I appreciate Jospeh of Arimathea because I think he’s maybe more like a lot of us. Looking for the right direction, looking for the faithful thing to do, but aware that clarity and heroic opportunity are rarely obvious. Our choices for action are rarely so simple.
As we journey through the summer, this series is intentionally exploring little known characters, or faces, in our Bible. Through art and reflection, we are asking if these little studied characters might offer insight for our walk of faith today.
Today’s character is Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph from the town of Arimathea. Matthew described him simply as a rich man and disciple of Jesus. According to Mark, Joseph (we’ll call him J of A) was “a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God”. Here in Luke, we read that J of A “had not consented to their decision and action”. In John, upon hearing of Jesus’ death, this “secret” disciple of Jesus “asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission.”
Furthermore, the gospels indicate Joseph immediately purchased a linen shroud and proceeded to Golgotha to take the body of Jesus down from the cross. There, according to John, Joseph and Nicodemus took the body and bound it in linen cloths with the spices that Nicodemus had bought. The disciples then conveyed the prepared corpse to a man-made cave hewn from rock in a garden of his house nearby. Matthew alone suggests that this was Joseph’s own tomb (Matthew 27:60). The burial was undertaken speedily, “for the Sabbath was drawing on”.
In some Christian traditions, Joseph is venerated as a saint. In other quarters, the question is asked, ‘did he do enough. The artist who drew the image in your bulletin poses these questions,
Is this act good enough?
He was on the council. He disagreed with the majority. Why could he not stop the crucifixion from happening in the first place?
Why did he fail to convince his fellow council members?
Is this good deed enough to make up for such a monumental failure?
The truth is most of us have not thought about him. We may remember him from Holy Week readings, but this is the only time he appears in the gospels. There is no indication how well, if at all, he knew Jesus. Clearly, he knew of Jesus and appeared to value him to some degree.
What I appreciate at first reading of these texts is that his story is nuanced, like most of life. His act of faithfulness seems real, but in the context of the whole crucifixion and resurrection story, his acts are more muddled. Is he to be hailed for a singular act in the face of a council that hastened Jesus’ death; or is he to be critiqued because he could have/should have done more to save Jesus? Is he to be acclaimed for faithfulness; or is this descriptor as a ‘secret disciple’ akin to being more of a ‘cowardly disciple?’
When I read of his actions, it feels a bit like the often spoken comment, ‘I have been, or will be, praying for you.’ Sometimes this is very comforting and empathetic. At other times, however, it’s less than helpful, especially when what is needed and demanded in the situation is something in addition to prayer. “I’m praying for you” is too often a substitute for more difficult and more costly actions of compassion.
I remember reading historical notes about the senior pastor of the church I served in Fresno who, during the early stages of the Japanese internment debacle in our country at the outbreak of WW2, was praised for being willing to go to the holding camps in north Fresno to bring lunches to the ‘inmates’ and to pray with detainees through the barbed wire fence. What wasn’t said, and what I don’t know, is if this same pastor ever raised objection to the whole policy of detainment in the first place? Was his act enough for a widely respected community leader, pastor of what was then the largest church in the city? I’m in no position to judge my predecessors actions, but history would suggest the bravery or integrity of his response is more nuanced.
So, I appreciate Jospeh because I think he’s maybe more like a lot of us. Looking for the right direction, looking for the faithful thing to do, but aware that clarity and heroic opportunity are rarely obvious. Our choices for action are rarely so simple. I can’t think of an area of life where this doesn’t come into play:
- Raising children – when does support means hanging in with them and when does it mean letting them go or letting them fail.
- Speaking up for our values in our family of origin – when is the tension of honesty worth it and when is the dread of silence is necessary. When do we gather because we’re family and when do we choose not to gather with those same folks even if they are family?
- Taking stands on social justice issues. I signed a petition to support Maria this week in her case against ICE, but is that enough? I give time and energy to some issues like immigration, racial reconciliation and lgbtq issues; but not others that I care about – such as the right to an abortion, the cruelty of the death penalty, the genocide in Sudan, or voter registration. Like you, I struggle to make choices and to know that I can’t choose everything.
- Choosing a career, or when and how to change careers/jobs- when is the company or institutional environment too toxic to stay and when is it a necessary aspect of getting anything done?
- Voting for elected officials – if the choices seem bad all the way around, does my vote matter? If I know that many under represented groups in this community think voting makes no difference for their lives anyway, can I truly say their vote will matter and improve their lives?
The decisions, or even the choices, can be muddled. The contexts are filled with complexity. Life is shaped by the inherent tensions of competing values, foggy realities and comprised choices.
I was recently had the privilege of working with a group of college interns and mentors in a faith based program to help develop leadership and a call to ministry among the young adults. At one point I asked the mentors – all people of faith with years of experience in ministry settings – to share how they ‘stayed in the game?” How do they stay engaged in their various important, creative and passionate ministry settings; even with imperfect institutions, continual setbacks, and their own human frailty? I heard a number of kernels of wisdom that speak to faith over the long haul, and faith within the complicated settings of life, family, and society.
A second career African American pastor talked about making the transition from being a detective in the Detroit police department to a pastor in a small, struggling, historically black church. The change exposed both his passion to support people in the faith and his vulnerability as a man with a limited set of skills and limited energy because of age. He spoke of humility – to know our limits, to accept our limits, and to be grace-filled with the limits of others – even in the face of enormous and pressing issues in the lives of both youth and adults in his community.
Evaluate our actions through the lens of faithfulness, not effectiveness.
Parker Palmer has written, “if we are to stand and act with hope …for the long haul, we cannot settle for mere “effectiveness” as the ultimate measure of our failure or success.
Yes, we want to be effective in pursuit of important goals. But when measurable, short-term outcomes become the only or primary standard for assessing our efforts… we take on smaller and smaller tasks—the only kind that yield instantly visible results—and abandon the large, impossible but vital jobs we are here to do.
We must judge ourselves by a higher standard than effectiveness, the standard called faithfulness.
- Are we faithful to the community on which we depend, to doing what we can in response to its pressing needs?
- Are we faithful to the better angels of our nature and to what they call forth from us?
- Are we faithful to the eternal conversation of the human race, to speaking and listening in a way that takes us closer to truth? Are we faithful to the call of courage that summons us to witness to the common good, even against great odds?
When faithfulness is our standard, we are more likely to sustain our engagement with tasks that will never end: doing justice, loving mercy, and calling the beloved community into being.” (Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy, Chapter VII, “The Unwritten History of the Heart”, p.192–193)
Remain teachable our whole lives:
When I was a young intern in seminary myself, the most useful affirmation my mentor gave me in my year- end evaluation was my ability, in his words, ‘to withhold judgment.’ He indicated that the willingness to remain open, and to reserve judgement and pre-determined opinions, was something that allows us to learn, and grow, and evolve.
Based on my observation of many seniors in this church, I’ve come to define wise elders as those who remain open and willing to learn, who approach generational and cultural change with the eye of a student. The value is on learning new things, not dismissing the change as the harbinger of all things evil.
Tammy and I had a good friend, and the godfather of our son Tallis, pass away relatively quickly this summer after a short battle with cancer. One of the qualities that drew us, and many others, to Richard over 30 years ago was his boldness.
- When offered a chance to work in DC in a historically black ministry, this California young adult, jumped. With humor, good questioning skills, and an amazing gift for playing the piano – he threw himself into ministry, and into the lives of everyone he met.
- When his journey as a gay man called him to come out, he did so with integrity and courage, even as he knew it would mean losing his job.
- Time and again, as he adopted a young black teenager and fought cancer and found a new career, Richard taught us the value of boldness in the long journey of life. He didn’t set out to ‘be bold.’ Rather, he faced one decision after another with the question, ‘what does my faith ask of me today?’
Be rooted in prayer
One of the first social justice advocates I met as a young adult was the then director of Habitat for Humanity Twin Cities. He was an older man who had spent a career serving others, living among the poor and building small non profit organizations as a self proclaimed Christian. When I asked him the same question I asked the mentors last week – how did he stay engaged and hopeful – he told me about his personal practice of praying for an hour a day. He was convinced that it was that practice that gave him perspective, compassion and grace. I have never had a practice like his, but I have always appreciated his challenge – stay rooted in prayer. Stay rooted in your own connection to the Holy. Never forget that the work you do is not ‘your’ work, but the work of the Spirit in you. That perspective and the challenge it offers remains as alive and important today as it did 30 years ago. In our effort to change the world or to save the world or to love the world – how do we remain connected in our walk to the Source of All Love?
Live for second chances
If we assume the worst about J of A, he failed to act and speak out in the hour of Jesus’ condemnation. He failed to speak sanity and truth against a council consumed with fear and an incoherent rage at this new message of Jesus’. But, even if we assume he could have done more and didn’t, his story did not end there. Just like Peter’s didn’t end with his denials. J of A lived for a second chance to do the right thing, to honor Jesus in death even if he failed to in life. His actions echo loudly through the centuries. We are not defined by one act, and we are certainly not defined by one failure. One missed opportunity. By definition, God’s grace is everlasting, and more importantly, ever present in this next decision, this next opportunity, or this next step on the journey.
If confession is needed, we confess and receive grace.
If courage is needed, we humble ourselves and ask for more courage.
If clarity is what we lack, we pray for patience to see clearly and wholly.
Grace, we are promised, is always there.
Joseph wasn’t the first, nor was he the last to be standing in what Parker Palmer calls the ‘tragic gap’ between what we know is possible and what is actually happening. This is true in our personal lives and our communities. He wasn’t the first to struggle with incomplete and fuzzy choices. Jospeh’s story, like ours, is nuanced and never ending. We give thanks that our story of faith took another step into a resurrection future because Joseph sought to be bold, faithful, and prayerful at last.
Might he, and all those in our lives like him, be an inspiration for us as we make a next right choice.