The tale here is a particularly ugly one today, but stay with it. It’s the Gospel for Easter Monday.
One figures that the back-story is something like this. First, the Christian proclamation involved an empty tomb. There are two explanations immediately available for why the tomb was found to be empty. As Christians say, Jesus rose from the dead. Or, alternatively, the body was taken away from the tomb. We see the latter thought in John 20:11-15 where Mary Magdalene sees the tomb empty, but assumes that the body has been stolen.
Unlike Luke and John, Mark makes mention that the stone in front of the tomb was quite heavy. And Matthew amplifies this in two ways, to short-circuit the “stolen body” explanation. One supposes that some people around in the days of the early church agreed that the tomb was empty, but claimed that this was no proof of resurrection, but only that the body has been stolen.
So Matthew places this concern back when Jesus is buried, and has the only discussion of this point. He presents the Pharisees coming to Pilate and saying that the tomb must be made secure, and Pilate grants them a guard of soldiers to make the tomb secure. (Matthew 27:62-66). Then, after Sunday, the priests and elders bribe the guards to lie and say that the body has been stolen. And indeed, Matthew’s claim that this story is “still told among the Jews to this day” is borne out, with many ancient Jewish commentators giving the stolen body explanation as the correct explanation for the empty tomb.
Note that Matthew does not say that those who were repeating the story “to this day” were in on the fraud. The villains are those who are perpetrating the fraud, and not those who have been deceived by it. Nothing here licenses anti-semitism or anything of the sort.
But two oddities are present here, and they are also quite unique to Matthew. Note that the leaders who are committing the fraud know the tomb is empty and know that the body has not been stolen. We see a similar situation in Matthew’s account of the ascension (Matthew 28:16-20) where we are told: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”
It is this possibility which Matthew is highlighting, and what is most distinctive about Matthew’s description of the resurrection appearances. In Luke, the risen Jesus is recognized together with recognizing him as Lord and trusting him in faith. In John, the same is true. In Mark, we don’t even get a resurrection appearance at all. This is not to say that these others are wrong, merely that the other evangelists each have their own distinct and quite important things to say about the risen Jesus.
What Matthew says, quite singularly, is that it is possible to know that Jesus has been raised, to see him, to be present, to have all the right experiences, and still to be an unbeliever, to be without faith. Whether it’s the dishonest leaders who are perpetrating the fraud in today’s gospel, or those on the mountain who doubted at his ascension, Matthew wants us to know that there is something more than just an intellectual assent, or a particular experience, which is crucial.
What is this something more? It is the decision to worship, to trust, to believe.
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