Joseph of Arimathea, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is described by Matthew only as a rich man, and identified by Mark and Luke as a member of the Sanhedrin. John, who agreed with Matthew’s description of Joseph as a disciple of Jesus, adds that he kept that discipleship secret out of fear. Today’s events, in the passion of Our Lord, do not lend themselves very well to secret discipleship. Joseph, in taking responsibility for burying Jesus, could no longer keep it secret. His assumption of that responsibility represented the resolve to make the commitment public. Somewhere in the course of his mind he finally penetrated the thought that he who is not with me is against me. Joseph’s wealth was indicated by his ownership of a grave near Jerusalem. Jesus’ burial in that grave fulfilled yet another line of prophecy:
I will appoint evil men for His burial and rich men for His death, because he committed no lawlessness, nor was deceit found in His mouth. (Isaiah 53:9)
Jesus was laid in this grave that Joseph had prepared for himself. Witnesses, the holy women, saw exactly where he was buried, thus testifying that there could be no confusion about the tombs, whether they have the right tomb on Sunday morning. Matthew demonstrates an apologetic interest in dismissing claims that the empty tomb was not the tomb in which Jesus was buried. That’s an under riding preoccupation in that solemn Gospel. Matthew alone tells the story of the elaborate security provided by the Jewish leaders to guarantee that the body of Jesus would not be stolen. This account must be completed by a later one which will be the third eiothonion. Those same enemies insist that the body of Jesus was stolen in spite of their precautions that it should not be stolen. We’ll be getting that Gospel next week. Matthew’s interest here likewise is apologetic.
These leaders come to Pilate and they ask for security, a guard to be posted. Pilate’s answer to them makes no attempt to disguise his impatience and scorn. I have taken the liberty of translating this directly from the Greek because all the English translations I’ve seen so far are a little too polite. Here’s what Pilate actually says to them: “You have a guard. Now get out of here and guard the tomb. You know how.” It is much more that kind of an answer—with contempt and scorn. Matthew’s style here is freighted with irony quoting their fear that the last fraud will be worst than the first. Matthew is doing a little twisting here. He identifies those who made the fraud as Jesus’ enemy. The whole thing has been deception. The entire process has been utter, utter fraud. Matthew says, yes, the last fraud would way outdo the other. This ruse of theirs will truly be worse than all of their earlier efforts.
Now Matthew records all this material, of course, looking back through the lens of what finally transpired. There is a tremendous symbolism in Jesus being buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. The two tombs you’ll notice in tonight’s reading are the potter’s field tomb, purchased with the money that Judas Iscariot provided—the blood money, and then the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Both of these come into mention tonight at the beginning and the end of the Gospel. Matthew has all this in mind as well (Matthew 27). It is Matthew, only Matthew, who puts those two tombs in his passion scene, the only one that does it.
Where are we laid when we die? We are laid in the potter’s field, which is a place to bury strangers. When I was a boy, I remember my father and especially my grandfather, both of whom seemed very distressed at the way I was turning out (by age three). They told me if I continued on the path which I seemed to have chosen for myself, I would amount to nothing and would eventually be buried in a potter’s tomb. That’s sounds pretty bad, but I didn’t know what it meant. Years later I read the Gospel of Matthew. Oh, that’s how it turns out. Oh, no, I don’t want that.
You see that is the tomb, that’s the graveyard purchased by the blood of Christ. There’s a sense in which all of us are going to be buried in a potter’s tomb. He owns the land. What’s the last thing we say, the very last thing we say when we put an Orthodox Christian in the grave? What’s the very last verse that we say right before we walk away?
The earth is the Lord’s, and it’s fullness,
The world and all who dwell therein. (Psalm 23:1)
He is being put in property that Christ Himself owns. The day will come, and it certainly will, when He is going to show up again and issue eviction notices on everybody, because it all belongs to Him. When Joseph of Arimathea came finally to die, in southern England according to some, there’s one thing I’m quite sure of. He was not afraid to die. He had already seen what little power a tomb has, what little claim it can make against the landlord. And we would leave here this day with the same conviction: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs, bestowing life. (Paschal Troparion)