August 1, 2018 - Joseph of Arimathaea
It is easy to think about doing the right thing, but it's a lot harder to speak up about it. Saying something is hard, but taking action in the face of criticism requires another order of bravery. We rarely remember people who thought good things in dark times, but we memorialize those whose words and actions represented a stand for justice in the face of criticism and violence. In the Christian tradition, we believe that all people who have been transformed by God's grace in Jesus Christ are "saints" or "holy ones," which is to say that we believe that it is God who makes us holy. The brave things that saints do are not what make them saints but characteristics of their sainthood, which is itself a gift of God. All saints are filled with the Holy Spirit and empowered by God to take such a stand for righteousness, but we identify particular saints, like Joseph of Arimathaea, whose life and witness remind us that, with God's help, we, too, have been equipped to take such a stand.
Luke recalls for us that Joseph was "a member of the council [but] had not agreed to their plan and action." That council, of course, was the council that had condemned Jesus, and Luke wants us to know that Joseph had not agreed with their decision. In and of itself, that is noble, but not casting a vote against Jesus is not the same thing as speaking out against the plan to crucify him. Whether on the playground or in the courthouse or on the campaign trail, when the crowd turns against someone, it is a lot harder to advocate against the popular opinion than it is to keep silent about it. And that's why Joseph's later actions are so remarkable.
We primarily remember Joseph of Arimathaea because he was the one who took Jesus' lifeless body, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in his own tomb for burial. That was a tender moment, a gesture of love and compassion. We are touched by the care with which Joseph tended to Jesus' corpse, and we admire one who would give up his own tomb for the sake of another. But there is more to this act of kindness. It was not only a thoughtful gesture but a bold stand.
In the Jewish tradition, a dead body was something that was ritually unclean, and anyone who came into contact with it was, likewise, rendered unclean. The act of preparing a body for burial was usually reserved for the immediate family of the departed. But no one from Jesus' family showed up to help out. His disciples ran away because they feared that they might be next. Joseph was not worried about that custom. He knew that someone needed to care for Jesus' body, and he offered himself--a rich and powerful man who would take on that humble duty as if he were Jesus' brother.
Also, bodies were usually left to hang on the cross until their flesh had been completely scavenged by vultures and other animals and birds of prey. To deny a person a proper burial was thought of as a way to shame them further, punishing them and their loved-ones as the spirit of the condemned would never find its rest. The Roman Empire left those who were condemned for treason and insurrection on the cross for weeks as a reminder to the other Jewish would-be rebels that the power of Rome would crush them. But Joseph had influence. He did not want the body of Jesus to be left on the cross, and he was willing to speak to Pilate and ask the Roman governor to make an exception. It is hard to imagine anyone having influence over the Roman authority, but Joseph said and did what was necessary to convince him to allow Jesus a dignified burial. It was the sort of request that only someone who was willing to be identified publicly with the executed criminal and his movement would make. That Joseph offered his own tomb only seems natural after risking so much to care for the rabbi whom he loved.
Joseph may not have said anything when the council condemned Jesus, or maybe he did; we don't know. But we do know that, after Jesus' death, Joseph risked everything--ritual impurity, cultural shame, political position, criminal prosecution, possible execution--to care for Jesus. Joseph believed that Jesus deserved to be treated with dignity. Joseph recognized in the condemned and executed prisoner the kind of humanity that Jesus himself had seen in the outcasts of his day. Joseph was not willing to ignore that humanity and dignity, and, even though it might cost him dearly, he took a stand for it. That is a testament to the love of God living within and through Joseph of Arimathaea.
You, too, have that same love living inside of you. We have been made holy by God. We are God's saints. Our value as individuals comes not from those in society who judge our words or actions but from the one who creates us and loves us and redeems us. Remember the story of Jospeh of Arimathaea. He risked everything because, in Jesus, he recognized that no one can stand in the way of God's love. You, too, have the power to take a stand for justice and risk everything for the sake of human dignity. It is a power that God has given you as one of God's saints.