For a family there is no good time for a funeral. It’s Holy Week and we buried one of our parishioners today. Being part of the bereavement team I have some interaction with families during the time they are preparing to say goodbye to someone they love dearly. We have a group in the parish call the Arimatheans. They attend funerals to represent the parish, send cards and often prepare and serve luncheons in the parish hall for the families. It’s a much needed ministry since the parish is getting on in years and we’ve been burying our parents.
Joseph of Arimathea, the one for whom the ministry was named, is such an interesting character in the drama of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. He was a member of the Sanhedrin and is described as “a secret disciple for fear of the Jews.” He is mentioned in all four gospels a a rich man who was looking for the Kingdom. After Jesus had been declared dead he went to Pilate to ask him to release the body and Pilate agrees.
From what I’ve read about Pilate, he was not at all a nice person. He’s portrayed in movies as a conflicted, tortured soul who desperately wants to get out of the predicament he’s in and suspects that there’s something special about Jesus so that he should save him from the crowd. In the movies Pilate realizes that the crowd will turn violent if he doesn’t give in, so he washes his hands publicly, thinking that this will get him out of being known for all time as the man who sent Jesus to his death. Yet, in fact, he was known to be so ruthless and violent that even the Romans felt he was over the top in his crackdown of those he conquered. He hated Jerusalem, the Jews, and wanted no problems while he was there. Why would he even give Joseph the time of day for an audience? For that matter, why would Joseph, a member of the Council, be found in the palace of a non-Jew? Pilate often left the bodies of the crucified hang for days to make sure that people got the point that it wasn’t a good idea to upset the machine, yet he allowed this body to be taken down right away.
It would seem that in a place like Jerusalem someone as rich and influential as Joseph would draw attention when he was out and about, especially when he was doing something out of the ordinary. I can’t imagine that his whereabouts would go unnoticed, especially at a time of skulduggery such as Good Friday. After all, the Pharisees spent a lot of time on their plan to get rid of Jesus, whipping up the mock trial, finding and coaching the “witnesses,” and making sure that everyone was on board with their demand for Barabbas. They had gone to Pilate’s palace to get him to see things their way, which must have been especially distasteful to them. Didn’t they even suspect that Joseph wasn’t exactly in lock-step with the group? Even if they didn’t have their suspicions about him of being a disciple they would surely have figured it out by observing his movements after the crucifixion. They were so worried about what was going to happen afterwards that they had a guard placed at the tomb, so it’s obvious that they knew where the tomb was. It was the tomb of a rich man, hewn out of rock. It couldn’t have added up that this poor dead criminal would be placed in it.
Why would Joseph have given Jesus his own tomb? It must have cost a lot to have it done by stone carvers. Why did he need it? Perhaps he was sick, or getting up in years or maybe it was the custom to have your own tomb done so that it’s ready for you just in case. Did Joseph fear that the Pharisees would turn on him, or did Joseph already know that it would be needed by Jesus? Was he privy to the plot to have Jesus killed far enough in advance that he could have it done in time, or was Joseph divinely inspired to have his tomb prepared? Did he know that it wouldn’t be needed for long?
Jesus’ burial was a rush job. It had to be done before the Sabbath and the body was covered in blood, which would have defiled the people who touched it, so they left him in the tomb, rolled the stone in front of the opening and left. Joseph isn’t heard from again. Yet, if you look around, you’ll see Joseph still with us in the form of all those who boldly, yet quietly, do the things that need to be done to help someone in need. All those souls who would give you the shirts off their backs, or their new tombs.