Who decides what is too little, too late?
I was on a conference call today where someone said one of the more honest things I’ve heard lately on a call like this. She prefaced a question with “I’m sorry, I was multi-tasking, so I didn’t catch what you said…” That is as close to “I wasn’t paying attention to you but just realized that you might (surprisingly) have said something important” as you will likely get on one of those calls. Much respect to the person who ‘fessed up on that.
I tend to think that most of the gospels come together in that frame of mind, so it doesn’t bug me much when they don’t get the details quite the same. My theory (which I learned from actual smart people) is that the experience of the resurrected Jesus was the thing that made Christianity, and so it was only at that point, after the earthly life of Jesus, that his followers realized that they probably should have paid more attention to the details. If, in reconstructing the facts later, the gospel writers come up with diverse minutiae to their stories, well, that’s what happens when you don’t pay proper attention the first time. They didn’t know this was going to be on the test.
John works from different traditions and in a different style than the other gospel writers, and it shows. One area that I hadn’t realized before comes right after the death of Jesus. They all, interestingly, mention that a guy named Joseph of Arimathea provides the tomb in which Jesus is buried. (Fun fact: nobody really knows where Arimathea was.) And they all agree that the time was getting late so everyone was in a rush to get Jesus buried before the sabbath started. But in Mark and Luke, women come back after the sabbath to prepare the body, and that’s why they’re in the vicinity to discover the resurrection.
John’s version is different. Joseph of Arimathea is joined by Nicodemus in preparing the body right then for burial. (As in Matthew, there’s not really an explanation for why Mary Magdalene was going to the tomb on Easter morning.)
This might be just one of those missed details in the reconstruction of the story, but I’m not so sure. Since Mary Magdalene was the first to discover that Jesus was risen, the details of why she was out there at the tomb are awfully germane, and kick in right when everyone would have quit multi-tasking and started paying attention. If she was out there to prepare the body, that detail would have been there from the beginning (as it is in Mark, the oldest of the gospels).
So why did John go another way? Why bring back Nicodemus and pair him with Joseph of Arimathea?
Both of these two were insiders, members of the religious elite with reputations to uphold. All the gospels talk about Joseph being a secret disciple, and John has Nicodemus appear three times: first at night, so as not to be found talking with Jesus, then putting up a half-hearted fuss at Jesus’ trial about due process, and then here, at the burial.
Both were low-investment disciples who would not risk their positions to profess their belief in the upstart from Galilee. There were probably others who melted away in the night and never came back. The two leaving Jerusalem on the road to Emmaus in Luke are similarly opting out, but Nicodemus and Joseph, at least in theory, were in the room where Jesus’ execution was decided, and they didn’t stop it. Too little, too late.
Except, by stepping forward to take the body, they had to finally admit to Pilate and to their buddies that they were on Jesus’ side. After the seeming fact, when Jesus was already dead, they gave up their status in favor of their beliefs. We don’t have a lot of history of what happened to them next, but the assumption is that they were ostracized and kicked out of the Sanhedrin and the synagogue. The only place they would have had to turn was the community of disciples that they studiously avoided associating with when Jesus was alive.
In both the Orthodox and Catholic traditions, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are venerated as saints. Apparently, showing up after the execution to help bury the corpse with decorum wasn’t seen as too little or too late to the Church. And some theorize that John tells their story with an eye toward the people in his own time who believed secretly and timidly from inside the power structure.
Today? Same. When Jesus points to the hungry and thirsty and stranger and exposed and sick and imprisoned in Matthew 25 and says “everyone of those is actually me you’re either caring for or ignoring,” it’s real easy for me to count the times I’ve turtled in rather than reached out to those folks. And when you see that the people Jesus prioritized with his time and attention were the undesirables, the outcasts, the foreigners and the scapegoats, well, there are more of those around today than I could get to even if I tried. Which I have not, honestly.
But tomorrow is another day. And in the meantime, I can root for Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, hoping that it’s still not too late to quit multitasking and pay attention to the assignment.
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