I have a strange mental aberration (whether a gift from God or not I will leave to you to decide) in that my mind, upon hearing a phrase or story, will often wander off, trying to speculatively fill in the missing pieces of the tale. It is this quirk that has inspired some of my scripture dramas in which I attempt to put a wider context around often fragmentary biblical narratives.
Throughout the Gospels, we are told that Jesus of Nazareth was frequently dependent on the generosity and hospitality of others. From this I imagine that he lacked material resources. By his own admission, he would invite himself to dine with others (Mt 26:18), was homeless (Mt 8:20), and expected others to provide for his followers (Mt 14:15-17). Even for his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, he chose to sit on a borrowed donkey.
During Holy Week, I had the opportunity to share in the preparation of our congregational YouTube video for “The Stations of the Cross.” As it turned out, I read the passage at the final station from Matthew 27: 57-60 about Joseph, the man from Arimathea, who petitioned Pilate for the body of Jesus and then laid it into his own newly-hewn stone tomb. It makes a fitting conclusion to Good Friday meditations: “Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb and departed.”
The evangelist John provides us with some additional information about what happened once Jesus was declared dead by the Roman guards.
“After these things, Joseph of Arimathea… asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation [for the Passover], and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there” (John 19:38-42, NRSV).
On reading this passage, many people might think that this also was in keeping with Jesus’ lack of material possessions. Why would Joseph be so willing to give up his own tomb? Was this the act of sacrifice and devotion by a secret admirer in sorrowful reverence? Or was there something else that caused Joseph’s generosity? I wonder what took place as Joseph and Nicodemus journeyed home? Was there more going on that evening than we are told in scripture?
Did Nicodemus and Joseph walk silently along, each so absorbed in their grief and disappointment that conversation was irrelevant? Was Joseph now feeling a deep sense of regret that he had remained in fear and so physically apart from Jesus? That he had forever forfeited his chance to get a deeper, more intimate connection to the Messiah? Was Nicodemus worried now that his act of reverence in burying Jesus would bring social repercussions? Did he still have unanswered questions that now would forever haunt his mind?
Or had they, as we so often do after the death of a loved one, begun to recount their memories of the loved one now departed forever. I prefer to imagine it could have been this way on that sad but satisfying trek. However, somewhere in the conversation, it is plausible that they might have stumbled onto a poignant but obvious truth.
Nicodemus: That was really generous of you to give up your own tomb to bury Jesus. I really admire you for doing that, especially since before now, you were pretty careful about people knowing you were one of his disciples.
Joseph: Thanks. You’re right about my going public about being a disciple. I guess I’ll have to be especially careful now, particularly around those on the council.
Nicodemus: Yeah, right. The council would be quite put out over you. But have you realized, you just finished cutting that tomb out of the rock, and now you don’t have a tomb of your own.
Joseph: It’s no big deal.
Nicodemus: No big deal! Aren’t you worried about having to do all that work over again to make another place for yourself?
Joseph: Not really, Nic. Don’t you remember what he said in the temple? I’m not worried; he’s only going to need it for the weekend.