Between the empty tomb and the appearances of Jesus among the disciples, we have this short story between the chief priests and the guard who had witnessed the events that Sunday morning. This isn’t the first time these religious leaders have made an appearance during these last days of Jesus.
It was the chief priests who gave the thirty pieces of silver to Judas in order for him to betray his friend and teacher (Matthew 26:14-16). It was the chief priests who accused Jesus before Pilate (Matthew 27:12). It was the chief priests who convinced the crowd to call for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be executed (Matthew 27:20). At every turn, they flexed their influence and power at Jesus.
They knew about the foretelling of the resurrection because they knew the words of Jesus. That is why they went to Pilate for the guard to be placed at the tomb in the first place. They thought he had plans to have his body stolen by his followers so they could claim he had risen on the third day.
These religious leaders approached Pilate the day after Jesus’ death, during the Sabbath, to put guards in front of the tomb. The big stone had already been rolled in front of the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. But they wanted to make sure they could use every bit of their power and connection to keep Jesus in that grave. Of course, that wasn’t enough.
And now we come to our story in Matthew where the guards return to these religious leaders with an empty tomb and quite the story.
Last week, we read about the women at the tomb and their experience. But once the angel was gone, the earth was still, and the women were on their way, the guards were left an empty tomb with no easy explanation of what had happened. So instead of going to Pilate, and possibly getting into major trouble, a few of them, probably the leaders, went to the chief priests instead.
When the soldiers showed up, they told an amazing story. But the empty tomb was the only thing that worried the religious leaders. You would think it was because they didn’t believe a body could be raised from the dead, that somehow the followers of Jesus managed to steal his body from the grave. But they knew about Lazarus.
In fact, in John, it was the act of raising Lazarus that initiated the plot to kill Jesus. All the gospels talk about these leaders being concerned, even afraid, of the influence of Jesus over the people through his signs and parables (especially the parables directed towards them). They were afraid that Jesus’ influence would lead to the Romans taking away their temple and nation.
John also includes an interesting prophecy from Caiaphas, the high priest that year. According to this prophecy, Jesus was supposed to die for the Jewish nation. His death was supposed to bring together all the scattered children of God. And they used the words of this prophecy as the reason to kill Jesus.
But make no mistake, their motivation was not to fulfill a prophecy. Their motivation was power. They were used to things the way they were. They had been in control, and Jesus was disrupting that power. Even after death. So they hatched a plan. They bribe the soldiers with a large amount of money and promise to smooth things over with Pilate.
These leaders depended on their power, influence, wealth, even prophetic words to maintain their position in society. And it’s still happening today. This story encourages discernment in leadership. It warns leaders to hold loose the influence they have and trust in God. To hold onto the narrative based in humility and love and not in power and control, to not focus on numbers for security but on a God who provides no matter the circumstances.
We also need to be discerning about who we choose to follow. Do we follow chief priests who try to control the message with money and power, or do we follow Jesus, the one who can disrupt that power?
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