Commentary on John 20:1-18
Christ is risen, and Mary is weeping: John’s account of the disciples’ discovery of the resurrection has this tension at its heart.
In his telling of the story, John stretches out the interval between the event of Christ’s resurrection and the time when his closest friends recognize it.
That interval holds two disciples’ footrace to the tomb, where they see the emptiness of it, and where one of them believes something, but then they both wordlessly return home, as if someone had said to them, “Move along. Nothing to see here.” Mary stays, weeping outside the tomb. All she can see is that the body has been taken, and what she wants is to control the damage: “Tell me… I will take him” (John 20:15).
As with the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, readers who are outside the bounds of the story know that it is the risen Lord speaking. Inside the story, Jesus is hidden from those closest to him. Paul Duke makes the point that identifying Jesus to the reader before Jesus is known to the characters aligns the reader with the risen Jesus.1 We see Mary or the two on the road, and we want ourselves to proclaim the resurrection to them: “He’s right there! In front of you!” Readers are able to testify to the resurrection even before Mary or Cleopas and his companion can.
Of course, eventually, to the characters’ surprise and the readers’ delight, Jesus makes himself known. To Mary, he does so by speaking her name. Readers recall John 10:3, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”
After Mary hears her name, she is able to see Jesus. We infer that Mary embraces Jesus because the next thing he says to her is, “Do not hold on to me.” Both grammar and context argue for “do not hold me” (New Revised Standard Version, New International Version) rather than “do not touch me” (King James Version, New English Translation). First, the present tense imperative communicates continuous action, not a mere touch. Secondly, touching Jesus would not hinder his ascending to the Father, but clinging to or holding onto him could impede his going forth. Mary can — and presumably does — touch Jesus. What she cannot do is to hold onto him because he has somewhere else to be, and when he finishes speaking to her, so does she.
Jesus’ commission to Mary earns her the title of apostle to the apostles. Jesus sends her to his brothers, or, if more than the twelve are in view, the translation of adelphous should be, “brothers and sisters.” The message to be relayed is that Jesus is “ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). In a prepositional phrase (“to my Father and your Father…”) Jesus speaks the whole purpose of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. The one he calls, “Father” is not his abba alone. In his ministry, and in his death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus is opening the way for humanity to have the same relationship with God that he has.
We heard of this goal of Jesus’ work first in the prologue. At the center of the chiastic-structured prologue is the phrase, “he gave them power to become children of God.”2 The mission of the Son is to offer those who receive him a relationship with God just like the one he has. This is also part of what it means for Jesus to tell the disciples in the farewell discourse that he is going to prepare a place for them, “that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3). He is opening his home and his family to them.
It may help to think of someone bringing his friends home after school. The house, the food, the video games: all of them are shared as if all the kids belonged to the same family. Jesus says he is going “to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20:17). Like that kid bringing his friends home, Jesus means to share the relationship he and God share with his brothers and sisters. Being sons and daughters of God: this relationship is open now to everyone the Son brings home, and he wants lots of brothers and sisters (see also John 17:24 and Romans 8:29).
To some, the masculine imagery for God has severe limitations in terms of the extent to which it can speak good news. But the point should not be sacrificed because language for it is hard to find. The way Jesus knows God and is known by God — even the way Jesus is one with God — this “at-one-ment” is for us. Jesus’ relationship with God is ours. To borrow from Paul, “Jesus is the firstborn within a large family.”
Mary fulfills her mission. She announces, “I have seen the Lord.” In John, to see (horao) the Lord is to know, believe in, receive and trust the Lord. It is to have power to become a daughter of God.
Perhaps the sermon will open for hearers the interval between God’s work to raise Jesus and the time when it (finally!) makes a difference for Mary. Hearers could follow Mary’s experience and think of our own times of not knowing and not seeing how life could ever come out of the death that surrounds us. Yet Jesus appears. He knows his own, and he makes himself known to them. Or the sermon might marvel at the forthright way Jesus claims for his followers the relationship he has with God. Jesus’ life before his death was not for himself alone; nor is his risen life for himself alone. The love between the Father and Son is enlivened in the resurrection so that it may be shared with many more brothers and sisters.
- Irony in the Fourth Gospel (Nashville: John Knox Press, 1985), 105.
- See also R. Alan Culpepper, “The Pivot of John’s Prologue,” New Testament Studies 27/1 (Oct 1980):1-31.