An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Easter Sunday of the Lord’s Resurrection, Year C, Luke 24:1-12/John 20:1-9, March 21, 2013
‘DIVIDE ET IMPERA” (Divide and rule)—so advises ancient wisdom that if one wishes to conquer, he has to divide the enemy. However invincible one appears to be, it is simply impossible to fight on many fronts and win, as Adolf Hitler realized too late. If one wishes to reform the nation, he cannot therefore afford to antagonize the people, quarrel with the political establishment and go up against the religious establishment. Once he does these, he will virtually be a goner. Nothing is in store for him except defeat. The fate of Jesus appears to be like this. From the Roman and Jewish point of view, Jesus, who had invited the people to repent and enter the Kingdom of God, had to die. Because of his teaching and behavior, the Jewish leaders accused him, among others, of threatening to destroy the Temple (Mark 14:58), of leading people astray as a false prophet (John 7:12; Matt 27:63), and of assuming divine prerogative (Mark 14:64). These charges, of course, would not make sense in a Roman trial. This is why the Jewish leaders brought him to Pilate, the Roman governor, on charges of insurrection: subverting the nation, opposing tax payment and pretending to be king (Luke 23:3). And it is almost historically certain that Rome gave the verdict: capital punishment.
But the end of Jesus was not defeat. Those who opposed him never triumphed. He was not a goner, after all. For God reversed the verdict. He raised Jesus from the dead (1 Thess 1:10; Rom 10:9). The Jewish and Roman leaders took his life; God gave him a new one. This is the Easter Gospel. Resurrection, however, is a metahistorical event; it transcends time and space. It is not like a resuscitation to an old life, as in the raising of the widow’s son at Naim (Luke 7:11). It is a new form of existence. Hence, in Luke’s resurrection narrative, only a negative witness could be provided. When the women entered the tomb, they did not find Jesus’ body (Luke 24:3). But the empty tomb is not an apodictic argument for the resurrection. It could be interpreted differently. In Matthew, for example, the chief priests claimed that the disciples stole the body (Matt 28:12; cf John 20:2). Some claimed that the empty tomb was simply a product of wishful thinking. Others alleged that Jesus merely swooned on the cross and subsequently extricated himself from the bands and the tomb. Hence, faith in the resurrection cannot rest on an incontrovertible empirical evidence.
How then, according to Luke, do we know that Jesus rose from the dead? First, God himself told us in the mouth of two men in dazzling garments who said to the women: “Why do you search for the Living One among the dead? He is not here; he has been raised up” (Luke 24:5b). (According to Jewish law, this testimony is conclusive because two witnesses made it [Deut 19:15]). Second, Jesus himself prophesied it: “The Son of Man must first endure many sufferings, be rejected by the elders, the high priests, and the scribes, and be put to death, and then be raised up on the third day” (9:22,24; 12:50; 17:35; 18:31-33). For Luke, the guarantee of resurrection is the trustworthiness of Jesus’ words. Thus, at the instance of the two men, the women disciples (Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, etc. [24:10]) remembered his words. Of course, they remembered because they had accompanied him in his Galilean ministry (8:1-3), and they witnessed the crucifixion (23:49) and burial (23:55). In Luke’s theology, what the women heard was crucial in interpreting the empty tomb. Because of it, they took the empty tomb as a sign that Jesus is alive. Faith thus comes from remembering what is heard (cf Rom 10:17). With this faith, they began to proclaim the Easter Gospel (24:8-9).
What is the significance of the Easter Gospel? The resurrection of Jesus lies at the heart of Christian faith. If he was not raised from the dead, our faith is empty (1 Cor 15:14). God vindicated the persecuted Jesus—he was not a false prophet, after all. On the contrary, he is the Savior (Rom 4:25), the living Lord (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3), the Son (Acts 12:33; Rom 1:34). In fact, all the books of the New Testament were written from the point of view of his resurrection. But not only that. Because God raised him, he will also vindicate those of us who followed him (1 Cor 4:14). Those who died with him will live with him (2 Tim 2:11). Moreover, even in the here and now, the life that Jesus lives is given to us who believe (Rom 8:12). This is made possible through our baptism (Rom 6:4-12). We acquire a new being (2 Cor 5:17-21). Christ lives in us (Gal 2:20). And in Luke’s Gospel, the first beneficiary of this new being in Christ is the repentant criminal: “I assure you, this day, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).