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Why Resurrection Cover-ups Failed

Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalene, ‘Noli me tangere’ , Rembrandt (1651) Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Germany

Cover-ups have a bad historical track record for one reason:  people talk!  While that might be disastrous to a conspiracy being hatched, it was ideal for Christianity.  Isn’t that one of many reasons 2.2 billion Christians continue to celebrate an event that rocked the world 21 centuries ago?  And there are more.

Check out Paul’s account in I Corinthians 15.  The letter was written sometime in the mid-50’s, about 15 years after Jesus’ resurrection but before a Gospel account recorded it.

…That he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died (I Cor. 15:4-6, NRSV).

Those 1st century Jews who believed in resurrection, having poured over Daniel 12, knew it wasn’t some amorphous event but “the literal reanimation of a dead corpse”, as the New Living Translation explains.  But huge effort was made to disguise its actuality when it happened to Jesus.  The arguments ranged from: ‘he never really died but was just unconscious’, to ‘the disciples only dreamed it’.

But my favorite ‘it never really happened’ explanation was the one Matthew’s Gospel records in chapter 28.  Matthew gives us the back story of the Jewish religious leaders asking Pilate to order soldiers to guard the tomb so Jesus’ followers wouldn’t steal the body.   When the guards found it empty on the third day, they told the priests who called an emergency meeting then bribed the guards with this response:

  You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed (Matt. 28:13,14). 

So with all the efforts of an attempted cover-up that makes Watergate pale by comparison, how did the truth emerge?  Here are six reasons and would love to hear others you think made a difference.

  1. The simplest:  the tomb was empty. Something happened to the body that had been placed there.
  2. Women were witnesses. Why would anyone conceive such a bizarre account and then use women to confirm it when it was culturally assumed they would be less reliable?!
  3. The consistency of the several accounts of those who saw him: the disciples in the upper room; then when Thomas joined them and Jesus appeared again in the same place; the witness of Cleopas and his friend from Emmaus; the morning meal prepared for the disciples by the risen Jesus Christ;
  4. The significant shift in the disciples – from fearful followers to bold apostles.
  5. Jesus’ followers’ ability to prevail over the disgrace and dishonor embedded in Deut.21:23 (anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse). Similar to having women as eyewitnesses, why would you conceive of a Jewish leader with such a resume?!
  6. The healing ability of his followers, accounts which fill the book of Acts, indicating what he did was not confined to him personally but could be replicated by those who followed his teachings.

It leaves us with the question for today:  how do people know by my life that ‘He is risen’?  Only you can answer that one!  Happy post-Easter everyone.

If you’re interested in learning more about “The Week that Changed the World”, listen to a free video talk given by me on Good Friday (3/30/18) for Third Church of Christ, Scientist, New York  (thirdchurchnyc.org) and download the free handout.

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Happy Labor Day — Vineyard Workers!

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Parable of the Vineyard Workers, Rembrandt

Since Americans are celebrating “Labor Day” the first Monday of September– a federal holiday established in 1894 to highlight the economic achievements of American workers– it’s a perfect time to look at Jesus’ parable about the Laborers in the Vineyard.  It’s told in both Matt. 20:1-16 and Mark 10:17-31.

This is a head-scratcher if approached in a typical way of what’s a fair wage, given that several groups of workers are hired at different times on the same day.  But at the end of the day, the parable explains they’re paid the same wage, including those who arrived quite late and did only a small amount of work compared to those hired first.

I can only imagine what the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers’ Union would have to say about this!

How easily we identify with those first workers who weren’t paid ‘equitably’.  “What’s up with that”, we ask?  Perhaps the parable confronts the whole notion of ‘earning’ God’s love vs. simply receiving it.  Like the sun that pours its light without bias on every mountain, flower and garden, so the Gospel’s message of God’s enduring, inclusive and ever-present love pours out for everyone — newcomer and latecomer combined.

Perhaps the parable is a lesson about resentment and how to eradicate it from our thought about others. Matt. 20.vs. 9-12 speaks to this.   Those early workers didn’t initially begrudge the wages later workers received.  They just thought they’d receive more.

When those hired about five o’clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. 10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ (NRSV)

It’s not like the first group of workers were cheated.  They were paid according to their negotiated contract.  Isn’t that ‘just’?

But the late workers were paid by grace – by the lovely, unexpected showering of God’s generous love (seen through the actions of the landowner).

The early church of Matthew might have thought of the parable in light of Jews and Gentiles, the former being those who arrived ‘early’ and the latter, those who came to the Good News later.

Today the parable might make us ask:  “Am I truly happy for those who seem to have quick responses to prayer over their problems when I’ve been praying for resolution to mine for a very long time?  Or am I grateful for those who seem to make speedy spiritual progress when I’m in more of a plodding mode, even though I’ve been working at this a lot longer then they have!   What’s ‘fair’ about that?”

At the end, the landowner is now called “Lord” (20:8) in the KJV translation, and he pays those hired last, first.

So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the laborers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first.

Is it Jesus’ way of teaching us that there is no bargaining with the ‘Lord’, God?  That the ‘rules’ God plays by are love and grace for everyone, regardless.  That this Kingdom of heaven at hand has different protocols than human fairness, and that we need to start thinking out from those divine statues.

Once again Jesus teaches that following mere cultural values and practices aren’t enough when it comes to being Christ-like, following Christ Jesus’ example.

Happy Labor Day, all you vineyard workers!

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How Artistic Genius Captures History’s Greatest Betrayal

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Rembrandt’s “Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver”, currently on exhibit at The J.P. Morgan Library & Museum.

If you admire others’ ability to draw, sketch, paint or sculpt, yet don’t seem to share those talents, welcome to my world of art appreciation instead.   After all, artistic brilliance needs those who can treasure and reflect on their masterpieces.

The Bible has long been the subject of some of the most monumental art through the centuries, affording art lovers plenty of opportunity for spiritual and aesthetic contemplation. Summer is a perfect time to focus on one tour de force just coming to light.

The J.P. Morgan Library in New York City has a current exhibit centered on a privately held Rembrandt often referred to as his first masterpiece, painted when just 23. Called Judas Returning the Thirty Pieces of Silver, it is breathtaking how precisely the Dutch master captures the dismissive priest following Judas’ betrayal of Christ Jesus.

When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.  He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.”  Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself (Matt. 27:3-5, NRSV).

In a single spurning gesture of the Priest’s left hand, Rembrandt captures the emotional drama felt by a man who realizes he has made the most damning misjudgment of his life: betrayal of the Messiah he loved.

A traveling diplomat, Constantijn Huygens, experienced the painting in 1629 of the young artist soon to become a master, and penned: “The gesture of that one despairing Judas…screaming, begging for forgiveness, but devoid of all hope. His gaze wild, his hair torn out by the roots, his garments rent, his arms contorted, his hands clenched until they bleed. A blind impulse has brought him to his knees, his whole body writhing in pitiful hideousness. All this I compare with all the beauty that has been produced throughout the ages. All honor to thee, Rembrandt!” (Letter by Huygens, excerpted in Morgan catalogue on exhibit.)

Students of Matthew’s Gospel, the only one in which Judas’ payment is mentioned, have long been familiar with the thirty pieces of silver the priests paid for being led to Jesus’ location during his prayerful preparation at Gethsemane. What may not be familiar is an Ex. 21:2 law describing property payment rights, the first time the ‘thirty shekels of silver’ is mentioned in the Bible.

32 If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall pay to the slave owner thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.

The only other mention of ‘thirty shekels of silver’ (prior to Judas) is in the book of Zechariah. The prophet is told by God to act as the shepherd for the sheep portrayed as the recalcitrant people of Israel. But those ‘sheep’ don’t want to repent and therefore the shepherd (Zechariah) tells the people he quits, and asks for whatever wage they feel is appropriate.

12 I then said to them, “If it seems right to you, give me my wages; but if not, keep them.” So they weighed out as my wages thirty shekels of silver (Zech. 11:12).

The fact that Zechariah is given only ‘thirty shekels of silver’ is an insult, conjuring up the meager price of a male slave, described above in Exodus.

How does all this relate to Judas and the priests? Note that it was the Temple priests who negotiated the original payment:

Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” They paid him thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:14,15).

Expert in Jewish law, the Temple priests well knew of this reimbursement price of a slave from Exodus. In arrogant dismissal, they priced Jesus’ life at the same paltry rate. That Zechariah was God-directed to act as shepherd to the lost sheep of Israel, and paid the same remuneration, evokes the shepherding mantle Jesus bore as well.

The bottom line? Neither priest nor traitor could begin to grasp the Savior’s mission to redeem humanity from every ill that would beset it. That payment? Priceless.

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Why was Lazarus’ resurrection so Important to Early Christians?

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The Good Shepherd Catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus, Rome, showing Jesus raising Lazarus from his tomb.

You start to notice this focus on Lazarus in the earliest centuries of Christianity through the art. In the Roman catacombs alone there are over 55 paintings of Lazarus’s resurrection. Roughly an equal number exist of Roman sarcophagi, the marble caskets in which nobility were buried, depicting this life-affirming story relayed only in John’s Gospel. And then there are the dozens more depictions of Jesus’ friend rising from his grave–on ivory, glass and metal objects that didn’t have anything to do with funerals.

Perhaps all these artistic renderings of Lazarus’ emergence from his tomb three days after his burial are the reason behind historians’ belief that the raising of Jesus’ good friend, made a deeper impression on early Christians than almost any other New Testament text.

Maybe this doesn’t match your own experience of looking at Christian religious art in the world’s great museums. After all, the paintings of Mary and the baby Jesus predominate, along with those of the crucifixion and resurrection. But this is medieval art.

So why was the Lazarus story so key for early Christians and what can we learn from this? And if it was so impactful, why did Lazarus’ rising appear only in John’s Gospel? Is there a role the Lazarus story plays for John that sheds light on the rest of the Gospel of John? These are the kinds of questions that cause us to don our spiritual detective hats and result in fresh inspiration to even the most familiar of stories.

Because John’s Gospel, like the others, is told in chronological order, paying attention to where the Lazarus story appears in relation to the whole, makes sense. You’ll probably want to get your Bible and look it up.

Ok, so you found it was Chapter 11, the approximate halfway point in John’s 21 chapters. (If you’re studying a Biblical book with friends in a Bible Study group, or on your own, one of the joys is reading chapter by chapter and finding inspiration in why a certain story appears where it does.) In the case of the Gospel of John, this story of the raising of Lazarus serves as a catalyst leading up to Jesus’ own death and resurrection. (The synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke also contain a story of Jesus’ raising the dead, but in those three cases it is Jairus’ daughter (Matt. 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-43 and Luke 8:40-56.)

You may recall that the ‘miracles’ or healings referred to in the other gospels are called ‘signs’ in John’s Gospel. There are seven signs, and the story of Lazarus illustrates the final one: the resurrection and the life. John 11 and the following chapter of John 12 act like a literary bridge between Jesus’ ministry with others and his own final demonstration that God indeed provides eternal life. The Lazarus story lays down a bridge of faith and understanding that we can walk across to understand more the Master’s own death and resurrection.

As we approach Easter, let’s ponder this Lazarus story and see what it can teach us about eternal life.   For instance, in the first section, (Introduction and Lazarus’ illness and eventual death – verses 1-16), Jesus responds to Mary and Martha’s message that their brother is ill and would Jesus please come. Explaining that “this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4), the Master could have been referencing his own coming death and resurrection.

Next, lest the reader miss another hint of the story’s preparation for Jesus’ own resurrection, the author identifies Lazarus’ sister, Mary, as the one who will anoint Jesus’ feet with her hair, an act interpreted as preparing his body for burial (see John 11:2). In doing this, Jesus changes the focus from sickness to spiritual revelation, from death to eternal life. This is the very glory that will be thoroughly illustrated in the Master Christian’s upcoming crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, as John 11:4 above indicates.

The other two parts of this key story include a) the plans to raise Lazarus (verses 17-37) and b) Lazarus raised from the dead (verses 38-44 (end). Let’s keep our‘spiritual detective’ work going and look for additional ways in these verses that Lazarus’ release from the tomb foreshadows Christ Jesus’ triumph. What a way to celebrate Easter. He is indeed risen!

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Revisiting the Magi as Role Models

Earliest magi painting

Third century catacomb fresco of 3 magi, from Catacomb of Priscilla in Rome.

Do you find that some aspects of the Christmas story, no matter how familiar, stand out to you more some years than others? For me this season, it was those mysterious magi.

What do we really know about these exotic visitors from a distant land? Are they a fulfillment to Biblical prophesies, and if so, which ones and how? What answers does the Biblical text provide vs. traditions unsubstantiated? Do they symbolize a broader reach of the Christ savior’s message to a world distinguished only by its receptivity? And of course we want to know if their journey has lessons for us today.

These are some of the questions that came up in rereading the only mention of these strangers to Jesus at his birth, in the Biblical account of Matt. 2:1-12. Neither their names nor their number appear in Matthew’s gospel. The King James Version (KJV) simply says ‘there came wise men from the east’ (2:1) while the New Living Translation (NLT) writes: “About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem….”

Centuries of traditions, however, decided there must have been three, probably tied to the three gifts given (2:11). Also later concluded was that these were not just wise men but kings (perhaps because of the wealth of the gifts). Names were assigned: Balthassar, Melchior and Gaspar (often spelled Caspar). And in some Christian traditions, gift giving occurs twelve days after Jesus’ birth (Dec. 25th), on January 6th, in commemoration of the magi’s gifts, called Feast of the Epiphany.

What is most telling is that these ‘wise men’ (thought to be priests, astronomers, astrologers, or some combination of all) were depicted in the earliest Christian art more than any other aspect of Jesus’ birth or infancy. Whether in frescos over ancient arches (such as the 3rd century catacomb of Priscilla in Rome), or on 4th century sarcophagi, such as one in the Vatican Museum), the story obviously carried great import. Why?

There are probably several reasons. First, what about the Biblical prophesies, such as Ps. 72:10-11. The western kings of Tarshish and other distant lands will bring him tribute. The eastern kings of Sheba and Seba will bring him gifts (NLT). We know how extensively the early Christians interpreted the story of Jesus in light of the Hebrew Scriptures, as seen in references throughout Paul’s letters, the Book of Hebrews or the Gospels themselves. Here the Savior’s message is clearly for the world far beyond the bounds of Israel.

The early church also had a bookend type of approach to the magi. Just as these visitors understood Jesus’ role as Messiah at the beginning of his life, so that Messianic role meant eternal life evidenced in the Master’s own resurrection at the end of Jesus’ human journey. Thus, much of the art that included the magi’s journey was in funerary settings and on sarcophagi, a pictorial depiction of the Gospel’s message of eternal life for all who believed.

Another possible reason for the importance of the magi’s visit was the divinity that explained their pilgrimage. Why else would those from a distant place travel to pay homage to a baby born in such humble circumstances if that unusual heavenly occurrence – a star that outshone all others – hadn’t led them to the Bethlehem manger? What spiritual heft this brought to a tiny infant’s birth! Such a divine sign enabled those magi to be the first to perceive him as both child and King. Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him (Matt. 2:2, KJV).

There are probably many more reasons for the love of the magi’s journey by early Christians, although told in only twelve verses in a single Gospel.

Perhaps the most relevant to us today is the receptivity those magi showed that enabled them to both see and follow that heavenly light. We can show similar appreciation and reverence by acknowledging the divine impetus that summoned the wise men continues to draw today’s spiritual seeker with the promise and deliverance of salvation for all.

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