Reading the Bible is a tricky business.

It is a big book, full of bewildering imagery, profound teaching, and often obscure cultural references and allusions. It is easy to get lost along the way. It is tempting at times in this dense forest to become fixated on a particular tree or to wander off down a small side path through the bush losing sight of the grand main theme that lights the way ahead.

The final five verses of Matthew 28, offer a good example of how easy it is to lose sight of important signposts along the way as we journey through a passage of the Bible. We are all inheritors of past interpretations which make it difficult to come fresh to any portion of this sacred text.

In the final verses of his Gospel, Matthew reports that

16Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (Matthew 28:16-20)

In many English translations, these five verses are summed up with the title “The Great Commission” focusing the reader’s attention exclusively on verse 19. Verse 19 may be an important instruction left by Jesus for his followers, even if it is frequently misunderstood (cf. https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/discipling-matthew-2816-20/) But to think that verse 19 is all, or even primarily, what this passage is about, is to miss an extraordinarily poignant and touching part of the picture Matthew offers here.

As always in reading any passage of the Bible, viewing it in context is essential. Mary Magdalene “and the other Mary” have just been to visit the tomb after Jesus’ burial. At the tomb they are surprised by an angel announcing that Jesus has “been raised from the dead” and instructing them that they should go and report the news to his disciples.

As the women go to fulfill the angel’s command, they meet Jesus. Matthew says,

Suddenly Jesus me them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him.” (Matthew 28:9)

Jesus expands on the angel’s instructions to Mary Magdalene “and the other Mary” telling them to

go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me. (Matthew 28:10)

Presumably the two women obey the instructions given first by the angel, and then repeated by the risen Christ, although Matthew never actually shows the women passing on the news entrusted to them. Matthew takes a short side track explaining how the ludicrous story of Jesus’ disciples stealing his body got started and then returns to the main plot saying

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. (Mattthew 28:16)

At the mountain, they suddenly see Jesus.

This is where the part of this story I had previously missed comes in. Matthew, according to the English translation, says that, when the disciples saw Jesus,

they worshipped him; but some doubted. (Matthew 28:17)

This is startling enough in the NRSV translation. Apparently confronted by the living presence of the risen Christ, some of his disciples still “doubted” while others worshipped. But, the Greek does not actually supply the word “some” and the “but” could just as well be translated as “and”.

What the verse says, literally is something closer to:

they worshipped him, and doubted.

Imagine that, worship and doubt can coexist in the same people at the same time. Worship is not about certainty. It is not about having all our theological ducks in a row. Worship is not about answers or solutions.

So, what is worship about?

The Greek word used here is proskuneo. It is the word from which we get our English word “prostrate”. It means to fall down  before. Earlier, in Matthew 28:9, the meaning of worship is acted out by Mary Magdalene “and the other Mary” who Matthew says, when they saw Jesus,

came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshipped him. (Matthew 28:9)

To take hold of someone’s feet, you need to get down on your hands and knees and at least bow before the person whose feet you are going to take.

I am intrigued by the fact that there are almost no illustrations of Matthew 28:9 that I have been able to locate. Almost every aspect of Jesus’ life and ministry is amply illustrated with a wide selection of drawings, paintings, and sculptures. Where are the depictions of Mary Magdalene “and the other Mary” prostrate at the feet of Jesus? How many illustrations have ever been made of the disciples bowing before Jesus in a gesture of reverence and surrender?

Prostration is just not quite seemly. It is a bit too vulnerable. We tend to be uncomfortable with such bold expressions of devotion. This may be the reason we skip this part of the story and rush on to “the Great Commission.” We would prefer to omit the part about being vulnerable. We want to ditch the “doubting” part. We want the story of Jesus’ disciples after the resurrection to be one great triumphant tale of victorious faith. But that is not the reality of our lives any more than it was the reality of the disciples’ lives even after the resurrection.

The reality is that faith and doubt exist side by side in every human heart. We are seldom granted absolute certain and should probably seriously question it when we feel we have arrived at such a place of unshakeable conviction.

But, what we always can do is surrender. We can determine to abandon our knowing and prostrate ourselves at the feet of love. We can live in the midst of the unknowing that is the reality of most of our lives, and simply surrender to the power of love that is the sustaining power of the universe.

 

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