Empty Tomb

One could say that there are no surprises in Luke.

March 31, 2013

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Commentary on Luke 24:1-16

One could say that there are no surprises in Luke.

From the beginning of this gospel, the narrator prepares the readers and listeners for what follows. There are clues along the way, reminding the audience of what they have heard and foreshadowing what will happen. Readers who practice the art of reading “forward and backward” through Luke will be enriched by paying attention to the signs.

The empty tomb narrative is a good example. We know it is coming. Most Christians have heard it before. We know that Easter follows the season of Lent: Jesus’ resurrection follows his crucifixion. This is the identity-forming narrative of Christianity. The empty tomb and the proclamation “He has risen” are common to all four gospels. There are some distinctive features of Luke’s narrative, however.

Follow the Women

In each gospel account, Mary Magdalene is present. Matthew includes “the other Mary” (28:1). Mark adds “Mary the mother of James and Salome” (16:1). Luke includes more women. Joanna is named along with Mary Magdalene and Mary mother of James (24:10). In addition to the named women, there are other women.

Who are these women? At the end of the previous chapter, we hear that “the women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment (23:55, 56; italics mine).

The storyteller did not know that, centuries later, readers would divide the narrative into chapters and verses. I think it would surprise him to see the paragraph that beginning with 23:56b and continuing with 24:1 have been separated into different chapters and read on different Sundays! “They” in 24:1-5 and 8-9 refers to the women who followed Jesus from Galilee.1

How many women were there? Were there a few, or a dozen, or more? The narrator does not tell us. We do see that women play significant roles in Luke. In the Prologue (1:5-2:52), Elizabeth and Mary and Anna are perceptive and prophetic models of faithfulness. Mary Magdalene is a constant presence throughout Jesus’ ministry. Joanna and Susanna are named with Mary Magdalene among many other women who traveled with Jesus along with the twelve (8:1-3).

The travel journey is a distinctive feature of Luke. Beginning at 9:52, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” and invites his disciples to follow him. The journey from Galilee culminates in Jerusalem ten chapters later (19:28). The women who came to the tomb were with Jesus during his ministry in Galilee. This is a premise for their role in the empty tomb narrative.

The question the two men in dazzling clothes ask the women implies they should not be surprised that Jesus’ body is not in the tomb. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” And the angels (identified as such in verse 23) prompt them: “Remember how he told you while he was still in Galilee…” (verse 6). The reference recalls 9:22 in which Jesus instructs his disciples concerning the Son of Man’s crucifixion and resurrection (see also 18:31-33). The women remembered — and so do we who are listening or reading — and they went from the tomb and told “the eleven and all the rest” (verse 9). Only now do we hear that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James were among the women who told this to the apostles (verse 10).

Why the anonymity of the women, referred to as simply “they” in Luke’s empty tomb story? Perhaps it draws us in as participants more than observers. The narrator invites us to experience their emotions, perplexed and terrified, and then to remember all that Jesus said earlier, according to Luke, to prepare them/us for this moment. And we, with them, go out to tell the good news: “He is risen.”

But the eleven did not believe the women. It seemed to them an idle tale. What if the empty tomb story ended here? Several early Greek manuscripts do end with verse 11, lacking verse 12. Many other manuscripts do include verse 12, but the evidence is not overwhelmingly convincing. Even with verse 12, however, Peter’s response is uninspiring. He peeks into the tomb, sees the linen cloths and though amazed, he goes home.

With God Nothing Is Impossible

The women see an empty tomb where they expect to see a corpse. They are perplexed. Two angels interpret the emptiness for them: “He has risen.” Remembering all Jesus had told them, the women tell the others. An often repeated explanation for the men’s disbelief is that women were not considered reliable witnesses. Luke gives no indication that this is so.

According to Luke, the men and women have traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem with Jesus. They have shared joys and grief. Within the larger narrative of the scriptures as well as within Luke, bewilderment, uncertainty, doubt, fear, and amazement are all common responses to a theophany.

We might recall that, at the beginning of Luke, Mary is “much perplexed” at the angel Gabriel’s greeting (1:29) and wonders how his words can be possible (1:34). Gabriel reminds Mary of the witness of generations before her — even her kinswoman Elizabeth who was barren and now pregnant — that “nothing will be impossible with God” (verse 37). Are there echoes of this theme in the empty tomb narrative? I believe so. The women are at first perplexed, a response that anticipates that angels’ revelation. Why do you seek the living among the dead? Nothing is impossible with God. He is not here. He has risen.

1“They” is repeated eight times; “them” appears twice. Note that verse 5 reads “the women” but the Greek has only “they.”