Too Much and Too Late
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TOO MUCH AND TOO LATE
The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
Good Friday + April 7, 2023
Personalities of the Passion: Joseph of Arimathea
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. (John 19:38)
We come now to the fifth and final personality of the Passion whom we will consider today: Joseph of Arimathea. Why did I choose Joseph? Well, what seemed like a good idea at the time proved to be more of a challenge than I thought it would be. Joseph turned out to be rather impenetrable. Nevertheless, one possible route into his soul began reminding me of someone I once knew.
Leigh was a parishioner of mine a long time ago, in a church far, far away. He was a man in his 70s who had enjoyed a long career in finance, with a talent for picking the right stocks and making money hand over fist. His wife, Dotty, was the head nurse on the cancer ward of a hospital. Dotty was devoted to Leigh, and because they never had any children, she could be as committed to her career as Leigh was to his. At length Dotty began to talk to Leigh about retirement. It was time to build their dream house in Florida. But Leigh put off retirement year after year, and continued to pour himself into his work, making more money than they could ever spend. Dotty swallowed her disappointment and pressed on with her work until she fell seriously ill with cancer, and became a patient in the very unit where she worked. She died within a year, never to enjoy a day of retirement.
Dotty’s death devastated Leigh, so much so that he began coming to church after her funeral. It was about this time when I met him and learned of his story. Sadly, while Leigh took some consolation in the hope of the gospel, he found that any gesture to atone for what he had left undone in his marriage was too late. Large gifts to the hospital and the church in Dotty’s name did not relieve his guilt. No amount of drinking could make him forget how he failed her. Finally, he built the house in Florida to Dotty’s exact specifications, hoping against hope that her spirit would come and ease his pain. When he moved in he felt only a more profound sense of her absence. It was all too much, all too late. At length, Leigh concluded that the only way out of his hell was to take his own life. He simply could not forgive himself.
Think not that I am confusing Joseph of Arimathea with Judas Iscariot, who committed suicide. We can be sure that Joseph never did any such thing. But in truth, we really don’t know much about him. This Joseph appears only at the burial of Jesus, never before and never after it. Biblical scholars and archeologists aren’t even sure where the town of Arimathea might have been. Nevertheless, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John do give us varying details of who he was. While it’s not possible to stitch all the pieces together into a unified whole, we can begin to make some educated guesses into Joseph’s identity and character.
The Gospels describe him as a rich man who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret follower for fear of the Jews. He was a respected member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council of seventy-one elders who presided over the political, legal, and religious affairs of Jewish life. It was this group that hatched the plot to arrest Jesus and put him to death. But Joseph, being “a good and righteous man” had not consented to their purpose and deed. Joseph was waiting, or looking for the kingdom, and didn’t think that killing someone who was preaching about it would hasten the day of its arrival. We know one other thing about Joseph. He owned a new tomb, carved into a hillside, in a garden just beyond the walls of Jerusalem.
In addition to what the Gospels tell us of who Joseph was, what do they say he did? Once again, the details vary, but it’s possible to recreate a cohesive record of his deeds. On Friday afternoon at three o’clock, when it was clear that Jesus was dead, Joseph sprang into action. The suggestion is that he must have been present at the crucifixion, because he would not have much time to do what he planned. In three hours all work would stop for the Sabbath. So Joseph overcame his fear, went boldly to Pontius Pilate, and obtained permission to bury the body of Jesus. The request in itself was unusual because the bodies of crucified rebels usually wound up tossed in a common grave.
Joseph hurried from Pilate’s headquarters to purchase burial linens. With the help of his fellow Council member, Nicodemus, also a secret follower of Jesus, he obtained an enormous amount of spices. One-hundred pounds was far in excess of what a typical burial would require. Then Joseph rushed back to Golgotha, took the body of Jesus down from the cross, and either there or at the tomb wrapped it in the linens and the spices. Next he laid the body on one of several shelves inside the tomb, and presumably with help rolled the great stone over the entrance. Various women witnessed the procedure and the location.
Here it’s important to know something that was likely true about the tomb itself. It would have had two chambers. Burial was a two-stage process. First the body would lay for up to a year on a shelf in an outer chamber until nothing but the bones were left. Later on the family would reenter the tomb (thus the importance of the spices), collect the bones in a stone box, and place it in a niche in a deeper chamber of the tomb. The point is, someone would be back to tend to the business of death and decomposition. All of this was ordinary burial practice at the time for Jews who could afford it. Joseph of Arimathea had no idea that he had just set the stage for the most extraordinary event in human history.
Before we delve deeper into the role of Joseph in the Passion story, it’s important to dispense with two equal and opposite erroneous conclusions that people have drawn. The first is, quite simply, that Joseph of Arimathea never lived at all. Biblical scholars of a certain ilk declare that Joseph was a literary creation of Mark, who wrote his Gospel thirty or forty years after the death of Jesus. Mark created Joseph to answer the question of what had happened to the body of Jesus after he died. No one knew, because all of his disciples had fled. Matthew, Luke, and John picked up on the Joseph idea and elaborated from there. But in truth, he never lived at all. That’s the first error.
The second error is not that Joseph never lived, but that he lived a larger, legendary life after the resurrection of Jesus. He travelled to England as a missionary, bringing with him the Holy Grail – the chalice Jesus used at the Last Supper – containing a drop of Jesus’ blood. At one point Joseph thrust his walking staff into a hill in Glastonbury. It took root and grew into a bush known as the Glastonbury thorn. The stories about Joseph get even better. He was a tin merchant who was actually an uncle of Jesus. Joseph made frequent trips to England and on one such trip brought the boy Jesus with him. Such is the origin of the opening lines of the famous hymn, Jerusalem: And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England’s mountains green? The answer to the question is no – the feet of Jesus did not walk upon England’s mountains green.
It’s easy to dismiss the fanciful legends. Joseph could not have carried the Holy Grail to England because we have it here at Grace Church. It’s in our sacristy safe right now! All kidding aside, it’s equally unlikely that the Gospel writers would have gotten away with inserting a fictional character into the narratives. Joseph of Arimathea would have been well known as a member of the Sanhedrin. He would have been well known as a person of interest to the Roman police investigating the reports of a resurrected rebel. Do you remember the biography of Ronald Reagan some years ago by the author, Edmund Morris? Morris found Reagan’s personality to be impenetrable, so he invented a fictional character to view and assess his subject at various, critical moments. The resulting biography, entitled Dutch, was roundly panned, and dismissed as not a biography at all. It was a work of fiction. The same would have been true of the Gospels. The people in Jesus’ day were not stupid. They would have seen right through fictional characters in the story. Joseph of Arimathea was a person of interest to them, and he remains a person of interest to us.
Why? Because Joseph reminds me of my old parishioner, Leigh. Joseph reminds me of many people I’ve known over the years. Joseph even reminds me of myself at times. On the one hand, Joseph can provide a cautionary tale for all of us. He was a follower of Jesus, but only of a sort. He was a secret follower due to fear – fear of the Jews, says John. But Joseph himself was a prominent Jew. Jesus was a Jew. So Joseph’s fear had nothing to do with antisemitism. Joseph’s fear was for his own important place in Jewish society. He was waiting for the kingdom, and he liked what he heard from Jesus. But if he backed the wrong Messiah he could lose his prestigious position and all the perks that came with it. So he tried to have it both ways, as do many of us today. Be a follower of Jesus, but hold him at bay when he talks about the cost of discipleship. When the kingdom arrives, when love beckons, the half-hearted response won’t do. In the end, Joseph’s response to Jesus proved to be too much and too late. A daring request of Pilate, one-hundred pounds of spices, and the gift of a brand-new tomb with linens were grand gestures, to be sure. But I wonder if Jesus might have preferred a measure of such devotion while he was alive. That’s the cautionary tale.
On the other hand, Joseph of Arimathea can provide us with a story of hope. Joseph’s story can inspire hope, not hope in ourselves, but hope in the power of God to gather up the broken pieces and half-hearted devotions of our lives and use them for the kingdom. What drove Joseph to bury the body of Jesus may have been a mixture of religious devotion, fear, and most especially guilt. But God took what Joseph did, checkered though his motivations might have been, and transformed it for the world’s redemption. By the power of God a tomb for decomposition became a womb for resurrection.
One of my favorite verses in all of the Bible occurs in the Sixth Chapter of John, at the feeding of the five-thousand. If you recall, to feed the multitudes Jesus received an offering wholly unsuitable for the task at hand: five barley loaves and two fish from a small boy. The disciples scoffed. It was an offering far too small. It was too little, too late. Nevertheless, Jesus took the offering, blessed it, broke it, and distributed the loaves and fish until everyone had more than enough to eat. Then, looking around at the grassy plain where the makeshift meal had taken place, Jesus saw a field strewn with broken bread crumbs and half-eaten loaves. Do you remember what he said? Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing may be lost.
What Jesus did for the loaves and fish is what God did for Joseph of Arimathea. God gathered up the fragments of Joseph’s fearful following, and used them for his good purposes. My prayer is that God, in his mercy, did the same for my friend, Leigh.
Our prayer today is that God, through the One lifted high upon the cross, will gather up the fragments of our lives too, so that nothing may be lost, and all might come within the reach of his saving embrace.