A Rich, Humble, and Potentially Misunderstood Easter Model
The numerous first Easter weekend accounts in the New Testament have some well-known participants, starting with Jesus appearing to many outside of the known tomb. Additionally, one or more angels comforted his frightened followers by telling them not to be afraid.
Prominently, certain brave women ventured to his tomb on Easter Sunday out of respect to "anoint him" and complete customary burial rites (Mark 16:1).
According to the Gospel of Matthew's Good Friday account, “[m]any women," including those who risked approaching the tomb, "had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him" (Matthew 27:55).
What a powerful expression of Jesus' inclusiveness. In that archaic male-centric time, Jesus had women followers and friends. Further, although Jesus focused most attention on the poor and other outcasts and encouraged his followers to prioritize their needs, he also had some rich acquaintances and apparent friends. A prominent example from the Gospel of John is Nicodemus, a Jewish leader who visited Rabbi Jesus at night with questions and for counsel (John 3:1-16).
Later, Nicodemus both opposed other leaders on behalf of Jesus (John 7:50-51) and participated in reverently following Jewish burial customs for Jesus after he died (John 19:39-40). Joseph of Arimathea partnered with Nicodemus, bravely going to Pilate so that these two rich and prominent men could respect and honor their friend Jesus in this traditional manner.
Let's focus attention on Joseph of Arimathea. All four New Testament Gospels include him in the Easter weekend accounts. Mark tells us he was "a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God" (Mark 15:43).
Matthew adds that he was a "rich man...who was also a disciple of Jesus" (Matthew 27:57). Luke adds that Joseph "was a good and righteous man ... who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action" related to Jesus dying on the cross (Luke 23:50-51).
Finally, John says Joseph "was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews" (John 19:38). More accurately, Joseph's "fear" was of certain Jews in positions of power who opposed Jesus because Joseph, Nicodemus, Jesus, and the initial followers of Jesus were all Jewish.
I think Joseph is mischaracterized in certain circles. I have heard some criticize and denounce Joseph for being a "secret" follower as if he was ashamed or somehow fell short of being an actual early Jewish Christian.
I have a different perspective of Joseph, which is one of respect and a potential role-model. In other words, I think we can look at Joseph differently and understand him as a profound example of an authentic follower and person of faith.
We know that all four New Testament Gospel writers knew about Joseph. They spoke highly of him. Joseph was a disciple of Jesus and lived a good and righteous life. He bravely opposed other powerful council leaders who oppressed the poor and others Jesus routinely associated with and tried to help. He also courageously went to Pilate, the powerful Roman governor of Judea, risking his life to follow Jewish custom and honor Jesus in his death.
The bottom line for me is that Joseph was both a fine Jewish and Christian person.
So what do we do with the "secret" aspect of Joseph's discipleship? Perhaps we should understand that he sincerely endeavored to live his faith as a Jewish man in that time and who followed the teachings and example of Jesus the rabbi.
He might also have been protecting his family as well as his ability to potentially help Jesus as a member of the Jewish council during a crisis.
Further, as something we can identify with today, maybe Joseph did not feel the need to always be name dropping "God" or "Jesus" like an advertisement to call attention to himself. Instead, he simply lived a good, active and faith-observant life.
So, what can Joseph of Arimathea teach Christians and anyone else pursuing an ethically rewarding life this Easter or in any other season?
As Paul says in his letter to the Colossians, God's chosen ones are those who live with "compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience," with "love" being the most important priority (Colossians 3:12 and 3:14).
Walt Shelton is a part-time Professor at Baylor Law School and an environmental attorney in Austin. He leads discussion groups in association with The Church at Highland Park in Austin and often speaks to other groups on faith and life quality topics. His book, “The Daily Practice of Life: Practical Reflections Toward Meaningful Living,” will be published in the fall.