Saturday, April 23, 2011
Following the Naked Guy to the Empty Tomb
A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.
As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you."
The young man followed the rabbi from Nazareth all the way to Jerusalem for the Passover holiday because his teachings were compelling, his healings were magnificient, his heart was filled with compassion for the poor and vulnerable and he creatively and courageously confronted all those with wealth and power who wielded their privilege like a sledgehammer. The carpenter-turned-messianic-rabbi shared the name of one of Israel's greatest political and military leaders, but this neo-Yeshua (Hebrew=Joshua; English=Jesus) was building a movement of nonviolent resistance that would lead Israel (and eventually the whole world) into a new Promised Land called the Kingdom of God which lavished dignity on to every human being (even lepers, the handicapped and those despised tax collectors), healed and reconciled every relationship and distributed economic justice to all those overlooked and bypassed: debt-strapped farmers, migrant workers, below-living-wage construction workers, overtaxed fishermen and stay-at-home moms.
No doubt, Yeshua told his followers on multiple occasions that following him would involve confrontation with unjust authorities and would result in torture and execution...for both Yeshua and them. But on the night after the Passover meal and a prayer session at Gethsemane, none of his disciples were prepared for the crowd of thugs sent from the powerful religious establishment (the chief priests, scribes & elders) wielding swords and clubs. The 12 disciples flee the scene, but the nameless young man gets a cameo in Mark's Gospel. This is not just an random side-note, but awkwardly & intentionally placed in the narrative to draw our attention to the full-frontal anxiety, fear and shame that saturated the young man as all his hopes were dashed in just a moment in time. After all, violence--in all its forms--is always pornographic.
Perhaps Yeshua just went too far. His orchestrated action in the Temple was scandalous, unveiling the hypocrisy and injustice of the religious establisment, and he cultivated their jealousy and envy with his brilliantly authoritative sermons and lectures that wooed crowds from the shores of Galilee all the way to the Jerusalem Temple. The young man, like the 12 disciples, probably told himself over and over that when they came for his Master, he would go with him, but when this young follower of Jesus saw the mob coming on this Passover evening, he ran like hell, clothing optional.
The conclusion of Mark's story (which originally ended at 16:8 until additions decades later) unveils the author's magnificient storytelling artistry. The fearful, shamefully naked young man is transformed into the first proclaimer of the gospel. Like the younger son's gift from his Father (Luke 15:22) and the triumphant martyrs in Revelation (6:11), the young man is clothed in a white robe. And this now stately messenger is "sitting on the right side," the very place of honor that James and John pathetically begged Yeshua for earlier in the narrative (10:35-37). For the first time in his life, he's got dignity...even if his throne is in the tomb of a crucified rebel. Confirming the authenticity of Jesus' every word ("just as he told you"), he delivers the news and sends the women on a mission to find the scattered disciples to tell them to trek back to the beginning of the story (1:14-15) to reunite with the risen Yeshua.
In Mark's Gospel, the empty tomb is overflowing with forgiveness and hope. The shame that once fueled the young man has been drained on the cross. It reveals that God is about second chances ("progress, not perfection" as my therapist wife keeps reminding me ;) no matter how shameful, guilt-tridden, ill-conceived or flagrantly violated. Although they were constantly bypassed and overlooked towards the bottom of the caste system of Rome, the young man and these women miraculously found themselves at the forefront of God's Upside-Down Kingdom. They became the heralds of Something Brand New, anticipating a Force of forgiveness and inclusion capable of transcending even the Pax Romana.
The club-wielding powermongers stripped the young man of his dignity by ripping the linen cloth right off his body. After the mock trial, torture and execution, the powerful establishment wrapped Yeshua with a linen cloth (15:46) and placed him in a tomb forever. But a death sentence, a linen cloth and a massive stone could not keep God's Dream from rolling out of the outskirts of Jerusalem just 3 days later. This Easter, don't let anxiety, fear, shame or stripped away dignity block you from the Greatest message ever uttered by a teenager in an oversized robe from an empty tomb of a tortured and executed Rebel.
-->In this post (and in my life), I am greatly indebted to the scholarship of Ched Myers whose Binding The Strong Man (1988) is perhaps the most overlooked theological work since the beginning of the Reagan era.