Weird Easter Stories

The resurrection account in the gospel of Matthew has two stories that we don’t usually include on Easter morning, because they are so weird. These are stories only found in Matthew.

The gospels don’t all agree on the details of the resurrection, and the discrepancy causes distress in some people. But I think we have four gospels for a reason. The early authors and editors had the chance to harmonize them and make them consistent, and they resisted that temptation. That diversity of perspective and opinion was important to the early church. The differences are important because they all have something different to say. (I doubt very much that the contemporary church would be as willing to live with the contradictions if it were compiling the Bible today. Some religious people like things tidy and don’t tolerate questions very well.)

One weird story in Matthew involves soldiers. Matthew gives us this absurd situation where soldiers are assigned to guard a dead man at the tomb to prevent the disciples from stealing Jesus’s body and claiming he has been resurrected. I think Matthew includes this story not so much to discredit the doubters, but to point out the ridiculous lengths the state goes through in order to maintain its power of death. The fear of death is important in order for the Empire to maintain control. But the death-dealing state is no match for the power of resurrection.

Listen, Kay Ivey. Listen, America.

The other weird story in Matthew is that Jesus is not the only dead person who gets up. Matthew includes this little detail about other people being resurrected with Jesus and appearing to people in the days afterward. I think Matthew includes this because resurrection is isn’t just about Jesus and our hope for the future—it’s about how resurrection *changes our relationship to history.*

What does it mean if ALL those unjustly killed get back up? What if those who have been lynched and executed show up at the doors of their murderers? What if the prophets stand up, shake off the dust, and start roaming the streets again?

What if our ancestors could show up at our door at any time?

Too many Christians and non-Christians think resurrection is about wish-fulfillment, about life after death and going to heaven when we die.

The Good News of resurrection is a thunderclap. It is a recognition that the merchants of death in our society are bankrupt, and that what society thinks is dead and buried has only begun to make itself known.

Good Friday is All Around Us

It is ironic that we who are not incarcerated usually spend Good Friday in beautiful churches instead of sparse execution chambers. I wish the people of God would crowd into prisons to mark the occasion instead. We certainly have enough of them in the America; more than anywhere else in the world.

So it is fitting that we are stuck at home. Imprisoned, as it were, though most of us are freer and more comfortable than our siblings who are in prison.

Remember, it was religious leaders allied with the state who executed Jesus. Institutional religion defended itself against reform, and militaristic government defended itself against revolution. Both collaborated to put Jesus on the cross, much the same way politicians and religious leaders collaborate today. This is why some churches put flags in their sanctuaries, and why some politicians want scriptures on the walls of courthouses.

I am sorry that Christians are not able to gather in sanctuaries for Holy Week, to tell the story of Jesus’s last supper with his disciples and the way he was mocked and killed by our leaders. I miss the drama of sanctuary choirs and tenebrae services of light and shadow.

But the story we tell is being acted out on a global stage, as religion and politics scramble to cover their nakedness with fig leaves, to hide from God and the public view that their power is based on fiction. The crucifixion unmasked the sin of humanity, as this pandemic does. Suffering exposes that so much of human suffering is manufactured, the punishment we inflict upon ourselves and the innocent in order to maintain the status quo.

Good Friday is only “good” insofar as it is a revelation of the way God works among us. We nail Christ naked on the cross, but it is our whole system of deciding who “deserves” life and death that is exposed, naked and shameful. This is the sin we see most clearly, we who are willing to let some die to save the economy. “It is better that one man die than the whole nation perish,” was the logic of the day.

We tell the story even as our leaders deny they know Jesus every day, but we blame *Peter* for saving his own skin. We blame Judas for selling out his friend for 30 pieces of silver, but we won’t provide health care to the most vulnerable. We blame Pilate for washing his hands, but Alabama just executed a man who didn’t pull a trigger, not for the sake of justice, but to preserve its own system of executions. “We have to do this,” went the reasoning, “or else we wouldn’t be able to execute ANYbody.” Our governor and the Supreme Court washed their hands and walked away.

We don’t need to gather in church buildings to celebrate Good Friday. Good Friday is all around us.

Abusing scriptures: “Go and sin no more.”

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Nicolas Poussin. From Wikimedia Commons

Jesus’ parting words to the woman caught in adultery are “Go your way, and do not sin again.” This is a favorite line for Christians who wish to maintain that Christian ethics demands forgiveness, but not the excusing of continued sexual immorality. It crops up with tiresome regularity in discussions about the acceptability of gay and lesbian love in church communities. (The argument only makes sense if you already agree that homosexuality is a sin). Jesus forgives the woman, goes the reasoning, but he doesn’t excuse her sin.

This is certainly one way to read the passage, and I’m happy to consider this understanding of it (even if I reject the implication that gay or lesbian love is the moral equivalent of adultery). But I find it troubling how we use this passage to construct a theological system about sin and how we approach it within Christian community. Doing so places us right back in the position of the murderous men.

A couple of preliminary points:

First, I think it’s important to point out that this story is an addition to John. I don’t think that necessarily decreases its legitimacy as a Jesus story, or as an authoritative, inspired text, but I think it’s important to point out before exegeting it.

Second, there’s a great detailed summary of the social situation of the woman in this blog post, which suggests that the title should not be “The Woman Caught in Adultery” but “Jesus and the Murderous Men.” Capital punishment by subjugated people under Roman occupation was actually illegal. Occupiers tend to frown upon native populations carrying out their own executions, which is why Jesus was handed over to the Romans to be killed. These men bring the woman to Jesus to be stoned in violation of Roman law and accepted Jewish practice, which called any council that condemned more than one person to death in seven years a “murderous” council.

If we want to figure out how “sin” is used in this story, it doesn’t make sense to talk about Jesus’ words to the woman without also connecting it to his statement to the men. They bring a woman (and not a man) to Jesus to be stoned. He tells them, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” So nobody does. They all walk away. But Jesus doesn’t tell them to go and sin no more. They leave of their own accord.

Why? Why wouldn’t they stick around to see if someone would pick up a rock? Why didn’t they engage in a discussion with Jesus about which sins are punishable by death and which ones are not? This is the usual pattern in discussions with Jesus and religious leaders. I honestly can’t imagine Christians who quote the “go and sin no more” line giving up so easily and melting back into the crowd. They would at least want to stick around and hear what Jesus said to the woman.

Is “sin no more” implied in Jesus’ words to the men? If he were to tell them to sin no more, what sin would he be referring to? To their private (and perhaps sexual) sins? To the sin of dragging a woman in front of him to be stoned? Or is their sin just sort of a generic, “We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) variety?

I really like Tony’s observations about the “muddy” situation that the woman is in, and that the whole violence-against-women narrative is not incidental to the story. Discussions about what constitutes sin (sexual or otherwise) and who is guilty of it are frequently tied to ways we legitimize violence. We don’t actually know her story. We accept the men’s accusations at face value. It is entirely possible that she has been sexually mistreated, married off at an early age and against her will. It is possible that she has been set up, or even raped. If so, “Go and sin no more” sounds like blaming the victim. Is Jesus complicit in a culture of rape and violence?

Or maybe Jesus means the words differently. Do we hear Jesus’ words to her in the same way we hear his words to the murderous men? Are we sure that his “Go and sin no more” is a reference to her adultery, or might it refer to something else? After all, if we’re going to let the men off with generic sinfulness, why do we assume the word “sin” refers to her alleged adultery?

Or maybe Jesus is just treating her as their equal (and equally capable of judgment and violence). Perhaps, having been cleared of her sin (“neither do I condemn you”), she is truly free from slut-shaming culture. If so then the men, it would seem, are still stuck in their sin. After all, Jesus doesn’t tell them to sin no more. Their shame keeps them from asking forgiveness from either Jesus or the woman they have dragged before him. They wander away before hearing any words that release them from their condemnation.

Shouldn’t they have apologized? Does our shame keep us from reconciling with people we have judged? It’s possible that this is not a happy ending. Her accusers go back to their judgmental ways. Are we to imagine that the crowd that had shamed her will treat her as an equal from now on, and not refer to her as “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” the way we do?

I also don’t think the story is complete without looking at the ways Jesus discusses sin in other places in John. In one story, he tells a formerly paralyzed man not to sin so that nothing worse happens to him. In another, when his disciples ask him whose sin caused a man to be born blind, Jesus says, “No one.” Is it possible to put together a coherent theology of sin, forgiveness, and the divine will from these passages without doing intellectual acrobatics?

I love this story. It’s one reason I’m not content to say it doesn’t belong in John’s gospel. But I think it’s sad that we appropriate a scripture that explicitly rejects violence and inequality to legitimize more violence and inequality. It’s abusing scripture: abusing it and using it to abuse.