From the Gospel according to Matthew:
After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So they took the money and did as they were directed.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 28:12-15 (NRSV) – April 23, 2014.)
Twice in Easter week this story of the Jewish Temple authorities bribing the Roman soldiers to get them to say the followers of Jesus had stolen Jesus’ body is found in the lectionary. It is here in the Prayer Book’s Daily Office readings today; on Monday, it was the Eucharistic lectionary’s gospel lesson.
Surprisingly, it is not a very well known part of the Easter story — or perhaps it’s not so surprising since in none of the three-year cycle of Sunday readings does it occur, and for most people their familiarity with the biblical text starts and stops with what they hear in church.
In any event, it came up on Monday and, as a result, it was something our vestry wrestled with during the time of our regular meeting when we work on spiritual formation.
So . . . thinking about it since Monday evening, I find myself sympathizing with the priests. They have to have been beside themselves with worry. They could just see this whole situation blowing up. Although they didn’t know that something like it would eventually happen 40 years or so later anyway, but they knew that if this story of a risen messiah gained too much credence the people might revolt, the Romans would take action, and their reasonably stable religious institution would be endangered. What they were doing was taking leadership action to prevent a disaster. It wasn’t the best action they could have taken; it certainly had some rather negative moral and ethical implications. But what leadership action is ever unmixed? What leadership action is ever (as one of my law school professors was fond of saying) “pure as the driven slush”? Indeed, what human action is ever thus?
Putting myself into their shoes, what would I have done? I’d like to think that I would have recognized the holiness of what had happened. I’d like to think that I would have realized that, had I not done so earlier, that Jesus was the Anointed One. I’d like to think that I’d have gotten it right. But I suspect I would have agreed with the other priests and elders, would have tried to contain the situation, and would have bribed the soldiers to keep things quiet. I suspect I would have tried to maintain the status quo.
That’s what religious leadership tends to do.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.