Unexpected love: Part 4

Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned to him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord.” And she told them that he had said these things to her. —John 20:10-18

Jesus turns the sorrow and confusion of Mary Magdalene into joy and hope.

Theodore J. Hartwig

Among the best known paintings of Jesus’ resurrection is the one of Mary Magdalene meeting with Jesus at the empty tomb. Mary Magdalene became a popular figure in the Middle Ages. In the gospel of Luke (8:2,3) she is described as having been freed from seven demons and as one of the women who supported Jesus “out of their own means.” Although it is not certain, many adopted the belief that Jesus had rescued her from a flagrantly sinful life. If she could be delivered from evil, then there was hope for even the worst sinners. So she became a popular subject in painting and sculpture. In recent years she again has become a popular subject of attention, this time in such profane productions as Jesus Christ Superstar, The Last Temptation of Jesus, and The Da Vinci Code.

Mary Magdalene was one of the women who stood near the cross during the last hours of Jesus’ life (Matthew 27:55,56). She was with the other women—including Mary the mother of James (the other Mary), Salome, and Joanna—who made their way to the tomb early on Easter morning with their spices to anoint the body of Jesus (Matthew 28:1; Mark 16:1-3; Luke 24:1,10).

These accounts of the resurrection include Mary, but John’s account features Mary prominently. The resurrection of Jesus was an astonishing event to the women and to the disciples of Jesus. The eyewitness accounts of that unusual morning reveal the shock and confusion that the Lord’s resurrection caused. We have to compare and combine all the gospel accounts to get the entire picture.


John puts Mary Magdalene at the tomb, but this is the second time she has been at the tomb on Easter morning. She had come with the other women when they found that the stone had been rolled away. She might have jumped to the conclusion that the body of Jesus had been stolen, quickly left the other women, and ran to tell Simon Peter and the other disciples: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” (John 20:2). Peter and John ran to the tomb to verify her news. Mary slowly followed them back to the tomb. It seems she arrived after Peter and John looked inside, saw the grave clothes, and left the tomb.

Mary stood outside the tomb crying. Still thinking the body of Jesus had been snatched during the night, she even took a look inside. She saw the place where the body of Jesus had been. There John tells us were two angels—one at the head and one at the foot where Jesus had been. They asked Mary why she was crying. Mary’s mind was so focused on one thing she couldn’t imagine anything else. She said, “They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they have put him” (v. 13). It was not a question but, for her, a statement of fact.

She turned away from the angels inside the tomb before they could offer any different explanation. Then she saw Jesus, but in her tears and anguish she did not recognize him. She assumed he was a gardener, perhaps employed by wealthy Joseph of Arimathea. After all, it was in his new and unused tomb they had laid the dead body of Jesus three days earlier (Matthew 27:57-61). She pleaded, “Tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” A gardener of Joseph might know.

One word from Jesus broke through the fog of her despair: “Mary.” John makes it clear that Jesus said her name the way it was pronounced in their mother tongue (Aramaic)—Miriam. This no doubt had a familiar, informal ring to it. It was the way family and friends would address her. In our setting today, it would be like saying “Annie” instead of “Ann.” His “Miriam” led to immediate recognition from Mary.

Joy. Surprise. Relief. All these things suddenly changed her attitude. She recognized her teacher, Lord, and Savior: “Rabboni.” As John explains in the text, Rabboni is the word for teacher in the Aramaic language—an informal term of respect instead of the more formal Rabbi, my dear teacher.

By trying to clasp Jesus’ knees, Mary assumed that the old teacher-disciple companionship had been restored. But Jesus directed her thought to a different relationship by saying, “Do not hold on to me.” This is one of two key expressions in this story. Jesus is telling Mary that the temporal relationship of the past will be exchanged for a more intimate spiritual relationship in the future. With this new spiritual union Mary would no longer take hold of Jesus outwardly with her hands. Far better, he would be grasped inwardly by faith. He would live in Mary and she in him.


In the other significant expression of the story, Jesus gave Mary a message to bring to his disciples. Peter and John had been at the empty tomb before Mary arrived, but, in another example of God’s choosing the unexpected, a woman would be one of the first heralds of the resurrection.

In Mary’s message to the disciples, Jesus called them “my brothers.” Thereby he assured them that the old teacher-pupil relationship had been replaced by a new more closely-knit brother relationship. They had sat for three years at the feet of the Master Teacher. But now they would be personal witnesses of his resurrected body. They would receive the fullness of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. The years of their preparation were finished. As Jesus’ brothers they would be fully qualified to serve as the foundation of the New Testament church, “with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:20). All of this is embraced in the new name of brothers which Jesus gave his disciples. And as beneficiaries of this new relationship, they were assured that their Lord and Master would always be with them in their exalted ministry, even to the end of the world.

Theodore Hartwig, professor emeritus at Martin Luther College, New Ulm, Minnesota, is a member at St. John, New Ulm.

This is the final article in a four-part series on the gems of John.



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Author: Theodore J. Hartwig
Volume 103, Number 4
Issue: April 2016

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