Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part Four)

What is the status of marriage in the age to come? As we’ve noted previously, this question will occur to many of our listeners this week. And both the question and answers will bother and even upset some of our listeners. This isn’t the primary issue in our text. Nor does it appear to be a major concern for Jesus. Yet, this question motivates the text and can, perhaps, assist us in our interpretation.

Is marriage a divine creation or a human institution? Spoiler alert – I think the answer is “yes,” but leaning heavily toward “human institution.” While marriage may not be a central concern in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, marriage is certainly present in the texts. In the first creation account, the emphasis is on human beings made in the divine image. And human beings are to be fruitful and multiply on the face of the earth. No marriage there.

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In the second creation account, we learn that it is not good for human beings to be alone. God wondered if one from among the animals might remedy the situation. But a fit partner was not found there. Therefore, God made a fit partner for the man. The translation of “helper” for the Hebrew word “ezer” is not helpful – not unless we recall that the other one called “ezer” in the Hebrew scriptures is God.

There is no subordination of the woman to the man in either of the creation accounts. In fact, what subordination we do find in the text comes as a result of the Fall. Therefore, that sort of power relationship was not intended in God’s creation. It may be some sort of accommodation to human sin. Or it may simply be outside of God’s intention. In either case, however, the subordination of women to men is not a feature that will be carried into the age to come.

Some readers might point to Genesis 2:24 as the basis for a divine institution of marriage: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (NRSV). The word translated as “therefore” in this verse is actually two Hebrew words. The sense of the phrase is “because of” or “as a result of.”

Because the Lord made a fit partner for the man, and because the man recognized the woman as “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh,” human beings (at least those who held these texts as sacred) took a customary course of action. There is nothing in the text that suggests this course of action was designed or decreed by God. The outcome, that they become “one flesh,” is certainly consistent with the man’s experience. But the text does not describe marriage as specifically designed or directed by God.

I don’t wish to denigrate marriage between a man and a woman. Nor do I wish to deify it. Marriage can be an important way to organize one sort of human connection. But as marriage exists in human experience, it is a construction rather than a “natural” state. The sheer diversity of marriage customs, practices, laws, and rules in human societies gives testimony to this fact. Relationships between human beings can be organized in an astonishing variety of ways. That diversity means that the organizing structures have been built by human hands.

This gets more complicated when Jesus is challenged to interpret divorce regulations in the Torah and the first-century practices that come out of those regulations. In Matthew 19:7, some Pharisees point out to Jesus that the Torah allowed for men to divorce their wives. Jesus returns to the creation accounts. It’s always interesting to me that Jesus quotes from both of them.

In the light of God creating men and women and allowing them to join as “one flesh,” human practices should reflect those realities. It’s clear that the Torah constructs ways to manage those practices for Jews. And further teaching and practice continue to build additional stories on to that ground floor. The additional construction must reflect the nature of the foundation, or the structure will collapse under its own weight.

The Torah begins with sexual differentiation, the need for procreation, and the need for human community. We human beings have built all sorts of stories, practices, assumptions, and institutions on those few “facts” of creation.

What we have constructed will not be necessary in the age to come. Sexual differentiation will likely be a continuing reality because the new bodies we have will still be “our” bodies. But that differentiation will not be particularly important because we will be “like the angels.” There will be no need for procreation since life with God will not come to an end. And human community will be part of the gift of the community of all creation, the “new heaven and the new earth,” as it is described in the book of Revelation.

So, I think our text urges us to hold on to our constructions lightly, not tightly. We humans slip too easily into assuming that what we build is, in fact, “natural.” When we do that, we are usually creating a story that gives life to ourselves and takes life away from others. Whatever gives and sustains life will find its way into the age to come. Whatever takes and destroys life will not.

For some perspective, let’s think about “race.” In biological terms, there is the human race. All other senses of “race” are social constructions. They are not genetic realities. Human beings show up in this life with a variety of phenotypes (how we express our genetic endowment as individuals). We have small variations in our genotypes (the genetic information we carry with us). But there is very little relationship between the variations in genotype and phenotype.

In biological terms there are no “races.” Yet, the power of racialized constructions is the power or life and death. We White Europeans have spent five hundred years constructing stories about “racial” differences that advantage us in every way. We have built entire cultures, polities, and economies on the fiction of “natural” differences between the races. In those stories, the White people are always the best, the most deserving, the winners.

When we construct such stories, we typically reverse cause and effect. For example, Victor Ray gives this brief assessment of the eugenics movement in the United States. This movement, not coincidentally at its height during the Jim Crow era, sought to root the racist system in America in “natural” differences between people.

“Eugenicists who attributed differences in life expectancy and literacy rates to biology,” Ray writes, “were laundering social prejudice through scientific jargon, by providing a defense of and justification for racial inequality, not an explanation of underlying causes” (page 10). The constructed system, by intention, produced differential outcomes. Then that system used those outcomes to demonstrate “natural” differences between White and Black people.

The same critique can be made of the patriarchal system at work in our text and still in our own culture. We see differential outcomes for women when it comes to average earnings, healthcare outcomes, and opportunities for advancement. The patriarchal system is designed to precisely produce those differences. Then the system uses the different outcomes to demonstrate “natural” differences between men and women. Of course, those differences don’t really exist. But the system does.

Therefore, even though “race” as a biological reality is not real, “races” as social constructions are very real. Yet, what has been built can be unbuilt. What has been constructed can be deconstructed. I’m not suggesting that this is easy or simple. We White Europeans have invested five centuries or more in building and sustaining the system of White Supremacy around the globe. It may take that many centuries to dismantle this damnable system.

I think that our text reminds us to hold our human constructions lightly. The moment those constructions take life rather than give it, destroy life rather than sustain it, those constructions must be attacked and abandoned. If the Temple system, for example, becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If human government becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If our theological system becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go. If the way we organize the relationships between men and women becomes such a destructive construction, it has to go.

One could argue that we’re comparing apples and oranges in comparing race and gender. However, that’s not the case. I’m not suggesting that phenotypical differences are an illusion. They are not. Nor am I suggesting that sexual differentiation is a mirage. It is not. What we do with those differences, however, makes all the difference. “Race” is a social construction. So is gender. What has been constructed, can be deconstructed.

And what is constructed are structures, not merely individual actions. “Structural racism doesn’t mean individual racism is inconsequential,” Ray writes. “It means individual racism is empowered by its incorporation into a system that can magnify its impact through biased patterns of resource allocation” (page 18). A similar description can be offered for patriarchal systems of power and privilege. And when such systems are combined, for example in the lives of Black women in the United States, the life-denying power in those individual lives is devastating.

Jews, Christians, and Muslims can bring a particular analytical lens to life, if we’re willing to apply it first to ourselves. We humans tend to build things that benefit us. Then we worship those things and pretend that things have always been this way. That’s called idolatry. That’s what is really at stake in our text and in this section of the Lukan account. What things have we built and then turned into deities? Will we let the Holy Spirit challenge and change those realities in our systems and in ourselves?

References and Resources

Beresford, Anna. “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38.” Priscilla Papers, 35:4, pages 6-13, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/69656828/Whose_Wife_Will_She_Be_A_Feminist_Interpretation_of_Luke_20_27_38?auto=citations&from=cover_page.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Ray, Victor. On Critical Race Theory: Why It Matters and Why You Should Care. Random House, 2022.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

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

Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part Three)

“In the resurrection, therefore,” the Sadducees ask, “whose wife will the woman be?” She won’t be anyone’s wife in the resurrection, Jesus replies. That’s a revolutionary statement. In the first-century Mediterranean, a woman was usually defined by her relationship to a man. She started out life as a man’s daughter. She got married and became a man’s wife. If she bore sons, she would become a man’s mother. Her identity as a person was derived from her connection to a man.

It’s not that there were no “independent” women in the ancient world. We know about Lydia in the book of Acts, the dealer in fine purple cloth. While the text is mum about her marital status, there is no mention of a man in her life. A number of women, as we read in Luke 8, underwrite the costs of Jesus’ preaching tour in Galilee. One is married. At least some of the others are not.

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Widows in the ancient world occupied a liminal space. Widows had once been married and now are not. I can tell you, from experience as a widower, that this in-between experience of the formerly married is not limited to the ancient world. Widows were stereotypically regarded as in need of male protection and resourcing. They were often portrayed as economically and socially vulnerable. They were viewed as living on the edges of “normal” male/female relationships.

Childless widows would be particularly vulnerable. They were probably beyond the protection and care of a father. They had lost the connection to and identity with a husband. They did not have the “social security” of children duty-bound to provide for them in old age. Thus, the system of levirate marriage (assumed in the thought experiment proposed by the Sadducees) was intended to provide both some measure of security for the widow and a way for the name of the deceased husband to continue in Israel.

All that being said, we need to also remember that in ancient Israelite legal theory, marriage was first and foremost a property relationship. Therefore, for example, adultery was a property crime. It was the theft of one man’s “property” (the sexual function of the wife) by another man. The property of the family was owned and controlled by the husband and his family.  Of course, that is familiar to some of us as well. I can clearly remember the days when my mom couldn’t have a checking account or credit card without the co-signature of her husband.

Whose wife will the woman be? The socially conservative Sadducees presume a property understanding of marriage. “Whose” is a possessive pronoun. And the wife, in this question, is a possession of each of the seven brothers. More than that, she derives her position, status, and identity from that connection to a man. If there’s no man, whose is that woman? And who is that woman? In the resurrection she is, Jesus declares, isaggeloi – “like the angels.”

“This story, properly understood,” Anna Beresford writes, “emphasizes the equality of men and women in God’s sight, the love of God, the power of the kingdom, and the qualities of the resurrection life” (page 6). The woman will be a child of God and of the resurrection without the need for a male anchor in the scheme of existence. She will not require the validation of connection to another human being for that status. She will be seen and valued for herself and not for the sake of another.

Beresford notes that the Lukan author portrays an ambiguous picture of women in the gospel account. She suggests that this treatment of women is part of the Lukan strategy to subvert existing social relationship for the sake of the Kin(g)dom without posing a radical threat to the established authorities who might cause trouble for the Lukan community. “Rather than silencing or sidelining women,” Beresford writes, “Luke used them and their plight to highlight the historical inequalities of the time and make a theological point” (page 7).

Beresford argues that the Lukan author tells the story of the nameless widow in our text to demonstrate “the disconnect between the worldview of the Sadducees and the economy of God’s kingdom” (page 7). The Sadducees, as the representatives and guarantors of the established order, were not interested in any doctrine or practice that might threaten to upset that order.

It’s clear as we read Luke 20, that many folks saw Jesus as a threat to that established order. The questions Jesus fields in this section try to show him as a problem for the Temple system, the economic system, and the political system. Beresford notes that our text immediately follows the question about paying taxes to the Emperor. “To whom does this coin belong?” is the previous question. “To whom does the woman belong?” is the current question.

According to Beresford, Jesus’ answer is the same in each case: “just as the coin is imprinted with the emperor’s image and so belongs to the emperor, men and women both reflect the maker’s mark. They are made in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27) and belong to God alone.” This identifying mark, for the woman, is not dependent on a property relationship to a man. “The reason they shall neither marry nor be given in marriage in the resurrection,” Beresford argues, “is that, in the resurrection, women, make in God’s image, shall cease to be property” (page 10).

Instead, the woman (like the men) shall become “like the angels.” This doesn’t mean that dead people “become” angels. I write that with a certain amount of trepidation, no matter how much I know it’s true. In our time, many people are quite certain that their dead loved ones have become their “guardian angels” who watch over them from heaven. That’s not what our text says. “Like” the angels in immortality and ceasing to marry is not the same as being angels.

I want to digress for a moment in this regard. I am not saying that I think our deceased loved ones cease to have a relationship with us who are still in this life. I take great comfort from the image in the book of Hebrews of the “great cloud of witnesses” cheering us on from the heavenly bleachers in the stadium of the New Creation. I have experienced connections with deceased loved ones at important moments of my life. I believe in the communion of saints, and I think that communion transcends the boundaries of space and time. It’s just that this doesn’t make my deceased loved ones into “guardian angels.” That job, in Christian tradition is already taken by, well, the guardian angels.

The angels live in the presence of God and have their life from God. So, too, Jesus argues later in the text, do those patriarchs (and matriarchs) upon which he bases his exegetical argument. “God’s relationship with people does not end when they die,” Beresford writes, instead, the relationship is everlasting and personal. And, as Jesus’ words implied,” she continues, “that relationship is not limited by a person’s gender. Both men and women are made in God’s image, so all have equal standing before God” (page 11).

As Beresford notes, the Sadduceean thought experiment portrays numerous features of their worldview. The ownership of women by men is assumed. Women have no choice but to acquiesce to the needs and directives of those men. The age to come would differ little from the present age (if there was any age to come at all). Things might be a bit different but not much. And death seems to be more powerful than God.

Jesus’ reply describes a different worldview, as Beresford summarizes. Death cannot destroy God’s relationship with God’s creatures. Men and women are equal participants in the age to come. That age has come near in Jesus and is beginning to unfold in the here and now.

I would add that Jesus reverses our frame of reference. This age is not the standard by which we judge the age to come. That is the Sadduceean perspective. Instead, the fulfillment of God’s creative intent in the age to come is the standard by which we are called to evaluate and change this age.

For example, how we do marriage now does not tell us what relationships in the age to come should be like. Instead, what we can discern of the age to come should tell us how our relationships in this age are to be – at least for Jesus followers. If the fulfillment of creation is that we should be like the angels, then we are called to start acting more “angelic” in the here and now.

Marriage should not be defined as property and power but rather as partnership. Human status and position don’t confer identity. God does. Marriage can be a sign, instrument, and foretaste of the quality of relationships among all people in the age to come. But that can only be the case if marriage reflects the quality of relationship we can discern in the age to come. The current status quo cannot be used to judge the nature of the age to come. Rather, the age to come provides the standards by which to judge the current status quo.

References and Resources

Beresford, Anna. “Whose Wife Will She Be? A Feminist Interpretation of Luke 20:27-38.” Priscilla Papers, 35:4, pages 6-13, 2021. https://www.academia.edu/69656828/Whose_Wife_Will_She_Be_A_Feminist_Interpretation_of_Luke_20_27_38?auto=citations&from=cover_page.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

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

Text Study for Luke 20:27-40 (Part Two)

What is Jesus’ argument here? Let’s look at his interpretive conclusion in Luke 20:38. This is going to be a bit nerdy and grammatical. But bear with me. I always want to read the text as it is written rather than how I think it’s written. I think Jesus roots his conclusion in the character of God. And I think a focused reading of the text produces this understanding.

A literal translation of that verse goes something like this. “But [God] is not God of the dead but rather of the living, for all are living to him.” The final prepositional phrase is a dative and can be translated in a variety of ways. I want to argue that it is a “dative of means.”

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“The dative substantive is used to indicate the means or instrument by which the verbal action is accomplished,” Daniel Wallace writes. “Before the noun in the dative, supply the words by means of, or simply with” (page 162). As the NRSV renders the phrase, we get the sense that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all “in the presence of God’ as living.

But I think Jesus says more than that. He wants to show that God raises the dead (verse 37). “If they are still alive in the future,” N. T. Wright argues, “they will be raised in the future. Nobody supposed, after all,” Wright continues, “that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had already been raised from the dead…The patriarchs are still alive,” Jesus argues, “and therefore will be raised in the future. Prove the first,” Wright concludes, “and (within the worldview assumed by both parties in the debate, and any listening Pharisees) you have proved the second” (page 425).

Life comes from and belongs to God, the Creator. It is in the Creator’s character to create and sustain the living. Jesus argues that we find that character of God in the very texts which the Sadducees would argue preclude such an understanding.

So, Jesus’ conclusion goes something like this. “But even Moses showed, based upon the [burning] bush that the dead are raised, as he says, ‘the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob;’ [God] is not the God of the dead but rather of the living, for all are living by means of [God]” (Luke 20:37-38, my translation).

It’s easy to write off this argument as an example of arcane rabbinic exegesis which no longer means anything to us in the twenty-first century. I’m not persuaded by that dismissal. Levine and Witherington spend some time on these verses and this exegesis. I think it’s worth discussing their work here.

They quote John Nolland in summarizing Jesus’ argument. “God will not have continued to advertise himself as God of the Patriarchs,” Nolland writes, “if he had finished with them and abandoned them to the grave” (Levine and Witherington, page 555). What is at stake here is God’s faithfulness, not merely the postmortem continuation of human lives and institutions. Does death derail God’s promises?

This is the foundation of Jewish and Christian theologizing about the resurrection of the dead. While I think it’s a wonderful idea that I will continue in a better way after I die, that’s not God’s goal in the resurrection. My individual continuation (whatever that actually means) is an outcome of God’s goal, a fringe benefit to me of God’s faithfulness to all of Creation.

The question that resurrection answers, Levine and Witherington argue, “is not, ‘Will I have life after death?’ but rather, ‘Has God given up on his promises to his people?” (page 555). They suggest that Jesus stands in line with some of the Jewish thinking of his time – that the patriarchs and others from the past are alive in the present, awaiting the general resurrection of the dead.

Levine and Witherington refer to the imagery of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus at this point as well. They suggest “that Jesus believed that God preserves the righteous dead in a place of glory, where they await the resurrection” (page 555). I think that may be a theological bridge too far. It appears to me that the parable relies on the imagery of Sheol from the Hebrew bible more than it does to any conception of a resurrection from the dead. Be that as it may, Jesus is concerned about the restoration of divine justice after life in this world is over.

“The evidence suggests,” N. T. Wright argues, “that by the time of Jesus…most Jews either believed in some form of resurrection or at least knew it was standard teaching (Son of God, page 129). The Sadducees were among the minority who held to the view that a general resurrection of the dead from the dead was not a valid teaching based on authoritative Jewish scripture. However, Wright continues, it is not accurate to see the Sadducees as theological radicals. Instead, they were the conservatives (page 131).

Josephus reports, in The Jewish War, that the Sadducees reject the idea of “the persistence of the soul after death, penalties in the underworld, and rewards” (see Wright, page 134). For the Sadducees, when you’re dead, you’re dead. And that’s that. They are at least accused of believing that there is no “age to come” when God’s faithfulness would set all things right. The way things are is the way things will be.

Of course, that’s an excellent theology for those who see themselves in charge and who don’t wish for things to change. “The real problem was that resurrection was,” Wright notes, “from the beginning a revolutionary doctrine. For Daniel 12,” for example, “resurrection belief went with dogged resistance and martyrdom” (page 138). If God intends to turn everything right-side up in the end, then those who are on “God’s side” can and should be in the business of turning things right-side up in the here and now.

The Sadduceean problem with resurrection “was that they realized that such beliefs threatened their own position. People who believe that their god is about to make a new world, and that those who die in loyalty to him in the meantime will rise again to share gloriously in it,” Wright continues, “are far more likely to lose respect for a wealthy aristocracy than people who think that this life, this world, and this age are the only ones there will ever be” (page 138).

It is, therefore, no accident that the synoptic writers put this exchange in the “challenge the authorities” section of the narrative. Our text is, as Wright puts it, “in a highly polemical and adversarial context, where the issue is emphatically not abstract debates about the finer points of theology or belief about a future life, but the immediate political meaning of what Jesus has just done in the Temple” (page 419). The debate here is about politics, not metaphysics.

The resurrection of the dead, in the New Testament, is not pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. It is not the opiate of the masses, designed to calm down the dissatisfied with promises of a final reward. “Resurrection is precisely concerned with the present world and its renewal,” Wright argues, “not with escaping the present world and going somewhere else; and in its early Jewish forms right through to its developed Christian forms, it was always concerned with divine judgment, with the creator god acting within history to put right that which is wrong” (page 138).

Therefore, Jesus argues to the Sadducees, from the beginning it is the character of God to give and to sustain the living. God makes promises of life to the living. God will not allow death to derail such promises, because God is faithful. That faithfulness to the promise of life will always be a threat to forces that depend on the power of death. “Resurrection,” N. T. Wright observes, “depending as it did on a strong belief in justice and the sovereign power of the good creator god, was always bound to be a revolutionary doctrine” (page 139).

At the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, this revolutionary doctrine meant two things to the majority of Jews. It referred to the restoration of Israel. We can see that expectation in the question of the disciples in Acts 1:6 – “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” And it also referred to the general resurrection of the dead for God’s people at the end of the present age.

“But nobody imagined that any individuals had already been raised,” Wright reminds us, “or would be raised in advance of the great last day” (page 205). That reality would have to wait until the first Easter morning. “Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, in fact, does point towards the refocusing of the resurrection hope which was to take place later,” Wright concludes, “not the least through the work of Paul” (page 426). But we aren’t there yet – at least not in the Lukan narrative.

References and Resources

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

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

Text Study for 2 Easter B 2021; John 20:19-31 (Pt. 1)

Please read John 20:19-31

The Second Sunday of Easter is always “Doubting Thomas” Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary. We will certainly get to our friend Didymus in bit, but we have lost of ground to cover before we get there.

John’s Gospel has a “prologue” in chapter one, verses one through eighteen. John’s Gospel also has an “epilogue,” which we find in chapter twenty-one. So, our text comes in three parts today – the first appearance of Jesus to the twelve (minus one) in John 20:19-23; Jesus and Thomas (and us) in John 20:24-29; and the concluding summary and purpose statement for the book in John 20:30-31. I will address each of these sections in turn.

With this general outline, it should be clear that the preacher cannot address all that is in this text. As we go along, it will be clear that the preacher cannot address all that is in each section of the text. The preacher will need to choose and explore in depth one of the many elements of this reading. This is, after all, job security for preachers. I have come to this text every year for most of the last forty years. And I find it new and challenging each year.

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1. the first appearance of Jesus to the twelve (minus one) in John 20:19-23.

The writer of John lays out the situation of the disciples that first Easter evening. We should know that the details of the text matter in John’s gospel to an even greater degree than in the other gospel accounts.

Some translators might render the opening words of verse 19 as “later that day.” That is not, however, a helpful translation. John’s gospel urgently desires us to see the Resurrection as the recapitulation and fulfillment of the original creation. God walked with human beings in the cool of the evening in Genesis, and God comes to the disciples in the evening here. Translations should enhance rather than obscure the connection between the first Creation stories and this New Creation narrative. And our preaching should do the same.

We are still “on the first day of the week.” The calendar was emphasized in Mary’s encounter with Jesus in the garden as well. Here again is Creation imagery. Easter is the first day of a new week and the first day of the New Creation. It is the fulfillment of the Sabbath rest which God took in the first garden. Again, translation and preaching should lift up this aspect of the text. It will be a necessary tool in interpreting the rest of the text today.

We can assume that Mary returned to the disciples and reported her encounter with the risen Lord Jesus at the empty tomb. The disciples would have had all day to discuss and process this information (if they took it seriously at all). They may have discounted Mary’s witness because of her gender and her “emotional state.” More to the point, they were still not equipped to understand what Jesus meant about going to the Father and all that. They had not yet encountered him in person as Mary had.

The doors where they were located were locked or barred due to fear of the Jewish authorities. The locked doors would keep out the threats of the outside world. But they also kept the disciples locked into their old world. Jesus came and stood “into the middle.” As we may have noted in previous texts, we should rarely expect the writer’s vocabulary to have merely one meaning. Here, Jesus becomes the center of their attention and experience.

The locked doors are no “defense” against Jesus’ appearing. He comes to speak peace to them in their fear and confusion. But he also comes to release them from the self-imposed prison of their terror. When he appears, as we shall see, it is for the purpose of sending them out.

Perhaps we can think about how we view our own church sanctuaries in this regard. Do we treat them as places where we escape from the big, bad world and keep it out? Or do we treat them as places where we meet Jesus and have our “sentness,” our vocations, renewed so we can be free to go out and face the world once again? We would prefer the former, but Jesus moves us to the latter.

There is no sense of “entering” or “descending.” John’s description has much more the flavor of “appearing” among them. He wasn’t there – and then he was. This is one of the more typical New Testament ways to describe Jesus’ various “return engagements.” We can read about his “appearing” in 1 Corinthians 15, Luke 24, 2 Timothy 4:8, Acts 26:16, Hebrews 9:26, 1 John 2 and 3, and Titus 2:13. It was the experience of the earliest Christians in numerous texts that Jesus appeared without notice or preparation, but most often in the context of gatherings of believers for worship. That’s an important point for us to remember in our own piety and practice.

This is one of the reasons why I know that gathering together in one place for worship is important for the life and health of the body of Christ and us as members of the body. If it were up to me, I’d be quite happy to sit in my study and wrestle day in and day out with the text. I find that Jesus does meet me in that way regularly and that the Spirit sustains and builds up my faith.

But there is no substitute for the gathered body if we wish to meet Jesus as he appears to us in the preached Word, the embodied Sacraments, and the community of the faithful. No matter my psychological quirks and preferences, I am anxious to return to in person worship when it is prudent to do so. That time is coming sooner rather than later, I pray.

When he appears, Jesus is “with them” in the midst of their confusion and fear. He speaks directly to that traumatic disintegration with familiar words – “Peace to you.” We may find ourselves transported back to chapter fourteen in the Farewell Discourse. “Don’t let your hearts be made turbulent,” he tells them in verse 1. “Peace I am releasing to you,” he says to them in verse twenty-seven, “my peace I am giving to you.”

We know this is not the mere freedom from distress that we crave – not the “peace” that the world offers. Therefore, Jesus continues in verse 27, don’t let your hearts be made turbulent; neither let them be cowed with fear. Jesus begins by calming the disciples so they can focus on the evidence of their senses and the events happening before their eyes. Trauma can affect our perception in ways that alter what and how we see and hear. Jesus wants their full and focused attention.

It’s not surprising that the disciples might be more than a bit distressed, Somehow, Jesus had passed through locked or barred doors. Either their security measures had failed them, or something very unusual was happening. When we are threatened in such a way, we tend to head for the exits and ask questions later.

Jesus shows them his hands and his side. The disciples recognize him through his wounds. Even though Jesus has been raised from the dead and has ascended to the Father, his physical body bears the marks of his crucifixion. The wounds are not incidental or temporary. Rather they are now part of Jesus’ ongoing identity (and are thus part of the ongoing identity of the Trinity).

What, therefore, is the nature of Jesus’ resurrection body? Jesus seems to be impervious to walls and doors, locks and bars. Yet his body can be examined and handled as a physical reality. What does that mean for him? What does that mean for us, who hope to receive the gift of a resurrection body in the New Creation? Why did the wounds “come along” into the New Creation?

The wounds came along because in the New Creation, as N. T. Wright notes, nothing good is lost. It is not the case that the wounds themselves were “good.” But the love that bore those wounds is indeed very good. The wounds come along to bear witness to the love.

Is it, then, the case that our wounds will be taken up into the New Creation and redeemed as well? I believe that is the case. There are “wounds” in my life which I know simply cannot and will not be healed in this old Creation. I have prayerful hope and confidence that in the New Creation those wounds will be redeemed and all that was wrong will be set right. I believe that is part of what Resurrection to the New Creation means for us.

If my wounds are redeemed in the New Creation, however, then that process can begin in the here and now. It won’t be completed in the here and now, but we can begin to live on the basis of the abundant life we receive in Jesus Christ. I can see my wounds as part of the journey now and integrate them into the wholeness Jesus offers. Integrating wounds is not the same as ignoring them, however. That’s why the conversation will move quickly toward forgiveness.

“He showed them his hands and his side.” You will recall that Jesus told Mary Magdalene not to “cling” to him because he had not yet ascended to the Father (verse 17). That status has changed during the course of the day. “The first appearance of the risen Jesus presumes Jesus has descended,” Malina and Rohrbaugh writes, “since he offers himself for examination.” As a result, they describe this scene as “the first descent of the risen Jesus” (page 281).

From John 1:51, we have heard Jesus describe his mission as descending from and ascending to the Father. In John’s gospel, it would seem that the writer is suggesting that this mode of visitation will continue, not only for the disciples, but perhaps for the members of the gospel audience as well.

It should again be clear that in John’s gospel, the Resurrection and Ascension are related but separable events. It may be that the Resurrection is a one-time reality, but the descending and ascending relationship is a repeated experience, at least for the disciples. And it will become clear that receiving the Holy Spirit is more than a one-time event as well. We can pick that up in the next post as we finish this first section of the reading.

Text Study for Easter 2021 — John 20:1-10

2. The Race to the Empty Tomb (John 20:1-10)

“The whole New Testament is unanimous on this point: the Cross and burial of Christ reveal their significance only in the light of the event of Easter, without which there is no Christian faith” (Hans Urs Von Balthasar, Mysterium Paschale, page 189).

As I have noted before, John’s Gospel takes up where the Synoptics leave off. This is certainly true of the Resurrection accounts. Mark has an unfinished ending. In John, “it is finished” (John 19:30). These are complementary accounts, not contradictory reports. That assertion, however, will take a few days to unpack.

John gives us the Resurrection in three acts plus an epilogue in chapter 20. Act 1 is the “Race to the Empty Tomb.” Act 2 is Mary Magdalene wandering in “The Garden of Lost and Found.” Act 3 (which we get on the second Sunday of Easter) is the “Spirited Sending.” The epilogue (which we also get on the second Sunday of Easter) is the “Triumph of Trust over Trauma.”

Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU on Pexels.com

“Christ is risen, and Mary is weeping,” writes Mary Hinkle Shore in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “John’s account of the disciples’ discovery of the resurrection has this tension at its heart.” There is no effort in this account to minimize the loss and grief produced by Jesus’ execution and hurried burial. That series of traumatic events is now compounded by the possibility that someone has stolen the body.

One situation that produces “complex grief” is when the body of the deceased is not found or cannot be recovered. There is something necessary about a confrontation with the corpse of one who was loved and living and is now grieved and gone. We live in a time when many people don’t want that encounter with the dead flesh. I cannot and will not judge that because we must each find our own way in our grieving. But I know from my own experience that this encounter was a necessary deterrent to my desperate need for denial.

Add to that the uncertainty when a body has somehow “disappeared,” and the pain must have been nearly beyond enduring. Of course, Mary is weeping – once she can find the capacity once again to breathe. My experience is that she was more likely wailing with the primal pain that arises from one’s guts in response to the horror of such a compounded loss. The writer of John’s gospel spends time on this scene in order to allow us all to descend with Mary into the depths of her despair. And there can be no doubt that Jesus was truly dead.

Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb on the first day after the Sabbath, the first day of a new week. She comes while it is still dark (as opposed to Mark’s report that the women came when the sun had risen). The light which enlightens the world, we read earlier in John, was coming into the world. Mary is there as the Light of the world is appearing. She sees that the stone has been rolled away and concludes that the grave has been robbed. She does not conclude that there has been a resurrection.

“When she sees an open tomb, it does not bring about the memories of Lazarus’ resurrection, but rather a logical assumption: an opened tomb signals a tomb robbery!” writes Alicia Myers in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “Unfortunately, such acts were well-known in antiquity,” she continues, “so much so that tomb robbery was listed as a heinous crime in rhetorical handbooks and was a trademark of pirates in ancient novels.”

She flees back to the disciples to share what she has seen and surmised. Peter and the “other disciple” race to the tomb after they hear Mary’s panicked report. Peter sees the empty tomb but “it is the beloved disciple who sees and believes (v. 8) that God did something with Jesus,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “even though neither knows how to clarify the meaning of the empty tomb with the help of Scripture (v. 9)” [page 280].

The other disciple gets there first and looks in. He sees the burial cloths that would have wrapped Jesus’ body. He knows the body is missing, but he doesn’t enter – perhaps in fear that the thieves were still there. Peter catches up and plunges into the tomb. He too sees the burial cloths. In addition, he sees the napkin that would have covered Jesus’ face. It is neatly folded up rather than being piled up with the other cloths. That is not the act of grave robbers in a hurry to take what they want.

The coast is clear, and the other disciple enters the tomb. He “saw and believed.” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that this “believing” was acceptance of the possibility that God “had interrupted the dying-burial process with a resurrection.” Peter did not consider or accept this possibility. Myers is more limited in describing the other disciples’ credence. “In fact, given the sequence of events in 20:8–10,” she writes, “it seems probable that the Beloved Disciple ‘believed’ Mary’s report of Jesus’ body being stolen rather than believing in the resurrection.”

I’m not sure about this issue, but I find myself halfway between these positions. The other disciples does more than believe Mary’s report but less than accept Jesus’ resurrection. I base this in part on the way in which John’s Gospel uses “believe” throughout the gospel. If the disciple Jesus loved was in fact Lazarus, as Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest, then, “This is not surprising…since Jesus intervened to have God interrupt the dying-burial process in [Lazarus’] case” (page 280). I find it credible to think that Lazarus may have been the original source of the Gospel of John and the mysterious “beloved disciple.” I think it is also credible that he believed more was going on than grave robbery, although he couldn’t know what the “more” was yet.

Why is “believing” in John’s sense necessary for accepting the possibility of Resurrection? “This event is,” writes Von Balthasar, “without analogy. It pierces our whole world of living and dying in a unique way,” he continues, “so that, through this breakthrough, it may open a path for us into the everlasting life of God” (page 194). Regardless of the nature of the other disciple’s “belief” at this point, it was not any sort of “faith” in Jesus’ resurrection. That was still to come, and the first such response is reserved for Mary Magdelene.

It’s not true that Jews knew nothing about resurrection. We can see from the Gospel accounts that Jesus’ followers expected some sort of general resurrection of the dead at the end of the age. What they didn’t expect – what they couldn’t expect – was that this resurrection would come to meet them in the middle of history. What they couldn’t expect was that Jesus, the Crucified Messiah, was bringing the power of that new life into the middle of the old life in order to break apart the powers of sin, death, and the devil.

Von Balthasar quotes New Testament scholar Rolf Rengstorff in this regard, and it’s worth rehearsing here. “Jesus’ Resurrection took his disciples completely by surprise,” Rengstorff wrote. “They also lead us to understand that Jesus’ Resurrection lay entirely outside what could justly have been expected of the disciples. There was no place for a Resurrection of Jesus,” Rengstorff noted, “in the representations which they had at their disposal” (quoted on page 200).

Jesus’ resurrection is not “like” anything else. It is not another example of anything else. It cannot be compared to anything else. In order to trust in the Resurrection as God’s new life among us, we must accept and embrace an entirely new view of Reality. The Beloved Disciple is able to accept and embrace what he sees but cannot process it. For Peter it will all take a bit more time and effort, but he gets it in the end.

The fact that the tomb is empty is not, by itself, sufficient proof of the Resurrection. By itself, in the texts the empty tomb is a source of terror and trauma, of confusion and consternation. We see that in the way John’s gospel tells the story. Mary sees it and is not comforted but rather further traumatized. Peter sees it and is left unchanged. The Beloved Disciples sees it and accepts that something has happened to change the expected course of events, but the full revelation must await Jesus’ appearing (and explaining).

Once again, the writer of John’s Gospel reminds us that an encounter with the Risen Christ must precede an understanding of the Resurrection. It is only through reflection upon and after that encounter that the witness of scripture can be understood as pointing to Easter. The other disciple saw and believed that something other than grave robbery had happened, but he didn’t yet know what that “something other” was. “For they had not yet understood the Scripture,” we read in verse 9, “that it was necessary for him to be raised from the dead.”

Repeatedly in John we are reminded that the disciples think about what they experienced. They reflect and meditate on what they have seen. They remember the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. They search the Scriptures to understand what it all means. When they have the whole picture, things become clear. In John 20:9, they don’t yet have the whole picture. So, the disciples have not yet been changed.

This is the meaning of verse 10. The NRSV tells us that the disciples “returned to their homes.” That seems odd, since they are from Galilee. It could be that they returned to the places where they were guests in Bethany during the Passover. But the Greek of the verse doesn’t specify their “homes.”

Instead, it says in literal translation, “Exited then again toward themselves the disciples.” They left the empty tomb largely in the condition in which they had entered. They were still “toward themselves.” It would take an encounter with the risen Lord Jesus to move them to a new place, a new day, and a new mission.

So it is with us.

References and Resources

Hurtado, Larry W. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce J., and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

Myers, Alicia. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord/commentary-on-john-201-18-11.

Shore, Mary Hinkle. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/resurrection-of-our-lord-2/commentary-on-john-201-18-8.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

Von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Mysterium Paschale. San Francisco, CA.: Ignatius Press, 1970.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

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

Text Study for Easter B 2021 — Mark 16:1-8

Read Mark 16:1-8

The Easter lectionary in Year B offers two choices for the Easter Sunday Gospel reading – Mark 16:1-8, and John 20:1-18. I will focus most of my attention on the selection from John this week. However, let’s spend some time on Mark and the “odd” ending we find to that gospel.

The women who had gathered at the foot of the cross on Good Friday return to the tomb when the Sabbath had passed. Unlike in John, where Mary goes while it is still dark, the women went to the tomb early on the first day of the week, when the sun had dawned. John moves us from darkness to light in his narrative, and we should not be surprised by that use of symbolism. Mark wants us to meet a new week and a new world fully dawned. Keep that in mind as we go along.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

The women have the discussion about who is going to move that big rock and discover that the work has already been done. They meet a young man dressed in bright raiment (preferable, I think, to “white robe”), and they are shocked and surprised (both emotions contained in one word). The young man says to them, “Don’t be shocked and surprised.” He explains what has happened and gives the women their call to report their experience to Jesus’ disciples and to Peter. When they return to Galilee, they can expect Jesus to be there, waiting to meet them.

So far so good. The trouble is in verse 8. “And exiting, they fled from the tomb, for they themselves were having trembling and amazement; and they said nothing to anyone, being afraid for…” (my pretty literal translation). As most of us may know, the verse appears to end mid-sentence with the Greek word “gar” which means “for,” or “because.” It is a post-positive inferential particle. It should not begin or end a sentence. And it should lead to some language that concludes a preceding thought.

But there it is, hanging out in the middle of grammatical nowhere — despite the fact that most translations turn the fragment into a finished sentence. What’s the deal?

It’s clear that this odd ending created problems early in the Christian tradition. In many English translations, such as the NRSV, you will find a “shorter ending of Mark” that gives the quick version of some Resurrection sightings and a sort of “Great Commission.” You will also find a “longer ending of Mark” that includes notes from all three of the other gospels. We have a tearful meeting with Mary Magdalene (John). We have an appearance to a pair on the road (Luke). We have a Great Commission (Matthew). And we have an Ascension as well (Luke and Acts).

The manuscript evidence is fairly conclusive that neither the shorter nor the longer endings is original to Mark’s account. Even Daniel Wallace, a cautious and conservative scholar, notes that the general scholarly consensus is against the alternate endings and that Wallace agrees with the verdict that the original text “was intentionally concluded at verse 8” (page 405, note 25). The alternate endings also demonstrate that early on the Christian tradition was uncomfortable with the “unfinished” nature of Mark’s story and sought to bring the account to a more settled conclusion.

So, the preacher can embrace a later ending to the gospel as preachers have done for centuries. The preacher can read the text quickly and focus on the Resurrection report to the exclusion of the witness reactions — happy that the NRSV at least makes it a sentence. Or the preacher can go to John’s account.

And yet, that odd ending is still there. What can it mean? Some scholars think that we see the results of damage to an early copy of Mark’s gospel. There was more, but it was lost to the ravages of time. N. T. Wright is firmly in this camp. He asserts,

“there are many who think that Mark did after all intend to close the book with the women in fear and silence, but I disagree. I have become quite sure that there was more. I think a very, very early copy of Mark was mutilated. As with many other scrolls and books in the ancient world (and sometimes even in the modern), the last page, or the last column of the scroll, was torn off, presumably by accident.” (Location 3880)

That being said, we don’t have whatever the actual ending was. Therefore, Wright chooses to deal with what we have. “There is a blank at the end of the story, and we are invited to fill it ourselves,” Wright suggests. “Do we take Easter for granted, or have we found ourselves awestruck at the strange new work of God? What do we know of the risen Lord? Where is he now going ahead of us? What tasks has he for us to undertake today, to take ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ to the ends of the earth?” (Location 3915). Bishop Wright ends up with much the same conclusion in practical terms as those who argue that this is what Mark intended all along.

The question remains. If Mark intended to leave his account with this odd ending, what do we do with it?

Hurtado suggests the “preacher punt” as the path out of this fine mess. “Whatever Mark may have intended with reference to the women who, at least initially, flee from the tomb too frightened to comply with the command,” he writes, “the reader certainly has been given the news of Jesus’ resurrection and is called to follow the risen Jesus, proclaiming the victory and forgiveness of the gospel” (page 285). Obviously, somebody talked to someone. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this little conversation, Hurtado reminds us.

It is not the case, Hurtado notes, that we can glean nothing from Mark’s account of the Resurrection. Jesus is proclaimed as risen from the dead. “The risen Jesus summons the same disciples who abandoned and denied him,” Hurtado notes, “to renew their discipleship and become again his followers” (pages 284-285). Mark declares that forgiveness, new life, and renewed vocation are part of this good news, for the first disciples and for all subsequent Jesus followers.

Richard Swanson urges us to stay with the tension of the “incomplete ending.” He asks, “what if Mark’s ritualizing of the incompleteness is wiser than the church’s institutionalizing smoothness? The task on Easter,” he continues, “is to tell stories about the resurrection in a world where everyone dies” (page 159). He cautions us against making Easter into some sort of happy ending which minimizes the suffering and death we have all experienced since last Easter. He suggests that such bad faith happy talk “will fail the test of truth that will be applied by the people who have found good reasons to avoid worship since last Easter” (page 159).

Swanson names the distress every pastor feels in applying Resurrection good news to the losses and tragedies still present in this life. “Any ritual enactment that does not treat resurrection as a problem,” he notes, “will offend everyone who has learned that death is an inexorable reality” (page 159). Swanson is convinced that the odd ending is the intended ending. “I think Mark’s story was shaped,” he writes, “to end in precisely this offense, exactly this provocation” (page 160).

Swanson suggests that Mark intends by this telling to train us as “God-wrestlers” (a theme throughout his commentary). “Mark tells a story that trains its audience to demand more than it will ever get,” he writes. “This marks it as a Jewish story, a story suited for the training of wrestlers” (page 162).

“How do you take a bow after performing Marks’s story?” Swanson asks. He gives no conclusive stage directions but leaves it to the performers. “However you play it,” he writes, “the end of Mark’s story must solve problems and puzzle the audience, it must complete the story and leave it hanging. Mark’s story is completely incomplete,” he concludes, “and the ending is the place to embody this” (page 163).

Serene Jones, in her book Trauma and Grace, addresses the odd ending of Mark as well – taking us from Swanson’s question to further reflection. “Mark leaves the story of the crucifixion hanging in a kind of suspended animation,” she writes, “we readers are left wondering what happens next, and we receive no clear answers” (pages 85-86). Just when it’s all going so well, Jones reminds us – when the stone is moved, the messenger speaks, and the Resurrection is announced – Mark stops mid-sentence. Jones writes,

“At the very moment when we, as readers of the Gospel, are in need of the greatest relief; at the moment in which we are supposed to witness the event of proclamation that launches Christianity into its future and hear about how the first people of faith really experienced the resurrection—Mark does not give it to us. Instead, he depicts a group of weak, irrational women who fall silent and run away. In doing so he allows the Gospel story to run away from us. Instead of pulling it together, he leaves us peering into the gaping space of an ending that never comes” page 89.

Jones puts the narrative of Mark 16 into the framework of trauma experience and response. She, like Swanson, also wonders how this text is to be performed. “The intended ending of Mark’s Gospel may not be the Greek preposition gar (for),” she writes, “Mark may very well have intended that the ending be a gesture. The ending of Mark’s Gospel takes us to the very limits of language, where we cross the threshold into silence” (page 94).

With Swanson, Jones wants to read Mark’s account in a world where trauma is terrifying, and death is real. She is not content with the “wrapped up with a bow” endings that fill in the silence of Mark’s ending. Instead, she sees Mark as indicating and calling forth something much deeper. She points to the “trauma” that Resurrection creates for a world where death is the only secure and certain reality. She quotes a sermon by Tom Troeger in this regard.

“’What if death is not a reliable absolute?’ asks Tom Troeger in a sermon on this passage. ‘Then the comfort of knowing that life is a fixed and closed system is called into question. If death is overcome, if the one indestructible certitude that marks existence is shattered, then reality is wide open!’” (page 96).

What if Mark’s intention is to shake the foundations of the world with the news that God is on the loose and death is temporary? After all, the women respond with “trembling and amazement.” What does that do to us, to our settled certainties, to the status quo of a world that relies on death to manage, manipulate, and master people? Can we live in between the trembling and amazement too?

This is where I will leave Mark’s “odd ending.” Mark announces, “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In chapter 16, Mark wants us to meet a new week and a new world fully dawned. Perhaps he intends for us to see that this Good News will never end, and as a result nothing can ever be the same.

I like that.

References and Resources

Hurtado, Larry W. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2017. Kindle Edition.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.

Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.