The Politics of Resurrection Hermeneutics—Luke 24:36-48 (Mark Davis)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

The law is a dying and rising reality, not a dead letter etched in stone. Through the hermeneutics of resurrection words once consigned to the grave of the past burst with liberating and life-giving force upon an unsuspecting world.

36While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence. 44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.

The gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection tend to be enigmatic stories. On the one hand, there are numerous references to the actual corporeality of Jesus’ body. When the disciples are invited to touch, when they hold, when they watch Jesus eat, and so forth, the point seems to be that Jesus’ body is really real. At the same time, there is ongoing confusion about this corporeal Jesus. Mary thinks he is a gardener, the two men on the road to Emmaus only recognize him when he breaks the bread, the first reaction by most disciples is fear that they might be seeing a ghost, Jesus slips in and out of locked doors, Mary is told not to hold on to his not-yet-ascended body.

The pre-crucifixion Jesus’ bodily identity did not pose such troubling issues for the disciples, except when Jesus is walking across the water during a storm at sea and the disciples do not recognize him at first, with some thinking it is a ghost. That story—like the post-resurrection accounts—is an occasion when a real human body is found doing things that real human bodies do not do. Real human bodies do not walk on water and do not walk around after they’ve been killed. As easy as it might be to laugh at the disciples’ folly, it is only easy from a distance of 2,000 years. Their assumptions about how bodies operate were hardly different then from what ours are now.

It is tempting to spend time speculating as to what the risen body of Christ must have been, in order to accommodate all of the descriptions of him in the post-resurrection stories. But, what we have before us is not the body of Christ walking through our doors and eating fish for our sake. What we have are stories, stories about the first witnesses to the power of the resurrection. And those stories, enigmatic though they may be, are stories that declare the resurrected body of Jesus to be a hermeneutical tool for understanding the scriptures.

Luke 24:45 puts it most succinctly when it links Jesus’ act of eating fish before the disciples with his proclamation that they are witnesses to his resurrection: “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” The scriptures are understood when one sees them through the lens of resurrection. This resurrection hermeneutic is a bit of a blow to those of us who are in a tradition that prefers “the plain reading” of the scriptures, because “the plain reading” would argue that the Old Testament says hardly anything about resurrection. It is also a blow against the Scottish “common sense” tradition, which suggests that the truth of Scripture is commonly evident to anyone who can think, because “common sense” tells us that dead people don’t walk into the room and eat fish. What Luke’s story suggests is that it is not the “plain reading” or “common sense” that opens the meaning of the Scriptures, but the reality-bending story of the resurrection.

Jesus had already shown how the hermeneutic of resurrection opens the Scriptures in Mark 12:24-27, where he demonstrated that resurrection is the key for understanding God’s words to Moses from the burning bush. When God says, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” God not only points to God’s existence over time, but also to Abraham’s, Isaac’s, and Jacob’s continued existence over time. Inasmuch as God still lives, so do Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That is the kind of hermeneutic Jesus gives the disciples when he appears, eats, and opens their minds to the meaning of the Scriptures.

So, let’s mark out in broad strokes what the Scriptures can mean when interpreted through the lens of resurrection. The creation stories, as resurrection stories, show death to be part of a larger story of the fertility of life. Hence, the seed must fall to the ground and die to produce abundance. The story of flood shows how, out of sheer devastation, there is a renewal of life from the remnant. The stories of the covenant that God made with Abram and Sarai show how two persons, whose own capacities for fertility were dead, bring life through which all nations will be blessed. The law is a dying and rising reality, not a dead letter etched in stone. The rise and fall of kingdoms, the suffering and return of exiles, the despair of the suffering servant, the hope of the one “coming in clouds,” the expectation of Elijah’s return—all are stories of how inasmuch as God lives, so do God’s promises. Resurrection makes all the difference between seeing the Scriptures as accounts of things that happened but are not happening any more and accounts of things that happened and marvellously continue to be happening because God lives.

And let us wonder in broad strokes what the world can mean when interpreted through the lens of resurrection. In a time when the ecosystems, species, and the sustainability of life as we know it are imperiled, what does it mean when the possibility of such systemic death is real, but not the final word? When Martin Heidegger argued that “authenticity” requires living that embraces “having to die,” what does it mean that embracing death authentically requires embracing death as a penultimate, and not an ultimate, reality? Just as the early Christians found resurrection to be the power that disarmed the Roman Empire’s culture of death, resurrection today redefines the powers that threaten to undo us or to diminish the nature and meaning of life itself.

But, of course, that is not how we often speak of resurrection. The usual course of resurrection-speak lessens the value of life by positing that, since there is life after death, the reality of death is nullified into a simple passageway from a lower form of being to a higher one. That, in turn, diminishes the meaning and value of life as we know it into nothing more than a necessary pilgrimage toward that passageway. In the end, such an approach to resurrection leaves us with no reason to care about the environment, or health, or justice, or anything beyond the one concern of getting through the door to resurrection.

The usual course of resurrection-speak is unfaithful to the biblical tradition. When God speaks to Moses through the fiery bush—disclosing that as God lives so live Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—it was not to say, “Tell my people to put up with slavery because I will reward them later.” It was a call to liberation, to throwing off the shackles of the Empire by the power of the living God. The hermeneutics of resurrection is not a fatalistic capitulation to the inevitable death of all things. It increases the value of life—life of the earth, life of the community, even life of the enemy—because where there is life, there is God.

5 thoughts on “The Politics of Resurrection Hermeneutics—Luke 24:36-48 (Mark Davis)

  1. Wow, Mark, thank you! This is beautifully articulated, core to what I believe about resurrected life now and into eternity. I regularly learn much from your “Left Behind and Loving It” but I even more appreciate your theological reflection here.

  2. Two of the biggest assumptions that many Christians make regarding the truth claims of Christianity is that, one, eyewitnesses wrote the four gospels. The problem is, however, that the majority of scholars today do not believe this is true. The second big assumption many Christians make is that it would have been impossible for whoever wrote these four books to have invented details in their books, especially in regards to the Empty Tomb and the Resurrection appearances, due to the fact that eyewitnesses to these events would have still been alive when the gospels were written and distributed.

    But consider this, dear Reader: Most scholars date the writing of the first gospel, Mark, as circa 70 AD. Who of the eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus and the alleged events after his death were still alive in 70 AD? That is four decades after Jesus’ death. During that time period, tens of thousands of people living in Palestine were killed in the Jewish-Roman wars of the mid and late 60’s, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem.

    How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus in circa 30 AD was still alive when the first gospel was written and distributed in circa 70 AD? How do we know that any eyewitness to the death of Jesus ever had the opportunity to read the Gospel of Mark and proof read it for accuracy?

    I challenge Christians to list the name of even ONE eyewitness to the death of Jesus who was still alive in 70 AD along with the evidence to support your claim.

    If you can’t list any names, dear Christian, how can you be sure that details such as the Empty Tomb, the detailed resurrection appearances, and the Ascension ever really occurred? How can you be sure that these details were not simply theological hyperbole…or…the exaggerations and embellishments of superstitious, first century, mostly uneducated people, who had retold these stories thousands of times, between thousands of people, from one language to another, from one country to another, over a period of many decades?

  3. Thank you so much for this, particularly for the affirmation of LIFE – what a wonderful message. I value your Greek translations, but thank you too for this as well.

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