Seeking the Living Among the Dead?

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Luke 24:1-12: Re-Cognition

The women at the empty tomb in Luke 24:1-12 marks Luke’s unfolding of the subsequent appearances of the risen Jesus. The rhetorical question put forward to the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  stood as one of four larger rhetorical questions posed in Luke-Acts used by the author in an attempt to provide a “proper rhetorical standard when producing his narrative.”[1] Within that larger apologetic, we have this smaller and more personal crisis involving those nearest and dearest to Jesus. This study will examine those closest to Jesus and how they failed to anticipate His death or resurrection. This is evidenced in the narrative by their various actions, inactions and levels of mystification. What we find, towards the close of Luke’s gospel, is that no one expected anything but a “dead Jesus.” In Luke’s account, this failure to recognize Jesus’ true significance (which is normative in the entire narrative) or to connect the events of his passion now with his previous teachings issues in a profound ideological and theological crisis for everyone concerned. We see the first example of this crisis in the women’s response to the empty tomb, followed by Peter’s mystification when confronted at the same location.

For the purposes of this study guide, we will explore the various characters and the ideas of both recognition and remembrance which are displayed via the clarity which the women (at the very least) received in contrast with the continued confusion and mystification of the apostles. Additionally, ideological and theological crisis points are often points which lead to profound revelation —or breakthrough. If the empty tomb issued in a profound ideological and theological crisis (and it surely did) there was simply no going back to the old arguments and interpretations of Jesus with any vigor. Whatever the variety of “Messianic expectations” people had which had over-ruled the actual words of Jesus at the time he spoke, his physical resurrection swiftly revealed their irrelevancy on the third day.[2]

Luke’s Text: Luke 24:1-12

The Women Act, Find, and Remember

On this, the third day and after the Sabbath, the women arise and go to the tomb where they had seen Jesus laid dead two nights earlier (23:55-56). Their intention is to prepare the body for a Jewish burial with spices and wrappings. Luke constructs the narrative in such a way that they “find” two things in rapid succession: the stone rolled away, and the tomb empty. They are shocked.[3]

Then Luke uses a new construction for presenting Jesus. It is now, and will continue to be in the Book of Acts, “the Lord Jesus” (Acts 1:21; 4:33; 8:16, “and in Acts 2:32-36 Peter will develop the logic of Jesus’ lordship by referring to Jesus’ exaltation by God.[4] ) According to Luke, the resurrection has modified Jesus’ title to some degree.

The women are dumbfounded, but are soon confronted by two men “glowing like lightening,” who appear with a message which begins with a question: “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  The rhetorical question still stands for us today, but the two men (later identified as “angels” (24:23) are not finished. They tell the women that Jesus is not there and proclaim that “he is risen!”

But what is the meaning of this? They continue to speak with the women, asking them to remember what Jesus had told them when he was with them in Galilee— specifically that he would be arrested, crucified and be resurrected.” (v.6-8,). “The women are urged, even commanded, to call to mind, to keep present, a prophetic message, a revelation of Jesus,” says Maria Luisa Rigato[5]. Then it says they “remembered his words”(v. 9). The Greek verb mimnhskesqai (“to remember”) occurs six times in Luke and four times in Acts, and “it always related to God or Jesus”[6]  in significant ways. They had what we can best refer to as “re-cognition” a re-knowing of what they already knew.

This same phenomenon happens to the men who spent time with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Only after the breaking of the bread do they “re-cognize” Jesus (and it should be noted that the witness of the women had gone out beyond the immediacy of the apostles by word of mouth (v.22-24). Curiously, the evidence suggests that while the apostles did not believe the account given by the women, it did not stop them from spreading it.

Setting aside the confusion of the men, the “penny had dropped,”[7] for the women after they connected what Jesus had previously taught in Galilee (for example, Luke 9:22 and 18:31-34), with his arrest, the empty tomb, and the proclamation by the men who suddenly appeared to them.  Luke gives us no information how this conversation wrapped up, only that the women at the tomb reported back “all these things” to the apostles. This “cannot but include the message they had received from the angels, so that the men were given access to the significance of recent events.  The dismissive response of the men is therefore better explained with reference to the fact that those reporting are women in a world biased against the admissibility of women as witnesses.” [8]   The women now understood the connection between Jesus’ teaching and his arrest, trial, death and resurrection, but the men did not, or would not, comprehend it. The best that can be said for the men is that one of them, Peter, is found at the end of this narrative confused and bewildered by events. But he had not come to the understanding that the women had come to understand and were then able to articulate in full to the apostles (v.11).[9] As Joel Green surmises about the women’s move from perplexity to clarity, in contrast with Peter’s confusion: All of them arrive at an empty tomb and find the body missing, but only the women “receive heavenly communication about the goings-on…so only they receive insight into their significance.” He goes on to comment simply that Peter lacks what the women now possess: faith and Jesus’ key to interpreting the events.[10]

It is here that Luke is careful to name the women specifically as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James “and others.” Ironically, in our age, such testimony by women in a First Century context actually adds weight as unfounded accusations of biblical document selections to support the status quo make little sense when the documents themselves put forward bumbling male disciples, and women as primary witnesses (come what may, for it is the apostles who look foolish and spiritually inept).  Case in point, in Luke’s account we end with the women having faithfully discharged their duties as followers of the risen Lord Jesus and entrusted with the message by angels while ten of eleven apostles are in the dark and the eleventh one is wandering around mystified and guilt-riddled.

Where are the Disciples?

No mention is made as to what the disciples were doing on the morning of the first day. The last we heard from them in Luke’s gospel they had been fighting over who was to be “greatest in the kingdom” (22:24); the intimate few had fallen asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane instead of standing watchful (22:39-46); Judas has betrayed Jesus with a kiss (22:47-48); and Peter had denied Jesus three times (22:54-62) in public then run off weeping. We do not see this pitiful lot again in Luke’s account until the women report back to them in hiding.

Where they prepared for Jesus’ death? It would be hard to suppose they were even prepared for his arrest given what is noted above by Luke. In John’s account we learn that it was Joseph of Arimethia and Nicodemas, two secret disciples of Jesus, who took charge of the body of Jesus after his death —not Jesus’ own apostles (John 19:38-42). It would seem a fair assumption that Jesus’ core entourage were not made aware of this as the women knew the location, but still showed up two days later to fully anoint the body. The apostles? They did nothing at all. It would seem they were huddled together somewhere “safe.” So, two relative outsiders (Nicodemas and Joseph of Arimethia) were more prepared for Jesus’ death than all of his closest allies: the chosen apostles and the women who had been his early financial supporters and followers (Luke 8:1-3). All of them had constant exposure to his teachings. This is not the first time that Luke clues us into their cluelessness.

Peter had denied Jesus three times and was riddled with guilt. The next we see Peter; he is with the other apostles hearing the report back from the women. He doesn’t believe it. But at least he sets out to investigate based on their report.  In an interesting side note, Peter’s first interrogator after Jesus’ arrest (by the fire) is “a servant girl” (22:56). If the witness of women had no power at all, why does Luke record this servant girl rattling Peter so?   All Luke tells us is after going to the tomb and finding it empty with the strips of linen lying about Peter “went away, wondering to himself what had happened.” (24:12).

Conclusions

Jesus’ arrest, trial, execution, burial and resurrection leave his closest followers and chosen apostles flat-footed and in various states of confusion and disarray. His appearances, which are enigmatically inaugurated by his non-appearance at the tomb, nonetheless begin the process of connecting the significance of his death and resurrection with all that he has previously warned them about. But it is only the women for whom the penny drops. Prior to being shocked by the empty tomb and being challenged to remember and recognize Jesus in a new way the women are stuck with a dead notion of Jesus — one where the appropriate response is to arrive with spices to anoint a dead body. Everyone’s concerns are anthropocentric. There is no Kingdom of God.

There are many ways to seek the “living among the dead” — to seek a dead Jesus instead of a living resurrected “Lord Jesus” as Luke begins to specialize the name. In the last Century good men like Albert Schweitzer insisted Jesus was not raised from the dead. They had a dead Jesus who was an ethical, but tragic hero of their own imagining—picking and choosing what they wished from the gospels to include/exclude according to their ideology.   A dead Jesus is far more manageable than a living one. It is still that simple.

Robert Tannehill sees in Jesus’ words a “path from rejection to glory,” marked by the word that is used in v.7 – “must,”  which means “it is necessary.” He notes that in two other post-resurrection appearances Jesus uses this in reference to scriptural fulfillments (v. 19-27; 44-49) concerning himself.[11] It is time for everyone to catch up to the reality of the risen Lord: “The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.” (24:7). This is where the penny either drops or it doesn’t.

On a quieter note, the angel’s call to the women can also be seen as a call to meaningful biblical contemplation. Just as they made the connections between Jesus’ past teachings about himself and the realities of his death, and resurrection, we can approach the gospels as a way of doing the same. “Bible study” can be a powerful way of “remembering” (mimnhskesqai) and making fresh connections.

This contemplation on the “musts”  of the now resurrected Jesus both resolve the ideological and theological crisis constructed by a “misunderstood Jesus” (a dead Jesus) and they agree with the rhetorical question as if to say “We will no longer seek the living among the dead!” We have seen that the “musts” in this account by Luke are three-fold,  that he “must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.” (24:7). Thus, for the women, what started in bafflement ended in breakthrough or an “aha!” experience as they remembered what Jesus taught them about himself in Galilee.[12] It is important to note that this experience happened not via his resurrection presence at the tomb (at least in Luke’s account) but rather in his resurrection absence at the tomb coupled with remembrance and recognition.

Luke presents a variety of responses to the empty tomb and the announcement of Jesus’ resurrection in 24:1-12. It stretches from recognition and belief, through bafflement and mystification, and ends with some simply choosing to disbelieve the report. Sooner or later any would-be follower has to grapple with the question of Jesus’ resurrection. For Luke, there is no point in speaking of Jesus’ Lordship in any other context.

Luke records the apostles’ disbelief in the women’s report, but is swift to record that their witness went public (ten verses later). The two men on the road to Emmaus report “but also some women among us amazed us.” And then they go on with what they had reported— telling it to the “stranger” who journeyed with them on the road (24:22-27).  That Luke names these women is significant and their witness endures.

 

[1]  Prince, Deborah Thompson “Why Do You Seek the Living among the Dead?: Rhetorical Questions in the Lukan Resurrection Narrative,” JBL 135  p. 123-139. Prince goes on to say “the author employs these rhetorical questions in accordance with ancient rhetorical theory to help provide a cogent argument for the truth of Jesus’s resurrection in the face of skepticism.” .

[3] Joel B. Green notes that Luke’s account neglects a number of immediate details and questions because “he wants to move quickly to the pivotal discovery of an empty tomb.” (The Gospel of Luke, NICNT Grand Rapids: Eermans, 1997 p. 837.

[4] Ibid., p. 837.

[5] Rigato, Maria-Luisa A Feminist Companion to Luke, edited by Amy-Jill Levine (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002) p. 269.

[6] Ibid., p. 270.

[7] To be clear, the saying “the penny drops” is used to say that “somebody has finally understood or realized something that they had not understood or realized before.”  Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries (online: http://www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/us/definition/english/penny as found April 23, 2017). Used often with anticipating a realization as one might when putting a coin into a machine and having it temporarily stall. You wait for the coin to drop. This is its meaning in all subsequent usage in this paper.

[8] Green, Ibid., p. 839-840.

[9] We know from John’s gospel that John also ran to the tomb with Peter and found the same empty tomb (20:1-10).

[10] Green, Ibid., p. 836.

[11] Tannehill, Robert C. Luke, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996)  p.350

[12] It should also be noted that the resurrection shifts the concerns from anthropocentric ones “what do we do with the body of the dead Jesus?” and “how do we go on from here?” to theocentric concerns “how do we relate now to a risen Lord Jesus who has fulfilled all he said?”

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