The Rashomon Effect (and does it matter?)

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have spent many Sundays since late 2017 immersed in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark. On Maundy Thursday (April 18, 2019), we looked at one of the few members of the community to be named in each of the four Gospels: Joseph of Arimathea.  Who was this man, what did he do, and why did it matter?  The Gospel text was Mark 15:42-47.  We also listened to selected verses from Hebrews 9

To hear this sermon as preached in worship please use the media player below:

One of the best things that has happened to me in the past year or so is the “slow reading” of Mark’s Gospel that this sermon series has allowed. I find that especially true during this season, where we’ve had the privilege of notrushing through the last 100 verses of the story in just a sermon or two.

As I read and re-read the passage at hand this evening, I recalled a couple of films with which you may be familiar: Courage Under Firewith Denzel Washington and Vantage Pointwith Dennis Quaid and Forrest Whitaker. Each of these films employs a device called the Rashomon Effect – this is a way of storytelling wherein we see the same events through different lenses.  In Vantage Point, for instance, there is an attempted assassination of the President, but just when we think that we know everything, we see the same occurrence from a different, well, vantage point.  And each different perspective adds to our understanding of what really happened in the plot line.

Joseph of Arimathea stained glass window in The Church of St. John the Baptist, Glastonbury, England

In fact, there are some folk who would say that the presence of four Gospels is itself a demonstration of the Rashomon Effect, as each author is selective about what to include, and therefore what to exclude, in the narratives about Jesus.  One character that shows up in each of the four Gospels, however, is this man called Joseph from Arimathea.

As I read the text slowly this week, I began to jump to different conclusions as to who Joseph might have been, and why it’s important to remember his presence.  Although Matthew, Luke, John, and Mark all note that he was there – each of them only mentions him on the day of Jesus’ death, and he doesn’t show up anywhere else. Who was he, and what is his function in the story?

Each of the gospel writers implies that he was some sort of a disciple.  Yet he was not a public disciple in the way that Peter, James and John were.  He was a secret follower – he lived in fear of his relationship with Jesus making the rest of his life more difficult (or in fear of the rest of his life making life more difficult for the disciples).  Mark tells us that he was a prominent member of the council.  If you’ve been paying attention the past few weeks, you’ll recall that there were precious few people in that group who might have aligned themselves with the Lord.

Does the Gospel include this story because we are to believe that Joseph’s secret fascination with Jesus was an example of “too little, too late”? I can’t believe that Mark’s original readers would have been impressed with a man of power and privilege who sought to keep his affiliation with Jesus a secret.  These were people living in Rome who were experiencing persecution for having identified themselves as Christ-followers, and apparently Joseph of Arimathea was a leading member of the body who condemned Jesus to death. According to Mark himself, Joseph said nothing at Jesus’ trial (14:64 reads, “and they allcondemned him…”).  If that’s the case, then isn’t he worse than Peter, who simply denied knowing him?  Or maybe even worse than Judas, who simply told the authorities where Jesus might be found?

But there’s another way to look at this.  Joseph was, evidently, a wealthy man.  Maybe he was a member of the council who had a heart that matched his bank account. Sure, he had been a part of the body that ultimately executed Jesus, but he felt so badly about it that in order to assuage his guilt for his participation in this enterprise, he bankrolled the entire burial expense – thus ensuring that Jesus would not meet the fate of so many common criminals and have his body lay exposed to the elements. Joseph regretted his action with the Council, and as a way of making up for that, he sought to at least do right by Jesus after death.  Did Mark include him as a means of demonstrating that stewardship is important and it’s never too late to get on the right side of history?

Joseph of Arimathaea Seeks Pilate to Beg Permission to Remove the Body of Jesus, James Tissot (between 1886-1894)

There are some who have argued that neither of these is the case, and in fact that Joseph is worthy of admiration because even after all of the original disciples run away, Joseph himself is the only person who actually actslike a disciple.  In chapter 6, Mark narrated the death of John the Baptist, and went out of his way to tell us that although John, too, was killed as an enemy of the state, John’sdisciples had the courage to go and get his body and give it a proper burial.  Maybe Joseph is included in this story to show Mark’s readers how a realdisciple acts.

In the past few chapters, Mark has shown us that the number of true friends that Jesus has appears to be in decline.  When he’s giving away lunch on the mountain top there are 5000+ willing followers; later at a Bible Study, only 72 show up.  There was a throng at Palm Sunday, but the number had dropped significantly by the time dinner on Thursday rolled around.  Later that same evening, they “all” fled, so that on Friday all we’ve got left is a group of women hanging around within earshot of the cross.  And yet Joseph emerges as the hero of this scene and actslike a true follower would act.

In fact, there are some critics of the New Testament who insist that Joseph is a little too perfectto be a real person.  The fact that he doesn’t show up in any other places of the Gospel, combined with the inability of any biblical scholar to point to a town called “Arimathea” on a map, added to the fact that the word “Arimathea” can be loosely translated as “ari” = “best” and “mathea” = “disciple-town” has led a few people to believe that Mark made up this character specifically to show his community what truedisciples do.

There’s one more angle, though: Frederick Buechner suggests that while Joseph of Arimathea might have been a nice and even generous man, his vision was limited and he is therefore remembered as the one person who apparently cared more for the dead Jesus than the living Christ.  Buechner writes, “It is important to give Joseph of his due for his mortuary solicitude, but at the same time it is hard not to see him as the first of many Christians who spend so much time stewing about the blood of the lamb that they lose sight of the fact that the lamb has long since gone on to greener pastures where he’s kicking up his heels in the sunshine and calling to others to come join the dance.”[1]

So there you have it.  What’s your take on this? Was Joseph of Arimathea a secret, and therefore a worthless follower of Jesus? One whose cowardice during Jesus’ trial could not be overcome by the donation of a prime cemetery plot after the inevitable outcome of that trial?  Or was he a wealthy benefactor who sought to cushion the blow to Jesus’ family and friends, and whose largesse was worthy of imitation in the centuries that followed?

Maybe you hold fast to the notion of Joseph as being bold, courageous, and a disciple’s disciple, doing that for Jesus which not a single other follower would do.  And, as I mentioned, it’s possible to maintain that he was an eminently sensible man who was just trying to put this whole affair to rest as quickly and as quietly as possible – as if he said, “Let’s just get this funeral over with so that life can get back to normal around here…”

St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury with the Holy Grail and the Staff that Flowered, by the hand of a Monk of the Brotherhood of St. Seraphim of Sarov.

The Rashomon Effect suggests that there are multiple layers of interpretation of Joseph’s character, and each interpretation carries with it a moral lesson of something to embrace or to avoid. Perhaps you know that the Christian Tradition has fallen in love with the character of Joseph of Arimathea. Some have said that he was there to hold the chalice used at the Last Supper to catch some of the blood of the Christ, and thereby giving rise to the legend of the Holy Grail; some say that in AD 63 he went on a missionary trip to England and became known as Joseph of Glastonbury.  I think all that proves is that the church has always been in love with celebrities and rich, beautiful people.

And yet no matter where you think Joseph’s heart was, and what you think his motivation was, there is one incontrovertible fact in these few verses. More than anyone else, Joseph of Arimathea is the one responsible for ensuring that Jesus of Nazareth was provided with a death certificate.  Now Jesus’s family didn’t need one of those for the insurance company or the Social Security folks, but we have come to rely on Joseph’s assurance that Jesus was, in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, “crucified, dead, and buried.”

It is noteworthy that a man described as a prominent member of the Sanhedrin took it upon himself to march into Pilate’s office and request that the Roman Military attest to Jesus’ death.  This is seemingly unimpeachable evidence: a member of the Jewish Council, the Roman Procurate, and an officer of the army of the occupation are all convinced that on this day we have come to call Good Friday, the life was drained from Jesus’ veins.

Cristo con José de Arimatea, Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (1525)

Jesus was dead.  He wasn’t pretending to be dead.  They weren’t afraid he was going to die.  It didn’t seem as if he might be dead.  He was dead.  Whether this was Joseph’s aim or not I cannot know; but these six verses in the Gospel of Mark are enough to convince me that whatever happened next was the thing that happened after the worst thing possible.

To put it another way: Joseph of Arimathea, and Pilate, and the Centurion all appeared to think that Mark 15 was the end of the story. The only two friends that Jesus had left, apparently, Mary and Mary, must’ve thought so too.  They came to make sure that things were done right.

The fact – not the appearance, but the factof Jesus’ death would appear to preclude anything of interest or hope in Mark 16.

And yet, beloved, there is a Mark 16.  That is a story for another day, and I hope you’ll be here to hear it.  For tonight, I just want to remind you of this, my friends: You have all stood at the grave.  You have all watched as the one you loved entered into that dark place.  You have each gone home and wondered, “Well, what in the heck am I supposed to do now?”  You have each come into a situation where you thought that all was lost.  Like Joseph, you have done what you thought might have been impossible and rolled that giant stone in place in an attempt to seal yourself off from the death that you thought might consume you.

Like Joseph, like you, and like me, Jesus was present at funerals. And yet he went, not as a mourner, but as the corpse. Make no mistake: Joseph, along with Mary and Mary, are here to point to the exact spot where Jesus’ corpse was laid.  The daylight flees, and the few friends that Jesus has left melt into the darkness, convinced that sin and death have won the day.

I have often been close to knowing how that feels, and I know that you have too.  In our zeal to get to all things Easter, let us not rush through this Good Friday and the day that follows it.  Let us hold on to the sure and certain knowledge that as Jesus was, so shall we be.  And let us remember that when we get to Sunday as well, for as he became, so shall we also become.  Thanks be to God for the gifts of hope and life.  Amen.

[1]Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 79-80.

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