Text Study for Luke 24:1-12 (Part One)

The Resurrection of Our Lord, 2022.

“But the first thing after the Sabbath, very early in the morning, they went to the tomb and brought aromatic oils which they had prepared. But they found that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb. Now, when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus” (Luke 24:1-3, my translation).

I was in college when the bumper stickers and public relations campaign first began. The backs of cars were decorated with the phrase “I Found It!” This was part of an effort by Campus Crusade for Christ to build on and take advantage of the Jesus movement of the Sixties and early Seventies. This was same moment in history that produced things like “Key 73” and the “Good News for Modern Man” translation of the New Testament and the Psalms.

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It wasn’t long before responses in kind appeared. Some snarky and superior denominations produced stickers proclaiming, “I Never Lost It!” Then there were the happy and increasingly militant former-Christians-turned-atheists (me among them) who proudly declared in print “I Lost It.” Perhaps my favorite was the response of those who embraced the Cheech and Chong school of theological reflection: “I Smoked It.”

I have often told people that even when I was an atheist, I was still a Lutheran atheist. I knew that regardless of my personal prejudices regarding God’s existence, if there was such a Being, then we humans were not the ones who would be in the “finding” business. Finding us was God’s primary activity and why the Divinity got the Big Money.

For a while, I was pretty sure that such a Divinity didn’t exist. If I was lost (and I was), then I was on my own. I expended no energy trying to find Someone whom I was sure simply wasn’t there and certainly wasn’t there for me. Then – at precisely such a point in my life – I got found. Unfortunately, that phrase never caught on as a bumper sticker, so my future in faith-based public relations stalled before it started.

As Karolyn Lewis noted in a recent “Sermon Brainwave” podcast, no one in our text finds Jesus. Nor is there a “resurrection appearance” by Jesus at the tomb in the Lukan account. Instead, the text is about “finding” that Jesus is not there. The one who does the finding in Luke 24 (and in the whole Lukan account) is Jesus, not us.

This is a consistent theme in the Lukan account. A few times characters “find” Jesus. The shepherds find him in a manger wrapped in swaddling cloths, but only after being directed there by the angel. After three days of anxious searching, his parents find the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple, engaged in Torah debate. Those who arrested Jesus came to him on the Mount of Olives, but only because Judas led them there.

Otherwise, it is Jesus (and his metaphorical representatives) who do the finding. The owner of a hundred sheep wanders over hill and through valley to find the one who was lost. The woman cleans her house from top to bottom to find the one coin. The generous father runs to a son who is still lost until he is embraced. And that same father leaves the house to encourage the other son to be found in the midst of his self-imposed exile.

Jesus passes through Jericho and looks up into a sycamore tree. He sees Zacchaeus and calls him down. Jesus invites himself to dinner, and salvation arrives at the home of the chief tax collector. It is Jesus’ mission, especially in the Lukan account, to seek and to save the lost. Jesus does the finding in the Lukan gospel.

On that first Easter morning, at the earliest possible and permissible moment, the women come to the tomb. They find the stone rolled away from the entrance. But they do not find the body of the Lord Jesus. There is no cry of “Eureka” on that first Easter morning. “Eureka!” after all, is simply the English adoption of the Greek word for “I have found it!” In the Lukan account, Easter is all about being found by Jesus.

There is an air of the unfinished in the lectionary reading for this Easter Sunday. It’s not the fearful perplexity of the Markan composition. That’s another story altogether. No, this experience of the incomplete results from the size of the Lukan Easter story. It takes up all of chapter twenty-four, not merely the first twelve verses. What we have as our Easter lection is the prelude to the complete Easter account in the Lukan gospel.

The central story in this account is the journey toward Emmaus. Jesus finds the two disciples, completely absorbed in their debate about what Jesus’ crucifixion meant in light of the Hebrew scriptures. Jesus finds Simon as well, although we only hear about that encounter secondhand. Jesus finds them gathered together and demonstrates the realities of his resurrected body. In the Lukan gospel, Jesus does the finding.

N. T. Wright describes the “most spectacular” parallels between the Emmaus story and that of Jesus’ anxious parents trying to find him in Jerusalem. Both events happen at a Passover. A couple begins to travel home from Jerusalem and learns something that forces them to turn back. In both cases they find that Jesus is not with them. The parents search for three days, Wright observes, “the parallel to which hardly needs pointing out” (page 651).

When they find Jesus and ask him about his disrespect for his parents, the reply should take us directly to Luke 24. “Didn’t you know that it was necessary for me to be among my father’s affairs?” (see Luke 2:49, and Luke 24:25-26). “The significance of Easter, for Luke,” Wright notes, “is not least that it completes things that ‘must’ take place concerning Jesus. In doing so,” he continues, “it reveals to people who had not previously grasped the point, the story that Israel’s scriptures had been telling all along” (page 651).

In our Easter reading, it seems that the first “witnesses” to the Resurrection are looking in the wrong places. “Why are you searching for the living among the dead?” ask the two men in the shiny outfits. “He’s not here; rather, he has been raised” (Luke 24:5-6, my translation). We’re not going to find Jesus in the places we are most likely to look – the places where death and decay are still at work. All we’ll find there is a tomb looking for a purpose, and burial cloths left all by themselves.

“The question, ‘why do you seek the living among the dead?’ draws attention to the incongruity between the women’s expectations and their experience,” writes Holly Hearon in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “They came to the tomb expecting to find the dead, because that is the function of tombs: to house the dead. What they discover,” Hearon continues, “is that the ‘tomb’ is now an empty tomb. It is a familiar sign transformed by resurrection.”

In the Emmaus story, it seems that the two disciples are looking for the wrong things in Scripture. “But we had hoped,” they sigh, “that he was the one who was about to redeem Israel” Luke 24:21a, my translation). They can’t seem to get to that insight on their own. It is necessary not only for Jesus to die and be raised but also for him to open the scriptures, and their hearts, so they can see and understand.

In the resurrection appearance to the full community, it seems that the community is looking for the wrong sort of body. When Jesus appears to them, they fear they are seeing a ghost – a wraith in human form, but not in a “real” human body. He urges them to touch him. He shows them his wounds. He eats a piece of broiled fish. And again, he opens their minds to understand what has been written about him.

Most important, this is the body of the Lord Jesus, precisely the body which the women did not find in the empty tomb. Jesus’ name and title are omitted from a few manuscripts in Luke 24:3, although they are early and authoritative. However, the majority of the text-critical Aland committee voted to keep the words in the text, and rightly so. It’s not just any “body” that is at stake. The body to be found (rather to be found by) is that of the Lord Jesus.

It’s not that the women find nothing when they come to the empty tomb. Levine and Witherington look at the “finding” motif in the Lukan account and point to two texts in particular. Jesus declares in Luke 11:9-10 that everyone who searches finds. In Luke 18:8, at the conclusion to the Parable of the Persistent Widow, he asks if the Son of Man indeed will find faith on earth when he comes.

“The women seek the body of Jesus, and they will find him as their resurrected Lord,” Levine and Witherington write. “The women then will have the faith and courage,” they continue, “needed to carry out their apostolic mission of proclaiming his resurrection” (pages 650-651). I would suggest that the women are found by their resurrected Lord. But clearly, in the tomb what they find is the faith and courage to proclaim what they have seen, regardless the response.

When Jesus finds us, we find the faith and courage to go forward.

References and Resources

Hearon, Holly. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-3/commentary-on-luke-241-12-6.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

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