Doing What You're Told: Matthew 28:1-20

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 Lifeincludes 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."

Matthew tells us that when the angel appeared, "the guards shook and became like dead men." The angel doesn't tell the guard not to be afraid. I suspect the angel thought, "Good. Quake in your sandals. You should be afraid. Very afraid." The angel's words of comfort were reserved for the women. "Don't be afraid."

The angel proceeds to tell the women what to do.

"Come see where he was. Go quickly and tell his disciples that he has been raised from the dead. Tell them he will meet them in Galilee."

The women do what the angel commands. Then, on the way, they meet the Risen Jesus. He repeats the angel's command almost word for word. It's like my traveling with both a Garmin and an iPhone GPS app called "Motion X". Directions from two reliable sources. Why would the women question this command? They don't. They simply do what they were told.

The guards, too, are witnesses to the empty tomb. At this point in the story, we see the first sign of individuality among the group. While the women were going to tell the disciples what they had seen, Matthew tells us that "some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened" (28:11). Flustered and flummoxed by what they've seen, some of them go to the chief priests and give their eyewitness report. What about the rest of the soldiers? I want to know what percentage of them went into town to make the report, and what the others did with their account of how the tomb came to be empty.