Good Friday and the Politics of Discipleship—John 19:31-42 (Brad Littlejohn)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

In most reflections about Good Friday and the events surrounding the Passion, the focus is squarely on Jesus, and to be sure, one can hardly deny that this is where it should be. However, it is interesting to note the extent to which the Gospel authors are quite interested in what these events reveal about the disciples that had followed Jesus up to this climactic point in his ministry—not just the Twelve, of course, but all those who had heard his word and believed in him.

31 Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35 He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. 36 For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” 37 And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.” 

38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, andin the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

 

In most reflections about Good Friday and the events surrounding the Passion, the focus is squarely on Jesus, and to be sure, one can hardly deny that this is where it should be.  However, it is interesting to note the extent to which the Gospel authors are quite interested in what these events reveal about the disciples that had followed Jesus up to this climactic point in his ministry—not just the Twelve, of course, but all those who had heard his word and believed in him.  Up till now, Jesus’ disciples, while quite regularly present in the various Gospel narratives (especially the Synoptics), are rather homogeneous, it must be said.  Peter stands out a bit from the bunch, to be sure, but we could be forgiven for thinking that they are a fairly nondescript bunch.  The events surrounding Jesus’ passion could be described as a kind of winnowing of Christ’s disciples, in which the wheat are separated from the chaff.  We learn that one of them is a son of perdition.  We learn that another, the one whom we might have called the chief of them, will deny Christ three times, and then does in fact do so.  But perhaps he cannot be blamed so much, as it seems that most of the other disciples simply fled into the night when Jesus was arrested.  Only the Beloved Disciple, it seems, follows Jesus faithfully to the foot of the Cross.

And yet at the same time, others appear, not of the Twelve, among the band of disciples.  In all of the Gospels, women figure prominently in the narrative here—as indeed they have throughout Jesus’ ministry, but there presence here is all the more striking given the absence of the Twelve.  All the Gospels but Luke tell us that several women were there even to watch the final horrible hours of the Crucifixion, among them Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and others.  And some of these women (the Gospels offer somewhat different accounts of which ones) are the first to come to the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning, the first witnesses of the Resurrection.  Here at the end of Jesus’ ministry we see the confirmation of his words that “the last shall be first”: women, who for most Jewish rabbis or would-be Messiahs, would not have counted as disciples at all, were the most prominent witnesses of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

 

But what about “the first shall be last”?  One of the most interesting twists in the Cruxifixion story is the sudden emergence of the figure of Joseph of Arimathea, a man of great wealth, unlike most of Jesus’ disciples, who comes out of the shadows to play a crucial role here at the end of the story. We might be forgiven for wondering if in fact this is just another example of rich people getting their priorities—and Jesus’ priorities—all wrong throughout the Gospels.  Here’s a guy, we might say, who stays on the sidelines all throughout Jesus’ life, arrest, trial, and death, and only finally comes forward when there’s little risk in doing so, and to perform a perfunctory courtesy which, while perhaps suiting his rich man’s sense of decorum, was hardly important in the grand scheme of things.  Indeed, by taking such trouble over the anointing of the dead body, Joseph is showing how completely he too has failed to listen to Jesus’ predictions of his resurrection, in which he will soon cast aside these linens, these spices, and this tomb prepared for him.  Perhaps Joseph is demonstrating an unhealthy preoccupation with putting window-dressing on the old creation, rather than looking forward to the New.   And indeed there is perhaps a conscious irony in how all the Gospel writers draw attention to the care taken, by Joseph, and in some accounts by the women, to beautify a body that would soon rise again.

However, the appearance of Joseph in all four Gospel accounts, given how few details are indeed shared among all four, suggests that his actions here are anything but a perfunctory courtesy.  Had Joseph not arranged for Jesus’ burial, his body would likely have been simply cast into a pit to be devoured by animals, as was common for such high criminals.  While no doubt God could have raised him anyway, the integrity of Jesus’ earthly body, and its continuity with his resurrected body, were important to his followers’ understanding of the resurrection, especially in John (cf. 20:27).  Moreover, more mundanely, but hardly irrelevant given Jesus’s great concern for his mother’s well-being in the verses just before these (19:25-27), is the great grief that such a dishonor would have been to Jesus’ family and friends: in Jewish culture, even more than most ancient cultures, a decent burial was absolutely essential.  Nor was Joseph’s action simply a matter of filing a Burial Permission Form with the relevant authorities, but an act of great courage and faith.  Joseph risked ritual uncleanness by contact with a dead body, on the eve of one of the holiest days of the Jewish calendar.  Joseph risked—indeed, perhaps ensured—becoming a pariah among his fellow Jewish leaders, who had united in their hatred of Jesus, and perhaps even risked formal expulsion from the Sanhedrin for this show of solidarity.  Indeed, Joseph even risked his life in approaching Pilate, the Roman governor with the power of life and death who had just condemned Jesus for treason against Rome, and would be likely to look with suspicion on anyone showing such concern for the dead criminal.

 

With these things in mind, it should be clear that Joseph’s burial of Jesus was no paltry courtesy, but a courageous act of discipleship, which explains somewhat how this figure, otherwise unmentioned in the Gospels, loomed so large in the imagination of the early Church.  Yet it is interesting to see how differently John presents him from the other Gospel writers.  In Matthew, Joseph is described simply as “a disciple of Jesus” (Mt. 27:57); in Mark and Luke, this praiseworthy description is elaborated considerably to, respectively, “a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God” (Mk. 15:43) and “a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God” (Lk. 23:50-51).  The emphasis here is upon the earnest faith that motivated this man, a faith, indeed, which led him to continue looking for ways to show his respect for Jesus even after many had deserted him.

In John, however, the emphasis is quite different: “Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews.”  This is perhaps implicit in the other accounts—after all, if Joseph had openly proclaimed his belief in Jesus before, we might imagine that he would have been censured by or evicted from the council—but it is a striking indictment of a man whom Mark and Luke go out of their way to praise.  The unflattering tone continues when John adds that Joseph was joined in his task by Nicodemus, another member of the council who has appeared only in the Gospel of John, and as an earnest but rather timid and somewhat confused would-be disciple.  Lest we forget this timidity, the Gospel here adds, “Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night.”  “Secretly” and “by night” do not carry very good connotations, either in modern English or in the world of the Bible.  Indeed, the author here may be linking Nicodemus, in the minds of his readers, with another wealthy[1] and ultimately faithful, but timid and doubting follower of God, Gideon.  Before he raises an army to rout the Midianites, Gideon is commanded to tear down the altar of Baal and replace it with an altar to Yahweh (Judges 6:25-26).  We are told that Gideon obeyed, but as secretly as possible: “So Gideon took ten men of his servants and did as the Lordhad told him. But because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, he did it by night” (Judges 6:27).

 

Yet while we are invited to frown on Gideon’s timidity, as on Joseph’s and Nicodemus’s, it is noteworthy that God never does so.  While the Scriptures repeatedly invite us to be like the poor and humble who rush courageously to obey God and follow Christ, neither do they exclude the more timid rich who follow along at a distance, wringing their hands and counting the cost, but in the end obeying just the same.  The first may be last in Christ’s kingdom, but they are still in it by grace, and still have important roles to play, roles that perhaps their wealth and power has particularly fitted them for.  Indeed, this passage near the end of John may be taken as a sort of fulfillment of an episode that occurs in all the Gospels except John, that of the Rich Young Ruler (whom tradition sometimes identified as Joseph of Arimathea).  After the rich man goes away sorrowfully, Jesus says, “’Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, “’With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible’” (Mt. 19:23-26).

 



[1] Although Gideon protests that “my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house” (Judges 6:15), he is clearly a man of some means, given that we learn he has at least ten servants.

 

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