These verses conveyed to the original readers the significance of the empty tomb.

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

April 20, 2014

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Commentary on John 20:1-18

These verses conveyed to the original readers the significance of the empty tomb.

Mary Magdalene comes alone, probably on Sunday, early in the morning. Her devotion to Jesus leads her to begin the week in prayer at the place of his burial. Mary has not come to give Jesus a proper burial, as in Mark 16. There would not have been a need to bring spices because Nicodemus has given Jesus such a lavish burial. She has come out of her devotion to Jesus. She has probably come to pray either for Jesus’ soul or for the Jesus-movement or both. And she finds that the stone has been moved and the body of Jesus is gone.

She runs quickly to tell the men what has happened. She believes the body of Jesus has been stolen and she does not know where it is. If she cannot find it, she cannot pay homage to it properly. She probably believes that the body has been stolen so that the place of Jesus’ burial could not become a shrine for his followers. Peter and the Beloved Disciple go immediately to the tomb. These two men provide a validation that Mary, a woman, has borne a true witness to the events.

The two men run to the tomb. The Beloved Disciple arrives first, looks in but does not go in. Simon Peter arrives second and does enter the tomb. The Beloved Disciple then enters the tomb. While the Beloved Disciple is first in witnessing, Peter is first in entering the tomb. This narrative gives importance to the leader of the Johannine Christian movement, the Beloved Disciple, while also giving respect to Peter. Both men “believed” Mary, but what did they believe?

They did not yet believe in the Resurrection. They merely believed that the body was gone and they did not know where it was. They simply could confirm what Mary has said is indeed true. “For they did not yet understand the Scripture that he (Jesus) must rise again from the dead” (John 20:9). Like Mary, they probably believed that someone has stolen the body of Jesus so that his place of burial could not become a shrine for his followers. Again we find the assertion that Scripture has been fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. The men went home depressed.

Reflections on John 20:11-18

These verses relate the appearance of Jesus to Mary and the beginning of the Resurrection faith. After the men leave and go home, Mary remains. Her emotions are raw, but her devotion has not been shaken. When the angels appear and ask Mary why she is crying, her answer makes it clear that she still does not understand what has transpired. She still believes that Jesus’ body has been stolen so that Jesus’ followers cannot pay their respects properly. She does not expect him to be resurrected.

On the other hand, the angels know Jesus has been resurrected and they immediately ask her why she is crying. When Jesus appears to her, he asks her the same question. The readers know, but the Christians in the story are unknowing.

When Jesus speaks to Mary, she does not recognize him because she is not looking for him. She does not expect him to be alive. By repeating the question the angels asked, Jesus reinforces for the readers that the joy that should be experienced is absent here. Often in life, good things come our way, but we do not recognize them because we do not expect them or we are looking for something else.

Jesus then calls her by name (not simply “Woman” [verses 13, 15]) and instantly Mary recognizes him. To paraphrase A. T. Lincoln, the sheep recognize the Shepherd’s voice (John 10:3-4). In turn, she responds, “Rabbouni!” There is much wrapped up in this one expression. First and foremost, there is respect. In first century Judaism, teachers commanded immense respect from their students. Mary shows him this respect. Second, it acknowledged that she was not merely a student but a devoted follower. Her coming to his tomb early in the morning spoke to her commitment. Finally, her tears when she thought his body had been stolen demonstrated her love for her teacher. The “Rabbouni” was not merely “Teacher.” It communicated “my beloved teacher.”

For Mary, the unthinkable could now be thought. Jesus has been resurrected from the dead. Jesus’ reluctance for Mary to touch him indicates that he must first ascend to the Father to attain a new body. Later his followers will be able to touch him (John 20:27). Interestingly, Jesus refers to his inner circles as “my brothers.” He uses a term of endearment and does not refer to them as students or mere followers. This says something very significant about friendship: Hierarchy is not always needed among friends.

Mary goes back and repeats what Jesus has said, but there is no sign in the text that these men believed this woman. This section begins and ends with Mary’s devotion, but her devotion has a new zeal by the end of it. Too often the veracity of statements are determined by the value we have for the person who says them. We assume a one-to-one relationship between social status and truth without testing the waters. We do this because we are too lazy to analyze each statement on its own merit. Truth is an equal opportunity employer. All of us find employment at least occasionally.