Matthew’s resurrection story contrasts the life-giving power of God with death-dealing human authority.1
[Looking for commentary on John 20:1-18? See this commentary for Easter Sunday by Alicia Myers.]
Just as the crucifixion narrative echoes Jesus’ temptation in Matthew, so the resurrection highlights themes first raised at Jesus’ birth. Herod reacted to the threatening announcement that a new king had been born by trying to exterminate him, sending soldiers to kill all the babies in the region.
After the crucifixion, when the religious and civil authorities have at last succeeded in their quest to kill Jesus, they react to the threat of his resurrection by sending soldiers to seal the tomb and guard his dead body. But the God who shakes the earth cannot be stopped by armed guards and an official seal. The story that begins with fear ends with overwhelming joy. Jesus’ birth is shadowed by many deaths, but Jesus’ death brings the promise of resurrection life for all.
Matthew’s version of the resurrection story is distinctive in several ways, including the detail about the guards at the tomb and the earthquake, the conversation with a single angelic messenger (rather than with the young man described in Mark or the two angels mentioned in Luke and John), and the identity of the first people to hear the news of the resurrection. In John, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone (John 20:1, 11). In Mark, she is accompanied by Mary the mother of James and by Salome (Mark 16:1). Luke agrees that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James were there, but he has Joanna and the other women with them present as well (Luke 24:10).
According to Matthew, the first witnesses to God’s triumph are two of the same women who watched Jesus die. Having seen Joseph of Arimathea bury Jesus, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” now come again early on the first day of the week to look at the tomb (unlike the other Gospels, Matthew says nothing about their bringing spices to anoint Jesus’ body). Mary Magdalene’s identity is clear, but who is “the other Mary”?
Earlier Matthew described her as “Mary the mother of James and Joseph” (Matthew 27:56). According to Matthew 13:55, two of Jesus’ brothers are named James and Joseph. In all likelihood, then, “the other Mary” is Mary the mother of Jesus. Though the evangelist’s decision not to identify her explicitly as Jesus’ mother may seem odd, the effect is to emphasize not her biological relationship to Jesus, but her role as his disciple.
In both Mark and Luke, the women find the stone already rolled away from the tomb when they arrive. In Matthew, however, the women experience the earthquake and see the angel descend, roll away the stone, and sit on it. The guards quake with fear at the events unfolding before them. Ironically, they react to the opening of the tomb by becoming like dead people.
The angel’s first words, expressed with a present imperative in Greek, strongly contrast the guards with the women: “Don’t you be afraid,” or “As for you, stop being afraid.” The angel is commanding them to reject their current state of fear, for his news brings great joy: “I know that you are looking for Jesus the crucified one. He is not here, for he was raised just as he said.” The resurrection has already happened. The stone has been rolled away not to let Jesus out, but to let the witnesses in.
The angel sends the women to bear the news to the disciples, along with an additional message: Jesus is going ahead of them into Galilee, and they will see him there. The angel does not specify exactly which disciples they are to tell, though interestingly, he does not single out Peter (compared to Mark 16:7).
Matthew 27:57 describes Joseph of Arimathea as “discipled to Jesus,” using the verb from the same root as the Greek word for disciple, and Matthew 27:55-56 identifies the group of women who witnessed the crucifixion from a distance as “those who followed Jesus from Galilee to minister to him.” Throughout the Gospels, following Jesus means becoming a disciple. Luke says that the women told the news “to the eleven and to all the rest” (Luke 24:9), and Matthew may also have this larger group of disciples in mind.
In any case, the women immediately, “with fear and great joy” obey the angel’s command. Mark has them reacting with fear and silence, but in Matthew they run to announce the world-changing news. On the way, Jesus meets them and reiterates the angel’s command to stop being afraid. He is alive and present with them. Why should they fall prey to fear? Why should they leave room for anything except worship and overwhelming joy?
Jesus has one final command for them: “go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me” (Matthew 28:10). But whom does Jesus mean by “my brothers”? The final scene in Matthew shows the eleven disciples meeting with Jesus in Galilee, so at minimum Jesus is sending the women to tell the eleven. Given that one of the women is Jesus’ mother, it would be quite natural to assume that he means for her to tell James and Joseph and Simon and Judas as well (see 1 Corinthians 15:7, where Paul says that Jesus appeared to James). But are the women bearers of a message intended only for men?
It is important to point out that grammatically the Greek word translated as “brothers” could equally well be translated as “brothers and sisters.” Greek uses masculine plurals for any group that includes males, even if the group is comprised of nine women and one man. Though there are no women among the eleven, Matthew clearly includes women in the larger group of Jesus’ disciples. Furthermore, the shift in language from “disciples” to “brothers” recalls the scene in Matthew 12:46-40, where Jesus asks who his mother and brothers are and then answers his own question by saying, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother (26:50). Disciples have become family.
Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus, commissioned by Jesus himself, become the first apostles. With great joy, they obey Jesus’ command, bearing witness to the risen Christ. The Gospel that began with a man afraid to marry his disgraced betrothed and a fearful king who tries to kill potential rivals ends with overwhelming joy. Jesus’ command to the women becomes a command to all of us: Stop being afraid! God has defeated death. Rejoice, and share the good news!
Krister Stendahl, New Testament professor at Harvard Divinity School, former dean, and one time Bishop of Stockholm, taught “Ten Commandments for Biblical Preaching.”1
The tenth commandment was “No moral lesson on high holy days.” With this prohibition Stendahl meant to direct preachers to celebrate the feast, to enter into praise, rather than to explain of the mystery or exhort the congregation to good works. On the high holy day of the Easter Vigil, the lectionary assigns for the epistle reading, Romans 6:3-11, an exultant affirmation of the resurrection in the voice of the apostle, Paul. This exclamation, at once liturgical and celebratory, has ethics and right action built right into it through the comparison between Jesus’ death, death to sin, and the death of the old self. The destruction of sin is one dimension of the rich and multi-layered image of resurrection.
Romans 6:3-11 invites preachers to explore the vivid metaphors of Easter — baptism into Christ’s death, being buried with Christ, united with Christ in death, united with Christ in resurrection, and the dramatic movement from slavery to freedom and from death to life.
Romans 6:3-4 The reading opens with the answer to the rhetorical question posed by the imaginary dialogue partner in Romans 6:1. “Of course!” it is absurd that one should continue to sin that grace may abound all the more! Paul alludes to early Christian tradition that all who are baptized are baptized into Christ’s death. Baptism is associated with death in Mark 10:35-40 when James and John request to sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in glory. Jesus’ answer to them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” uses drinking the cup and being baptized as ways to speak of his death. In the early decades after Easter Christ believers performed the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection in the rituals of Eucharist and baptism. The corporate body — “all of us,” “we” participate in burial with Christ and like Christ was raised, we are able to “walk in newness of life,” moral and existential new life.
Romans 6:5-7 The language of slavery “enslaved to sin” and freedom “freed from sin” is threaded through this passage and the longer one of which it is a part. Slavery and freedom are parallel to death and life. Resurrection overcomes and overwhelms death and slavery. The need to combat and resist sin hovers over these verses even while Paul proclaims that sin is “destroyed” and “dead.”
Romans 6:8-11 “We believe,” “we know,” expresses the conviction of this Easter community in Christ’s life and our future life with God. Death no longer “has dominion” over him; death no longer “rules” or “is master over” Christ. Extending the comparison, Paul concludes that like Christ, “you” are “alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
Although in the verses that follow this lectionary reading, Paul turn to ethical exhortation, in preaching on Romans 6:3-11 at the Great Vigil of Easter, I would obey Krister Stendahl’s commandment. Paul’s jubilant rhetoric that proclaims that “we might walk in newness of life” and that you are “alive to God” arises out of the experience of resurrection known in the Christian community in cities throughout the empire and in Rome in the first century. At the Easter Vigil in the present Christians are retelling the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, and through baptism and eucharist they are performing that transformation from death to life. Adults who choose to be baptized, like James and John in Mark 10, are baptized into Jesus’ death. Infants whose parents make promises on their behalf are being incorporated into, are participating in, that story of life from death. They live this story in a culture that both fears and denies death. They live it in a culture where language of “sin” has become antiquated, but where its power is as destructive as ever.
To celebrate the mystery on a high holy day, a preacher might invite the congregation to live more deeply in the imaginative world of the text. Metaphors of being buried, descending, getting covered up, drowning describe visceral human experience and contains the paradox of being exalted, rising, walking in newness of life, begin alive to God. One way to imagine one’s way into a text is to focus on one sense — here I might attend to the physical, kinesthetic dimensions of all these verbs and allow the listeners to “feel” this movement. Being enslaved is a physical state. Being made free is a bodily experience. The experience of resurrection is a corporate one — the people are made new. Paul was calling on and alluding to narratives of creation, combat, deliverance in scripture and from early Jesus traditions. Some of these narratives are contained in the series of Old Testament readings appointed for the Easter Vigil. The liturgical setting of the Easter Vigil calls the preacher to play with these powerful archetypes, to expand and elaborate upon them to move through performance into praise.
1. This commentary first published on this site on March 26, 2016.