Commentary on Luke 24:1-12
The narrative of the empty tomb signifies overturned expectations, hope renewed, and an invitation to participate in God’s ongoing narrative through Jesus Christ who is risen.
[Looking for commentary on John 20:1-18? See this 2018 commentary by Mary Hinkle Shore.]
Within the unfolding story world of the Gospel of Luke, however, the empty tomb is, as yet, an unrecognized sign. The women and other disciples know tombs. They are sites of memory (literally “a sign of remembrance”, mnema), a way of keeping those who have died physically present in time and space and place. They are also sites of remembering. They evoke stories, another powerful way of keeping those who have died present in our lives.
The women who followed Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem had watched as the body of Jesus was taken down from the cross. They watched as Joseph of Arimathea took the body, wrapped it in linen, and placed it in a tomb hewed from rock where no other body had previously been laid. They went home to prepare spices that would be needed to complete the proper burial of the body. (A later document, the m. Sabb. 23:5, indicates that this is an activity that was allowed on the Sabbath, although it is unclear whether this applies to the first century.)
The tomb the women approached belonged to the familiar customs and practices that surrounded a death in their community. It was a recognized symbol, a sign of remembrance for the one who had died. It reminds us also of the customs and practices that we associate with death. Such customs and practices provide a visceral way for us to honor the dead and give expression to our grief. They also become a part of our memory and the stories we will recall in association with the one who has died.
As the women approach the tomb in Luke 24:1, they are focused on bringing to completion the burial of Jesus’ body and bringing closure to grief. But as they approach, they find the stone covering the entrance to the tomb has been rolled back. And when they enter the tomb, they do not find the body of Jesus. The reality the women expect is not the reality they encounter. The incongruity, says Luke, leaves them perplexed. Not dismayed, angry, or vexed. Perplexed: at a loss to make sense of the disconnection between their expectations and what they find.
Each of the Synoptic Gospels has the women encounter a heavenly being at the tomb. (Note that in Luke, it is the appearance of the heavenly beings that generates “fear” or perhaps “awe” in the women, not the empty tomb). In Matthew, it is an angel (accompanied by an earthquake); in Mark a young man clothed in white; and in Luke, it is two male figures in dazzling robes (the cosmic effect used also at Jesus’ transfiguration in Luke 9:29). In comparing these three narratives, what is most striking is the differences in what is said by the heavenly being(s).
In Matthew and Mark, the heavenly being addresses the women with very nearly the same words: “do not be afraid; you seek Jesus who was crucified … he has risen.” This is followed by a command to the women to go to the disciples and to tell them to go to Galilee where they will see Jesus (Matthew 28:5-7; Mark 16:6-7). In Luke, the two heavenly figures ask the women a question “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.” Then, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of man must be handed over to sinners and be crucified and on the third day rise again.”
The question, “why do you seek the living among the dead?” draws attention to the incongruity between the women’s expectations and their experience. They came to the tomb expecting to find the dead, because that is the function of tombs: to house the dead. What they discover is that the “tomb” is now an empty tomb. It is a familiar sign transformed by resurrection.
Nonetheless, the now empty tomb continues to function as a place that evokes memories. And this is precisely what the heavenly beings invite the women to do: to remember “how he told you.” Twice, while Jesus was in Galilee, he had told the disciples that the Son of Man would undergo suffering (Luke 9:22 and 9:44; see also 18:31-34). The words spoken by the heavenly being are not a direct quote of either verse and introduce new language: “handed over to sinners.” This new language brings to the fore a theme that runs throughout the Gospel (see 5:8; 7:37, 39; 13:2; 15:7,10; 18:13).
Another ‘theme’ in the Gospel of Luke is that characters don’t understand until they have things explained to them (see 18:34, where understanding is “hidden”). So the fact that the women do not at first remember what Jesus has told them does not show weakness of character; it reveals a pattern in which understanding comes through proclamation. Hearing the words of the heavenly beings, the women do remember (24:8). And, of their own initiative, they immediately seek out the disciples to, in turn, proclaim to them what they have seen and heard.
But the disciples don’t believe them, nor do they remember. Peter is curious enough to go to the tomb, where he sees the linen clothes but no body, and he returns home “amazed” (24:12); yet he does not vindicate the women. In this particular moment in time, this poses important questions for us: whom do we believe and why? Or why not? Within the community of faith, are we prepared to be perplexed (not angry or vexed) when our expectations are not matched by reality? Are we prepared to have traditional symbols transformed? What memories do we recall so that we learn to seek the living rather than the dead?