, or we try to explain, or we seek the safety of crowds: others failed too! But not Matthew. And so, when the disgraced gospel writer tells of the two Marys heading to the tomb on the first day of the week, he celebrates them as heroes. I think he wishes he could have shown such courage, such loyalty, such faith!

 

Unlike the other gospel writers, Matthew does not say they were there to anoint the body, to finish the rush job of burial interrupted by Sabbath sundown. Instead, he says they were there to see the tomb. Professor Frederick Niedner writes, “Unfinished business lingers in every graveyard — broken promises, betrayals, countless secrets left to perish with the departed. Sometimes visitors speak to the dead. They apologize, even plead for absolution. Silence stands guard.”[3] Matthew has such unfinished business; but the two Marys have great expectations! They are not there to wash the blood off the corpse. Nor to say the traditional prayers for the dead. And they have brought no spices because they don’t think they will need them. Instead, they are there to … look. The Greek word, “theoresai”, means to watch, to observe, to hold vigil, which seem fitting given what we have said about cemeteries. But it also means to discern, to contemplate, to analyze, or to understand, as if to make sense of something puzzling. What do you think they are there to ponder? One commentary declares, “The same Greek root underlies the English word, ‘theater,’ that art in which we behold dramatic action in order to concentrate on its meaning, the better to understand it.” And then asks, “[Did] the two Marys expect some dramatic action is about to happen?”[4] Matthew thinks they did. They saw something that the 12 missed, because they did not flee. He says they felt the earth shake when Jesus died and experienced it happen again Easter morning, when an angel rolled back the stone! God is at work – dramatically! But even more important, they were there when Jesus predicted what would happen in Jerusalem. Three times he said, “The son of man will be handed over … and condemned to death … and crucified … and on the third day he will be raised!” The two Marys are there to see his brave words come true. They are there to witness God’s power. They are there because they believe.

 

So here’s the thing: I think Matthew wishes he had been there too – to see the angel, to be commissioned to tell the good news, to be the first to see the Risen Lord! I think that is why he tells us the story of the women. I think he marvels at their courage and loyalty and faith! He has to live with the regret of what he failed to do – coiled like an old dog by his feet. He cannot rewrite history, (none of us can), but he can write a gospel; he can tell the story; he can lift up the people who did the right thing, who believed and acted on that belief! And by doing so, he encourages us to do the same: to tell the story of the way we have seen God at work (our own mini gospel); to lift up those who’ve lived with courage and loyalty (Who would you name right now?); and to act, like the two Marys, in the confidence of what Jesus has promised about the will and work of God, even if it means doing what seems foolish, a waste of time, a denial of reality. What’s one thing you are being led to do this week, so you won’t have regrets? Amen

[1] “The Empty Tomb” by Mikhail Nesterov [2] See Matthew 13:55 [3] From “Rejoice, believers”, his reflections on the text for “the Christian Century”, 3/11/08 [4] From “DAWN: SALT'S COMMENTARY FOR EASTER SUNDAY”, 4/4/23
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