A story that subverts: Jesus' Resurrection in Matthew's Gospel
Michael Trainor is a priest of the Archdiocese of Adelaide, minister in the parish of Salisbury and teacher at the Adelaide College of Divinity, with the School of Theology of Flinders University. He has written several books on the New Testament and on Religious Education. His most recent publication is The Quest for Home: The Household in Mark’s Community (Liturgical Press, 2001); cf. Compass 2001/4, p.45. This is the first of a series of reflections on Scripture that he will write for us.
SHE SPEAKS AND JOKES with them from her bed. A few weeks pass.
She now acknowledges the intensity of the pain growing in her legs, the result of a degeneration of her nervous system. A year ago it was just an annoyance and then it kept her bed bound. Now it means that even the oral doses of morphine have lost their effectiveness.
A self-regulating morphine pump is substituted for her oral medication. Her pain eases. She sleeps longer, though her periods of alertness lessen.
All this means something else to them. They realise that she is dying. Slowly. They do not know how long before she will emit that final breath and physically slip from them. Nor do they know how they will be, those final moments. They simply hope that her struggle will not be too long, and that it will be without too much more pain.
They spend the days coming and going letting her know of their presence. She nods, smiles and attempts to speak. She seems to acknowledge each one’s presence, in between her nodded sleep. She is tucked into her bed in a foetal position, as though returning to a womb from which she first emerged some eighty three years previously.
The weeks come to their final days, and the days, their hours. They intensify their bedside vigil and, saddened and grieving, urge her on. They encourage her to let go, remind her that all will be well.
And finally in those last few precious seconds as they kiss her forehead, stroke her cheek, hold her hand and whisper words of gentle love and reassurance, she offers them a tear that rolls down her cheek. Her breathing shallows, her colour whitens and then, with one final deep and lingering breath, she slips from their world with peace and courage.
The struggle is over.
The experience of the dying of someone close touches us at the core of human existence. It tugs at the heart of life’s meaning; it invites reflection of what awaits. Before the face of the beloved who is dying, every other value and life quest that has claimed our attention and passion seem utterly irreverent and irrelevant.
Within the Christian season of Lent, Holy Week and Easter, the contemporary Christian is invited on to a parallel journey. This is the journey that is lived in accompanying the dying of one close, or in witnessing the daily disasters and tragedies that flash across TV screens or in news broadcasts. The Lent-Holy Week-Easter period of the liturgical year invites us into a way of reflecting on these supra-liminal experiences from within the perspective of the story of Jesus.
The events that surrounded the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001 highlighted our fear of pain and hurt, underscored by terrorism. This event has shown how inadequate we are in identifying the reasons for what has happened, and how limited we have become in the way we use political power. Instead of finding a way to benefit the whole planet, our response was to address violence with violence. Even diplomatic conversation in current international politics, at least in a Western world uncritically aligned with the North American anti-terrorist program, is saturated with language of violence. All this comes back to a central issue. How is power used? How can it be used to liberate rather than oppress? And is there any link between the use of power on the international stage, and the death of an elderly woman in a little corner of the universe?
How can the story of Jesus crafted in another time and culture address contemporary Australia as it discerns international obligations and national responsibilities? Callousness to asylum seekers, amnesia about past colonialising deeds, muteness to injustice or deafness to the pleas of peoples with a disregard for smaller Pacific Islands, for example, reflect on the state of our political and ecclesial leadership. So, can this story speak an alternative, renewing, sagacious voice in the midst of what we are experiencing—or will it too become muted or colonised to speak only what is conventional and expected?
In what follows I will reflect on the story of Jesus’ suffering and death, called the Passion Narrative, in the Gospel of Matthew and focus especially on the story of Jesus’ resurrection (Mt 28:1-20). This is the Gospel proclaimed in Holy Week and Matthew’s resurrection story is central to our celebration of Easter. In this reflection I seek to read the story in a way that might speak an alternative word into the midst of our social and personal concerns.
A few preliminaries are in order.
First, modern readers need to be aware that the Passion and Easter stories are principally theological. This means that the evangelist is not concerned about depicting what actually happened, but about the meaning of the resurrection event. Of course, undergirding this narrative is an actual historical event—Jesus was raised from the death. But the evangelist’s concern is to communicate what this really means in a way that would encourage, inspire and critique Gospel disciples who are chronologically distant from the events being recounted. The evangelist seeks to bridge the divide between Jesus’ day and this later community of Matthew’s Gospel. This Judean-Christian community needed to have their Torah faith affirmed as they lived out their discipleship of Jesus.1 Their efforts to be faithful to Jesus in the mid-eighties of the first century CE brought them into conflict with the religious leaders of Judean Judaism, the precursors of second and third century rabbinic or formative Judaism.
Second, it is clear that the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection are the centrepiece of all the Gospels. This was the first story that grabbed the attention and story-telling techniques of the first generations of disciples. When discipled communities gathered in their houses to celebrate the Eucharist, they reflected on their lives in the light of Jesus’ words and deeds. Jesus’ pre-eminent word and deed was located in the story of his death and resurrection.
Third, these stories were also important because they spoke to the violence experienced by a new and later generation of disciples. The narratives also addressed their concern over the death of faithful disciples and their perplexity about a God who seemed silent in the face of their encounters with violence. For them, the story of Jesus’ suffering and death was a mirror of their own. The story of his resurrection and God’s vindication of his fidelity offered a window of hope. Taken together, the narratives of Jesus’ passion and resurrection offered an interpretation and a way of living in a Mediterranean world which was characterised by violence.2
Fourth, this climactic Gospel story formulated early in the traditioning process took on a defined or standard form. A study across the four Gospels reveals a remarkable similarity in structure. While this is expected in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke (with the last two dependent on their original source of Mk), John’s Gospel shows a similar story line, but with significant alterations in harmony with John’s portrait of Jesus and the cosmic-wisdom theology that permeates this Gospel.
Fifth, the stories dealing with Jesus’ passion-death and resurrection form the one narrative. They are intimately linked. One can’t be understood without the other, though many scholarly studies tend to focus on one or the other, but not both. While the reason for this is obvious (the sheer wealth of secondary scholarly material concerned with both and the length of the narratives themselves) it is important in some way to honour the Gospels’ narrative development.
Finally, while there is consistent story line across each of the four Gospel stories, there are differences and narrative developments unique to each Gospel tradition. These differences and shifts in emphasis reveal the hand of the evangelist crafting this most important story in a way that speaks to the social location and cultural context of each Gospel audience. This means that the evangelists are both faithful communicators of the narrative tradition about Jesus and pastoral theologians or educators keen to ensure that this tradition address different Mediterranean audiences. The evangelists’ traditioning creativity reveal that fidelity can coexist with flexibility and that such adaptability does not compromise the ongoing relevance of the story of Jesus for a new, unpredicted social group.
In moving to look more closely at Matthew’s story, it is important to remember that the Gospel of Matthew emerged out of a vitriolic crucible. This makes the Passion and resurrection stories very pertinent. At times tensions between Matthew’s Judean-Christians and religious adherents and leaders in Judea had erupted into violence. Both groups claimed themselves as authentic adherents to the Torah and the traditions of Moses. And one was branded heretical that its discipleship of Jesus had compromised its fidelity to its Mosaic and Torah heritage. Matthew’s Gospel seeks to address this. It portrays Jesus as an authentic and inspired interpreter of the Torah, who teaches fidelity to his disciples and who comes into conflict with the official religious leaders and teachers of the Judaic tradition. The passion narrative is the high point of this tension and disagreement. This narrative can also powerfully speak to the contemporary experience of accompanying the death of the beloved, fear over terrorism or the inability to critique a pervasive interest in violence.
Matthew’s passion narrative (Mt 26-27) closely follows Mark’s story. Like Mark, Matthew is concerned about presenting a portrait of Jesus that is relevant to a later first century community of disciples and about the Gospel’s presentation of the disciples. For Matthew, the disciples become symbolic representatives of community members. Both concerns are clearly revealed in the passion and resurrection narratives.
• Overall the evangelist retains Mark’s sense of Jesus as the human one (‘Son of Man’) who is abandoned. In Mt, Jesus seems to embrace the events that are about to unfold around him with a greater sense of clarity and forcefulness.
• These events are realised as part of God’s plan, which is confirmed in the way that Matthew marshals the texts of the Hebrew Scriptures or alludes to images and themes drawn from these texts which would have been familiar and sacred to Matthew’s audience.
• This link to these Scriptures more clearly leaves the reader with the impression that Jesus’ passion is not something that accidentally happens. It is an act of God that Jesus intentionally embraces, faithful to the spirit of the salvific events of the past.
• Matthew’s Jesus does not recoil from what awaits him. He is a dignified and exalted figure not immune to suffering and humiliation, and he is the model of righteous behaviour. This is the reason he is declared ‘innocent’ (dikaios) by Pilate and his wife, the executing centurion and his companions. Jesus’ capacity to authoritatively interpret the Torah strengthens him against a counterfeit religious opposition.
• Jesus dies, as in Mark, with a sense of divine abandonment, but not totally exhausted by the encounter with evil. He embraces God’s plan right to the end. This is the mood behind Jesus freely ‘giving up’ his spirit at the moment of death (Mt 27:50) and contrasts with Mark’s Gospel where Jesus ‘expires’ (Mk 15:37).
• Throughout the passion drama, Matthew emphasises the closeness between Jesus and his disciples. This presentation is a significant reworking of the discipleship portrait gleaned from Mark’s Gospel. There the disciples are failed, blind and unfaithful. Though Matthew is still faithful to this tradition about the failure of the disciples (the disciples fall asleep on Jesus in the garden and finally desert him; Peter denies him three times…), their failure is not collective. Matthew’s disciples are constantly noted as being ‘with’ Jesus in the garden, they do not ‘fall asleep’ from tiredness, but with exhaustion. Peter’s denials of Jesus end with his weeping ‘bitterly’ out of remorse. Peter’s fall from grace is counterbalanced by deep spirit repentance at his wrongdoing (Mt 26:75). This is a significant reworking of Mark’s story and highlights the depth of Peter’s conversion.
All this prepares for the final chapter of the Gospel, the story of the resurrection and the events that surround it. In all these events, Matthew deftly weaves a profound theology that critiques the paradigm of oppressive power exercised by civil or religious leaders and represented in Imperial Rome. While the evangelist stays very close to Mark’s Gospel in the Passion Narrative, in the resurrection story the writer exhibits greater literary and theological freedom and departs significantly from Mark’s treatment.
Matthew’s Easter story is in two parts. In the first, two women come to the see the tomb as the first day of the week dawns. Matthew identifies them as Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’—characters already known from previous scenes of the Passion Narrative. They offer a consistency and validity to the events that unfold. As they come to the tomb, an earthquake accompanies an angelic theophany. The description of this angelic heavenly descent is rich in theological allusion that Matthew’s audience would have understood, given the suspense that has surrounded the tomb’s sealing and guarding:
And behold, there was a great earthquake;
For an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and drawing near, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it. (28:2)3
The ‘earthquake’ is found in other places in the Gospel and each use underscores the cosmic significance of the event and God’s verdict on what is happening.4 In each instance, the ‘earthquake’ is a reminder that no civil powers can ever determine the future. The earthquake is of heavenly origin. It is a divine act that destabilises the presumption that Imperial or political might is the only determinative in human affairs.5 In the Passion Narrative and here, in the resurrection story, this presumption is expressed in the trial scenes and the military humiliation of Jesus and the guarding of his tomb. The earthquake becomes an apocalyptic image of divine subversion: human powers will never have the final word.
This theological insight is further confirmed in the subsequent action of the angel—who ‘approaches’ the tomb, rolls the stone away from the tomb’s entrance and victoriously sits upon it. The angel’s action reminds Matthew’s audience that any human attempt to frustrate or falsify the real import of what awaits discovery and proclamation will be thwarted. But Matthew suggests even more. Not only will God’s action in the resurrection of Jesus, soon to be proclaimed, overpower the political machinations of Rome and the religious authorities, this divine act will reverse such power. The power of Imperial Rome will become disarmed, neutralised and then annihilated. The response by the guards to the angel confirms this.
Out of fear [of the angel] the guards quaked and became as the dead… (28:4)
The guards ‘quake’. The Greek verb has the same root meaning as for an earthquake. In other words, the guards are affected and disempowered by the same divine authority responsible for the cosmic sign that inaugurates this final event. They are paralysed by the sight of the angel, whom Matthew describes in images of heightened glory reminiscent of the transfigured Jesus in Mt 17:2.6 They become like the very thing they suppose they are guarding—a corpse. This ironic reversal of authority could not be more obvious. It continues into the opening words of the angel’s Easter proclamation to the women.
‘Don’t you fear…’ (28:5b)
This is an amazingly simple literary construction that contrasts the guards, symbols of power, and the women, figures of powerlessness. While the guards were afraid, the women (‘you’) are encouraged not to be. The reason for this is linked to their focus on Jesus and their zealous quest to find him, confirmed in the next part of the angelic proclamation:
‘…for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified...’ (28:5c)
The ‘for’ is important. It provides the link. Jesus is the ultimate reason for the human quest and offers strength in the face of opposition. Next comes the central message to which every action and character in the Passion Narrative and resurrection story has been pointing:
‘…He is not here,
This declaration of the meaning of the tomb’s emptiness, namely the resurrection of Jesus, lies at the heart of Matthew’s Gospel message and for every subsequent Christian community. It is significant how Matthew has framed the resurrection proclamation (‘for he has been raised’) by the statements concerned about the place that evidences Jesus’ absence (‘He is not here…Go see the place.’). He is absent from a place of death that houses a corpse because he has been raised to life by God. This divine act has been anticipated in Jesus’ teaching (‘as he told you’) throughout the Gospel. The women are then instructed to proclaim the fact of Jesus’ resurrection to the disciples in language that parallels that of the angel. They are to witness their experience of the Easter event to the wider Christian community and to take on the role equivalent to that of the angelic announcer. In obedience to the angelic direction, the women run from the tomb with fear and great joy to do what they have been instructed.
In the second part of the resurrection story, the women encounter the Risen Jesus. The women are now able to translate the implications of the Easter proclamation into liturgical action. Their gesture to him, as they worship, is Matthew’s way of expressing what is the appropriate attitude to the Risen Jesus in the Christian community.7 Liturgy becomes the setting in which this response is expressed historically, and for Matthew, these women are the first to acknowledge this. In this sense, they are the Gospel’s first liturgists. Jesus repeats what the women have already heard from the angel (‘Do not be afraid. Go and proclaim to my brothers and sisters to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ 28:10). Absent from this second declaration is the Easter announcement, ‘He has been raised’. Jesus’ presence is the very proclamation of that announcement.
In our contemporary desire for an articulate and strong political and religious leadership, Matthew’s resurrection story this Easter is timely. When vibrantly proclaimed and respectfully interpreted in our churches, it has the power to subvert and radicalise our perceptions of what is happening.
What I have tried to show through this analysis of Matthew’s Passion Narrative with particular focus on the resurrection story is that the evangelist sought to critique the use and abuse of power, especially political and Imperial power. But these faces of Roman might, in the Gospel’s story, could never have been as influential in the world of Matthew without the cooperation of the religious authorities. In the lead up to the Easter story, this collaboration is graphically depicted as the religious leaders scheme with Pilate to prevent any fraudulent allegations over Jesus’ supposed resurrection. Their posting of a guard at the tomb sought to foil such claims. This guard is the symbol of military, political and religious power that is not transparent to scrutiny or critique. The figures of guards, temple police or soldiers are prominent in the Passion Narrative and seem strategically positioned throughout.8 While this power seeks to subdue, dishonour or discredit Jesus and the Easter message, it is ultimately God’s power that subverts, confuses, stuns and finally annihilates. This is anticipated by the apocalyptic earthquake and heralded in the angel’s gesture and message: the earthquake is God’s cosmic event conquering earthly power, reinforced by the angel’s act of sitting on the very object that is meant to be guarded. For the contemporary Australian Christian these are powerful theological symbols that Matthew employs to encourage alternative power structures that subverts the conventional.9 What seems to hold sway and influence politically or religiously needs to be reconsidered before the face of Matthew’s resurrected Jesus.
A second feature of Matthew’s story is the function that the women play in the story. While the Easter story is obviously focussed on Jesus, the women are key. These figures of powerlessness continue the subversion. Their response to the angel contrasts to the guards. They are also entrusted with the Easter message. This is an important act in a world or ecclesial community where power and speech reside with a male leadership. Matthew’s Easter story, as all the resurrection narratives of the Gospels, is regarded as the foundation for the Christian community’s catechesis and liturgical practice. These emerge from and are grounded in the witness and endorsement of the Risen Jesus. If this is explored more fully, it means that at least in one Christian community, the Easter message to the rest of the Christian community was proclaimed by women. Their witness was evocative and parallel to the witness of the angelic being. They freely express and initiate the implications of this message in their profound act of liturgical worship. These two women represent the style of liturgical and preaching leadership that should characterise Matthew’s community. It is one that subverts the conventional use of political power to oppress and control, and recognises the power of the Jesus’ resurrection in the midst of this powerlessness.
These two points return me to where I began. The experience of the one beloved can evoke images of Matthew’s resurrection story. A gentle but struggling death can also be a reminder of the possibility that there is more to life than what seems to be. Fragility and powerlessness experienced in the act of dying can become, like Matthew’s Easter story, a reflection of Jesus’ resurrection. Death is not the final word. And those accompanying the dying are invited to reassess what is important, valuable and powerful in life. Any encounter with death, if welcomed with openness and a sense of God’s presence, can, like Matthew’s Risen Jesus, subvert conventional political power.
1 This expression ‘Judean-Christian’ is a correction of an earlier expression ‘Jewish-Christian.’ It is now recognised that while the Greek Iudaioi has been translated as ‘Jews’ it is more correct historically to connect this Greek term to those of the area of Judea.
2 In the Mediterranean world, every relationship and interaction had an aspect of violence. Mediterranean interactions were characterised by cultural anthropologists as ‘agonistic.’ This means that all social interactions were challenges (or contests—‘agon’ in Greek) to honour. How a male responded to these challenges on behalf of the kinship group determined the honour of the male and household. For more on this see, B. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 36-38; John Chance, ‘The Anthropology of Honour and Shame: Culture, Values, and Practice,’ Semeia 64 (1994): 139-51; Jerome Neyrey, ‘Despising the Shame of the Cross: Honour and Shame in the Johannine Passion Narrative,’ Semeia 64 (1994): 113-37.
3 The English translation here and following is my own. This is an attempt to remain as close as possible to the sense of the Greek text. While this makes for a slightly wooden or unpleasantly sounding reading, the translation seeks to capture the nuances and innuendoes that are sometimes veiled in modern translations.
4 The earthquake (Greek: ‘seismos’) occurs also in the stilling of the storm (8:24), Jesus’ end-time discourse (24:7) and at Jesus’ death (27:54). All of them indicate the cosmic significance of the event and its connection with God’s apocalyptic judgement.
5 That the earthquake is God’s act is supported by numerous scholars, including E Wainwright, Shall We Look for Another (New York: Orbis, 1998), 113: R Brown, The Death of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1993) 2:1126; D Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew (Collegeville, Min: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 409.
6 See D Harrington, Matthew, 409.
7 Ibid, 410.
8 Mt 26:57-28:20 can be structured as