Picture this scenario. There’s something you don’t want to believe. You can’t accept that what someone is trying to tell you is true. Maybe it’s about you. Maybe it’s about someone else. Maybe it’s even bigger than that.
And then something happens: you’re confronted with the truth, in nearly undeniable, in-your-face terms. Now would you believe? Or would you turn away? Distract yourself from thinking about it? Close your eyes and wish it all away?
Or would you even go so far as to cover it up?
The soldiers who had been assigned to guard the tomb were in deep trouble, and they knew it. The tomb was empty, and Jesus was gone. They had failed in their duty, and there would be severe consequences. Someone needed to go into the city and report this to the chief priests. Keeping silent wasn’t an option: sooner or later news of the empty tomb would get around, and their failure would be amplified.
What, then, should they say? They could lie or make excuses. But what lie would get them off the hook? What would make the chief priests say, “Well, lads, it couldn’t be helped–don’t worry about it”? There was nothing to do but tell the truth.
Matthew says they told the chief priests everything (28:11). Presumably, they mentioned at least the earthquake, the angel, and the empty tomb. We don’t know whether they had actually seen the risen Jesus, but these three things must have made a fantastic enough story. The chief priests would surely have realized that the soldiers had nothing to gain by making up such cockamamie nonsense.
Matthew doesn’t give us their immediate thoughts. All we know is that they immediately went into full damage-control mode. They met with the elders and came up with a plan: bribe the soldiers to say instead that the disciples had come while they were asleep and stolen the body. (Ironically, of course, this is precisely the false rumor the soldiers had been posted to prevent.) It was a flimsy enough tale. Would anyone really believe that all the soldiers fell asleep, knowing the consequences? Or that if they had, a group of disciples could tiptoe in and roll away the stone while they drifted obliviously in la-la land?
The chief priests, however, seemed to hope that the story would never get to Pilate, or that they would be able to pacify him if it did (Matt 28:14). After all, posting the guard was their concern, not his. They made up the best story they could, crossed their fingers, and kicked the can down the road.
The soldiers, naturally, took the bribe. We might imagine they did so happily: they not only dodged the inevitable punishment, but pocketed a nice wad of cash. And this, Matthew suggests, is the origin of the “Jesus died but the disciples stole the body” story that was still circulating decades later when the gospel was written, even though no stolen body had ever been produced.
In a recent post, we considered the shortsightedness of sealing the stone “door” of Jesus’ tomb, the implied arrogance of never considering even the possibility that God would do as Jesus said. Here, after the fact, the story cuts even more deeply, for Matthew implies that the chief priests believed the soldiers’ report. Earthquake. Angel. Empty tomb. But their response was not, “Lord, I believe.” It was, “Good lord, this is going to be a problem for us. We’d better come up with a plan.”
Then again, Jesus had already denounced many who had seen more than enough of the miraculous and still refused to repent (Matt 11:20-24). Jesus had even raised a man from the dead, and all the Jewish ruling council could think about was what they stood to lose by Jesus’ growing popularity (John 11:45-48).
Takeaway # 1: there is no argument so airtight, no miracle so stupendous, that it will compel faith in those who refuse to believe.
Takeaway # 2: we should always be leery of reading the story in such a way that there are good guys and bad guys, us and them. The humanity of the chief priests is our humanity. Their reaction could well be our reaction, if not for the gift of faith and of the Holy Spirit. We are all perfectly capable of being truth-denying, sweep-it-under-the-rug wishful thinkers.
It’s Easter itself that makes a different life possible, making it doubly tragic to not believe.