The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Tomb,
Eugène Burnand, 1898, Musée d’Orsay
(About this Image)
So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb.
They both ran, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter
and arrived at the tomb first;
he bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in.
When Simon Peter arrived after him,
he went into the tomb and saw the burial cloths there,
and the cloth that had covered his head,
not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place.
Then the other disciple also went in,
the one who had arrived at the tomb first,
and he saw and believed.
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Gospel
The resurrection narrative in St. Matthew (Matt 28:1-20)
April 9, 2023
This year our Sunday gospel readings in Ordinary (Green) time have been from St. Matthew. The Passion read on Palm Sunday and the Gospel reading at the Easter Vigil will also be from Matthew. (It is also an option for the Easter Day Mass.) The full resurrection narrative is Matthew 28 1-20, but we only read from 1-10 on Easter with the rest used on Easter Monday. They are, however, so connected that I think it is important to read and examine them together.
This is a passage of such unusual depth that this overview is quite superficial. There will also be extensive quotations from scripture.
After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning,
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to see the tomb.
And behold, there was a great earthquake;
for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven,
approached, rolled back the stone, and sat upon it.
His appearance was like lightning
and his clothing was white as snow.
Matthew likes continuity and has the same two women follow Jesus from his death and burial to the empty tomb (Matt 27:55, 61 and 28:1). This is presented as history without theological speculation. Matthew wants to show that it happened, it is important, and it has consequences. It was announced by an earthquake and an angel. Angels and earthquakes are featured prominently in the popular religious literature of Jesus’s time when discussing the end of time. In the previous chapter after Jesus gave up his sprit:
And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn
in two from top to bottom.
The earth quaked, rocks were split,
tombs were opened,
and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.
And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection,
they entered the holy city and appeared to many.
All these things indicate that the world as they knew it was ending but not in the way they expected. There would be consequences:
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.
That heaven and earth are “passing away” what it means to be a follower of the Lord will also change.
The guards were shaken with fear of him and became like dead men.
Then the angel said to the women in reply,
“Do not be afraid!
I know that you are seeking Jesus the crucified.
He is not here,
for he has been raised just as he said.
Come and see the place where he lay.
Those who put Jesus to death are now like the dead, Jesus has been risen. The use of the passive shows the action of God. He clearly states that Jesus was crucified but has been raised as he said. (16:21, 17:23, 20:19)
At the raising of Lazarus Jesus said that he was the way, the truth and the life. (Gospel for the 5th Sunday of Lent John 11:1-45, specifically 11:25, but see St. Paul for greater detail) Pharisaical Jews expected that they would rise from the dead but when the Messiah came to bring the reign of God. This would be an opportunity for God to prove his justice by separating those who did good things from those who did bad in life. (See Matt 25:31-46 on the separation of the sheep from the goats for a clear reflection of this teaching)
Then go quickly and tell his disciples,
‘He has been raised from the dead,
and he is going before you to Galilee;
there you will see him.’
Behold, I have told you.”
Then they went away quickly
Matthew is insistent that he will join them in Galilee. His gospel is most concerned about fulfilling prophecy and we read one at the beginning of his ministry.
He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea,
in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali,
that what had been said
through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled:
“Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles,
the people who sit in darkness
have seen a great light,
on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death
light has arisen.”
These were the first lands conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BC. The people were taken into exile, darkness, and one of the tasks of the Messiah was to bring the people back into the light. By beginning his ministry there, he announces that he will bring the lost tribes back into the fold. By ending his mission in Galilee, he shows that by his resurrection he has done so.
And behold, Jesus met them on their way and greeted them.
They approached, embraced his feet, and did him homage.
Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid.
Go tell my brothers to go to Galilee,
and there they will see me.”
The embracing of feet is a sign of homage given to a king. In this case this action not only shows homage indeed worship but as it is physical shows that Jesus is not a ghost. Jesus seems to say almost the same thing to the women as the angel but with an important difference. The angel said to “tell the disciples”, Jesus says to the women “tell my brothers”. Although betrayed he has forgiven them and still considers them his family.
While they were going, some of the guards went into the city
and told the chief priests all that had happened.
They assembled with the elders and took counsel;
then they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers,
telling them, “You are to say,
‘His disciples came by night and stole him while we were asleep.’
And if this gets to the ears of the governor,
we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.”
The soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed.
And this story has circulated among the Jews to the present day.
Matthew assumes the empty tomb and addresses why the resurrection was disputed. This story is parallel to what follows. These soldiers are witnesses to the truth but cowardly proclaim a lie. The apostles witnessed the risen Lord and courageously proclaim the truth.
The eleven disciples went to Galilee,
to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.
When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.
Then Jesus approached and said to them,
“All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.
Matthew wishes to call to mind this vison from Daniel, now made real in Jesus;
One like a son of man coming,
on the clouds of heaven;
When he reached the Ancient One
and was presented before him,
He received dominion, glory, and kingship;
nations and peoples of every language serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not be taken away,
his kingship shall not be destroyed.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations,
in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the holy Spirit,
This is the great commission of Jesus, and it might seem quite strange to us for two reasons.
Matthew also told us that Jesus instructed the disciples:
Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.
Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Through his death and resurrection Jesus breaks down all barriers and begins a new age. At the Last Supper he said:
For this is my blood of the covenant,
which will be shed on behalf of many
for the forgiveness of sins.
The entrance into this new covenant is not by circumcision but baptism. Baptism into the Trinity may seem to have come out of nowhere but remember that the Trinity was present at Jesus’ Baptism (Matt 3:13-17).
Matthew’s community was divided between Christians who were born Jews and those born gentile. How one became a Christian was a debated issue. Matthew shows them that their faith is incomprehensible without understanding Judaism but is a new covenant for a new age.
Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.
And behold, I am with you always,
until the end of the age.”
Disciples are to observe not the law, but the way of life proclaimed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. This is a difficult path, but Jesus will be with us until his return.
For Matthew, Jesus has changed time itself. His ministry, death, and resurrection has begun the kingdom of God but as we can see around us in so many ways it is not completed. As we say so often: “Already but not yet here”.
As we have also said so often Matthew is a Pastor. He is concerned about his community—his parish—and he has written this gospel to show them that they must put aside their differences and become one body.
However specific the circumstances of that community, the basic question is universal. The culture wars of our own day have shown us that discord is always lurking beneath the surface. Matthew reminds us that the great commission is not to reveal an opponent’s darkness but Jesus’ light.