An Easter Reflection

Mary Magdalene tells her story:

Woman, Old, Senior, Desperation, Grief, Female, PersonWe spent the Sabbath, weeping and mourning and praying. There was nothing left for us to do. We wondered why God had abandoned Jesus and why God had abandoned us. We were all together comforting each other. After the Sabbath, I went with Joanna, Mary who is the mother of James and some other women to Jesus’ tomb. We hadn’t had time before the Sabbath to prepare him for burial. It was just one more indignity that he had to endure. Now we just needed to perform the proper rituals for him.

When we got to the tomb…the stone was gone. Suddenly, there were two men. They were dazzling and light glowed from them. We were terrified. There were too many strange things happening. How could it be that the stone was gone? Who were these men and why were they surrounded by bright light? They spoke to us. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That doesn’t even make sense. Jesus is dead. We saw him die. This is the place where you look for dead people and Jesus is dead. “He is not here, but has risen.” Wait….what…risen? risen? Wait… risen…raised to life? How is that possible?

We ran away in fear—not understanding what had happened. Distressed at another insult. Distressed at something else we couldn’t explain. We found the others. We tried to explain but our words just tumbled out in a jumble making no sense. It made no sense because our grief was too raw and too huge to understand, to share or explain. This new event just added to our confusion, our grief and outrage.

Rock, Outlook, Landscape, Holiday, Nature, Rocky, ViewThe Easter story is a story many of us know well. it is one that we read or hear year after year. I want to offer some cultural background about death which might put a different spin on our reflections about Easter. This information is taken from the Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Richard L. Rohrbaugh and Bruce J. Malina . In Jesus’ culture, the original culture of Easter, there was a different understanding of death. We think that there is a moment where life stops…breath stops, the heart stops beating, the brain stops transmitting. For us, this is the moment of death…This is the moment we grieve as life changes to something else.

But in Jesus time, after death, the body would be placed on a shelf in a tomb. Family and friends would mourn for a whole year while the body decomposed. As the body decomposed, any evil deeds would fall away. It was believed that the bones contained the personality and were necessary for a resurrection. At the end of the year, the bones were collected and placed in a box to wait for resurrection.

In the case of capital punishment or crucifixion the body was held by the Sanhedrin (which functioned like a court) for the full year. When the flesh was gone from the body the sentence was complete and the bones prepared for resurrection.

For the women arriving at the tomb on Easter morning, they arrive to participate in a ritual that is part of the mourning process. But there is nothing there to mourn. Without the bones there is no hope of resurrection. We think of Easter as a happy and joyful occasion but the first witnesses would have been more distressed by an empty tomb. Their hope of resurrection is now gone.

Malina and Rohrbaugh make two points that I think challenge our theological perspective of the resurrection. They suggest that Jesus’ resurrection (the disappearance of the body), could go directly to God because there were no evil deeds that needed to rot away. This leads to another important point. Jesus death was wrong and in taking Jesus directly after death, God overturns the judgement of the earthly condemnation.

I like this twist because rather than suggest that God sent Jesus to die, it affirms that the death of Jesus, like so many other deaths, is unjust and wrong. It speaks to us in our moments of despair and confusion and grief and reminds us that God’s love and compassion overcomes the evil and violence in our world.

Maybe after they thought about it for a bit. Maybe after they had cried until they could cry no more, Mary and the other women at the tomb might hear the words of the two men at the tomb differently. With the bones gone, the only way to find hope was to believe that God had overturned the conviction and proclaimed Jesus innocent. The only way to find hope was to believe that Jesus was already resurrected.

As we look around the world and see violence and hatred and injustice the Easter story reminds us that this violence is not the end of the story. It is the beginning of a new story. It is an opportunity for new ways of seeing the world. It is a chance for hope to blossom and create new life in places of violence and pain.

What thing in your life or in the world is painful, confusing, grief-filled? What can the Easter story teach you about finding new life within this situation?


Reflection on Holy Week

People Raising Their Hands during DaytimeWe have been walking the path with Jesus since we celebrated his birth a few months ago. We read the story of his baptism and how he brings light and love into the darkest places of the world. We heard stories of his love and compassion for those on the margins. We witnessed him challenge injustice. We have witnessed this challenge bring him closer to the cross…to the point where we are today.

This week Jesus arrived in Jerusalem. The story (Luke 19:28-44) leaves lots of room for questions. How we answer the questions says something about who we believe Jesus to be. How did Jesus know where to find the colt? Had he made previous arrangements for it? Had he been in the community before and seen animals at that corner? Did he have some sort of vision or message from God that told him the colt would be there?

Jesus is part of a crowd coming into the city. Throughout Luke, the disciples have not understood who Jesus is and yet here they are proclaiming Jesus is king. Why this moment? Are they simply contrasting him with Caesar and proclaiming Jesus as their political and military leader? Do they understand that Jesus is a different kind of leader? Do they understand that Jesus is not going to be in charge of this new kingdom? Jesus is just the messenger sent by God bringing a message of love, compassion, justice. Do they understand that this new kingdom Jesus is bringing will be different from any other kingdom they have experienced?

What about the stones that will continue to shout? Even if no human ever calls Jesus king or Lord, the very earth will know that God is the creator and Lord of the universe. Can we hear the earth crying out, proclaiming God?

And then Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. Is he predicting the destruction of Jerusalem because he knows it is going to happen or he simply because he can see the state of the country and recognizes that bad things are going to happen if they continue on this path? What could prevent the destruction that Jesus imagines is coming? Could the people, the city be saved if they had recognized Jesus as a messenger from God? What would the world look like if the hearers took Jesus’ message to heart? What would our world look like if we imagine God’s kingdom among us?

We know how this week will end. We know that Jesus dies on a cross but did Jesus believe that God had sent him to this place so that he could die? Was he simply living faithfully, knowing that the path he was on would put him into a difficult and dangerous situation?

Are we willing to risk living as Jesus lived? Are we willing to be messenger that point to God?

Zacchaeus the Honest Tax Collector


It’s a cute song but it doesn’t really get to the heart of the Zacchaeus story in Luke 19. Today, I want to dig a bit deeper into what might be happening. Jesus is continuing to travel around teaching and healing and he arrives in Jericho. There is a chief tax collector who is wealthy. Chief tax collectors contracted with the local administration to collect the taxes in an area. They would pay the amount upfront and then hire tax collectors who went out and collected the money. If there was any cheating or extortion on the taxes it was a benefit to the chief tax collectors. The tax collectors tended to be people who couldn’t find work. Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. He has paid the taxes up front to the city. He hires people to collect the taxes with the hope that they will bring in enough money for him to break even. Even better would be to make a profit. This is how Zacchaeus lives. There was a stereotype that the chief tax collectors were wealthy because they had collected more taxes than were necessary. (See Social Science Commentary on the Gospels for more detail.)

Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus but he was too short to see over the crowd. So, Zacchaeus got an idea and climbed up in a tree. From there he had a great view of what was happening. Jesus comes along and calls out to Zacchaeus. As they walk the crowds follow and they are distressed because they see Jesus associating with someone wealthy who has gained his wealth at their expense. Zacchaeus makes a declaration. In many of our English translations it says something like: half of my possessions I will give to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone I will pay back four times as much. But the English translations miss a nuance. The Greek is in the present tense which means that Zacchaeus already gives half of what he has to the poor. If he realizes that one of his tax collectors has defrauded someone he pays it back four times as much. Zacchaeus is already a good guy but the community doesn’t know this. They see his wealth and make assumptions.

But now they hear Zacchaeus making a claim and they have to rethink what they think they know about him. As the crowd has their image of Zacchaeus shaken they might find new respect for him—a wealthy man who gives away half his goods with asking for recognition and a tax collector who is honest. As the crowd reassess their perception of Zacchaeus he is no longer an outsider. The English translation says that salvation has come. Salvation has its roots in the Greek word salve which means to heal. When people find their place in community they are healed and the community is healed.

Salvation isn’t just for the individual but for the community. We are healed as we find our place in community. We all make assumptions about other people. We lump people in with a particular group without really knowing anything about them. We don’t always know how people think or what is in their hearts. We might not even know the good things they do because they keep it hidden or because we don’t want to see. Seeing something different might unsettle us.

Stereotypes create broken community. Making assumptions about people create broken community. If the community had taken time to get to know Zacchaeus they would have known the he was honest and that he shared his wealth. It wasn’t Zacchaeus who needed healing. Zacchaeus didn’t need to change. The community of people who disliked him needed to be changed.

We all have stereotypes and we all make assumptions. These stereotypes create broken community. We (all of us) are always in need of healing. Like the crowd in the story, we need to listen to our neighbours. We need to listen to the people we don’t know and hear their stories. We need to be open to being transformed so that healing can happen as community is restored.