Lectionary Reflections
First Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 28:1-20
June 19, 2011

How good are you at doing what you're told, without question? Growing up, we can all remember a parent saying, "Just do what I say. Stop arguing." Or the dreaded "Because I said so!" It's so much easier on parents and authority figures when those under their authority just do what they say, without question.

The Chief Priests Try to Tell Pilate What to Do
In our lectionary text this week, the chief priests and Pharisees try to tell Pilate what to do. "Command the tomb to be made secure until the third day" (27:64). Out of respect for the fact that Pilate has political authority over them, they explain the reason for their command: "We're afraid his disciples will steal the body and spread the ridiculous rumor that he has been raised from the dead." Pilate counters by asserting his authority over them and telling them to do what they just tried to tell him to do. "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can."

Have you ever before noticed the power of those five little words: "as secure as you can"? The fact is the soldiers' best efforts to seal the stone and secure the tomb were no match for the resurrecting power of God. It's a scene of comic futility as I picture it. Here are the chief priests and the Pharisees leading the group of soldiers to the tomb, and supervising (I don't picture them doing any manual labor themselves) while the soldiers unpacked several tubs of DryDex interior/exterior spackling paste and trowels and attempt to seal the tomb.

John Ortberg in his book Know Doubt: The Importance of Embracing Uncertainty in Your Life includes this soliloquy by Pilate: "Well, I guess that's the end of that. I guess we won't hear any more about that movement. I don't know much about this Jesus, but we sure have built him a nice little cage."

Ortberg adds this comment: "But the thing about Jesus is that you just can't keep him in a cage. He never was a cage kind of guy. The authorities didn't know it, but death wasn't defeat for him." (Ortberg, 93)

The Soldiers Do as They Are Told
The soldiers have no say in any of this. They are initially described as a faceless, voiceless, opinion-less group. What did they think about this assignment? Maybe not much. It was an odd assignment, but one that didn't involve danger or risk. They could practically sleep through it. How hard would it be to stand outside a tomb for three days and keep a couple of guys from stealing a body? This wasn't a dramatic, life-threatening assignment like "Go and hold that hill against the enemy onslaught. Be willing to give your life if necessary."

But on second glance, it was. It turns out that this was a very dramatic assignment. I'd call an earthquake and a glistening angel dramatic. As for life threatening, it's that too. A group of men who earn their living by fighting to secure victory for their bosses witness God's victory over death. How could this not threaten their view of life, their values, and their vocation? Had I been among the guard, once my blood pressure came down to the point that I could have a thought, that thought might have been, "Hmmmm, maybe I'm on the wrong side of this showdown."