(This is Neil). This will be my last post during Holy Week. I wanted to share a small part of a book that I’ve been reading during Lent, Power & Passion: Six Characters in Search of Resurrection, written by the Anglican priest and dean of the Duke University Chapel, Samuel Wells. Joseph of Arimathea might seem like a hopelessly obscure character for a final Holy Week post, but I was genuinely struck by Dean Wells’ chapter on him. He is a compromised character, and we are all sadly compromised in some way in our Christian lives. We can see ourselves in Joseph of Arimathea.
Wells begins by noting that “the Gospels take a dim view of the Jewish aristocracy of the time.” The court of Herod Antipas is a place of wrongful marriages and drunken debauchery, where the head of John the Baptist is demanded on a platter by a manipulated child. The weaknesses of the scribes, Saduccees, and Pharisees are also clearly pointed out to the reader.
But Wells goes on to say that the main distinction between the disciples of Jesus and the different Jewish parties comes not merely from the moral failures of the latter, but the early Christians’ recognition of Jesus as Messiah. Wells, for instance, notes elsewhere that “of all the parties in
Palestine at the time, the Pharisees’ program was closest to Jesus’ own.” The recognition of Jesus as Messiah challenged even Pharisaic interpretations of Scripture and would make it practically impossible to be a disciple of Jesus and a Pharisee.
Wells quotes Wes Howard-Brook on the Johannine community and this unavoidable difference:
To be a member of the Chosen People for [the early Christians] was no longer a matter of ethnicity or inheritance but of commitment to belief in Jesus the messiah and the public and personal consequences of that belief.
Ultimately, this self-understanding led to the reversal of the Pharisees’ challenge. If the Johannine community [the community of people in which John’s gospel was written] would be expelled from the synagogue if it proclaimed Jesus’ messiahship, then those Pharisees who did believe in Jesus must renounce their status as Pharisees (John 3:1-11, 9:40-41, 12:42-43, 19:38-42). What came to be the most bitter battle between the Johannine community and mainstream Judaism was against those among the Pharisees who, while recognizing Jesus’ authority from God, attempted to be believers from within the Jewish establishment. For the Johannine community, “crypto-Christians” were the hardest to accept. The more Jesus’ disciples over the first generations experienced the pain of rejection by their fellow Jews, the more difficult it was to deal with “secret” believers who would not put their lives where their hearts were.
Enter Joseph of Arimathea. “Joseph took [Jesus’] body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock” (Mt 27:59-60). St Luke tells us that he was a “good and upright man” who “was waiting for the kingdom of God” (Lk 23:50-51). But Joseph of Arimathea is a “secret” believer caught between Jesus and the establishment. He is not only a member of the Council that condemned Jesus, but, as St Mark tells us, a “prominent (euschemon) member of the Council” (Mark 15:43). The inevitable (and painful) question arises: Why hadn’t Joseph publicly spoken for Jesus during his trial before the Council? Joseph is a remarkable person who is nevertheless compromised. Mark draws our attention to this by reintroducing the centurion in the very next verse – the executioner who recognized Christ’s real identity being another deeply compromised character.
St John’s Gospel, Wells reminds us, introduces two more details. First, John reintroduces Nicodemus, “the one who had first come to [Jesus] at night” (Jn 19:38). Then, John tells us that Jesus was buried with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about one hundred pounds” (Jn 19:39), a very large amount that tells us that neither man was hoping for Jesus’ resurrection. But back to Nicodemus. Who is he? Nicodemus is a Pharisee (John’s Gospel does not make careful distinctions between Jewish parties) who had indeed earlier come to see Jesus. Jesus had then drawn a very sharp contrast for him, “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again’” (Jn 3:6-7).
Dean Wells says, “Nicodemus is facing up to the fact that if he follows Jesus, his life will get out of control. He will jeopardize everything he has worked so hard to secure: property, authority influence. This is out of the question.” But we read an interesting passage in the seventh chapter of St John’s Gospel, when the Pharisees are about to arrange for Jesus to be arrested:
Nicodemus, one of their members who had come to him earlier, said to them, “Does our law condemn a person before it first hears him and finds out what he is doing?” They answered and said to him, “You are not from Galilee also, are you? Look and see that no prophet arises from Galilee” (Jn 7:50-52).
Nicodemus does speak up, but, like Joseph of Arimathea, his good words come a little later than they should have. The dismissive question that the Pharisees ask Nicodemus shows that they do not believe that he might actually be turning towards Jesus. It also hints at the questions that Peter will be asked in the courtyard. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea’s “secret” discipleship, a Christianity-by-night, Wells concludes, represents “the four Gospels’ ambivalence about whether discipleship can coexist with wealth, privilege and power.”
But we often find ourselves being Christians-by-night, deeply compromised “crypto-Christians,” whether in the business world when we are silent about decent wages for the sake of promotion and success, or in school when we might keep our faith hidden to remain popular and retain our “appeal in the sexual eyeing-up.” The examples, unfortunately, can be multiplied. Most interestingly, Samuel Wells talks about clerics who assume important social roles when it can be assumed that they won’t seriously articulate “the story of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection, his calling to sacrificial discipleship, or his sending of the empowering Spirit.” Wells writes:
In rural communities, the priest is generally a welcome figure, affirming community when a sense of sustainable corporate life is perpetually under threat. In dislocated communities, including some inner cities and outer-urban housing estates or projects, the pastor is sometimes an honest broker between the “suits” and the “streets,” a person who can speak both languages and be trusted by most if not all. In traditional communities, where the yearly cycle of festivals is valued not just for nostalgia but for opportunities to affirm family and friendship and fellowship and faith, and where the church’s role in education is seen as an asset rather than as a threat, the minister can herald an opportunity for celebration. And in corridors of power, where moral seriousness is sometimes the casualty of urgency or ambition, public spin or private compromise, the lofty cleric who can say grace at the grand meal may yet stay to hear confession in the gentlemen’s cloakroom.
The problem with these situations, says Wells, is that the priest can unconsciously become a Christian-by-night, buckling under the subtle but constant pressure to “maintain one’s presence by avoiding one’s identity.” These aren’t easy or obvious situations. And I suppose this is why the chapter on Joseph of Arimathea really struck me – we can, at times painfully, recognize ourselves in the “prominent” Joseph and the Nicodemus who cannot jeopardize everything that he has worked so hard to secure. But we should take care to remember that, though deeply compromised, they were still there for Jesus in the end, when nobody else was.
Perhaps this is something to think about during the next few days. Have we really put our lives where our hearts are?