Lenten Scripture Reflection | Saturday: Psalm 130; Job 14.1-17; 1 Peter 4.1-8, Matthew 27.57-66

From: Pete Williamson

Humans are a funny lot. One of the earliest practices of human civilization was something deeply irrational. We began assigning great significance to the death of other humans and leaving items of great expense buried with the dead. What a waste of money! That money could be used to improve society! To help the poor! But nevertheless, we would signify someone’s death with great and expensive monuments or tombs. Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the Egyptian pyramids. Pharaohs were buried with Egypt’s finest goods in enormous edifices built on the backs of slaves. What use do the dead have of such opulence? If death has the final say, why waste so many resources?

It is intriguing, then, that when Jesus’ burial comes into the limelight in the four Gospels, we have moments that are marked with opulence. Firstly, when Jesus is anointed for burial by a woman, she breaks a jar of expensive perfume and douses him in it. The disciples—the men—are furious at this woman’s decadence. What a waste! This could’ve been sold and given to the poor! When Jesus is dead, he is buried in a rich man’s tomb; the tomb made for Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin who had condemned him; a new tomb. The disciples—the men at least—have scattered, so there is no protest this time. Interestingly, both the anointing and the burial are part of a rather exclusive club of stories that are highlighted in all four Gospels; a point that Jesus seems to prophesy when he is anointed, saying “wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”

There are many things that are significant about Jesus’ burial. It is emphasized in 1 Corinthians 15 as part of the creedal formula—Christ died, was buried, was raised. It demonstrates the real, physical, bodily nature of his death and consequent resurrection. Its connection to a slightly awkward figure, Joseph of Arimathea of the council, is an argument for its historicity. The clear and consistent record of which tomb was Jesus’ is important when they find that tomb to be empty. However, other than acknowledging the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy “with a rich man in his death” (Isaiah 53:9), the opulence associated with Jesus’ burial is not often meditated on.

As I reflect on the human propensity to bury lavishly, I am struck by the way that Ecclesiastes 3:11 is true: “he has put eternity into man’s heart”. There is something engrained in the human psyche that hopes for resurrection. For ancient Egyptians, this hope in an afterlife was clear and explicit. Pharaohs were buried with great wealth so that they could take it with them. However, even for the most unreflective human, we are drawn to give gifts to the dead as if death does not have the final say. Even if we tell ourselves that there is no resurrection, we live and act as if there is. Resurrection is on our hearts. It is the hope of the human condition.

Let us turn our eyes back to Jesus’ burial. In a sense, there’s a deep juxtaposition. A luxurious memorial, soaked with royal perfume, but in its center is a corpse; a symbol of ultimate futility. However, it is two people—a woman, and Joseph of Arimathea—who express what other people cannot. Their hearts—if not their minds—are screaming that death would not have the final word for Jesus. His dead body must be soaked in opulence because his death is not the end of a story, but the beginning of a kingdom where the streets are made of gold.

So, as we abide this day in the darkness of the tomb, I invite you to look around at the costly tomb amid the meagre light and see that death will not have the final word. I invite you to sniff the perfume and smell that humanity’s hope for resurrection is not in vain.

I am a husband, a dad, and a campus minister. I am celebrating New Zealand’s recent Test Match victory over England in the cricket. I am available to explain cricket to anyone who asks, and any point of time.