As I keep growing as both an interpreter of Scripture and proclaimer of its beauty, I am learning to ask a much more interesting question.
Let me show you what I mean. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion is one I have avoided for years. Here’s why:
51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and[c] went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
54 When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
Zombies? In the bible? And Matthew is the only Gospel writer who includes this detail? Neither Mark nor Luke nor John mention it at all?
So the question most of us ask upon encountering a Scriptural challenge like this is “did this really happen?”
Secondary questions would include: “Who were these people?” “How long did they stay alive?” “What did they look like?” “What did they do when Walking Dead time was over?”
All relevant questions — sort of — but all ultimately unanswerable.
The much more interesting question is this: “What is Matthew’s purpose in including this detail? How does this advance his telling of Jesus’ story?”
That “more interesting” question applies not just to Matthew’s Zombie Apocalypse. It also applies to Mark’s frantic urgency, Luke’s copious accuracy, and John’s odd chronology.
In each of the Gospels, Jesus is in the hands of the author/narrator. And my great joy in recent years has been the ongoing discovery of how the four Gospel writers are not merely peerless theologians, they are consummate literary artists as well. And when you understand their art and appreciate their craft . . . then VOILA! their theology becomes that much more impactful.
In the case of Matthew’s account of the crucifixion, the answer to the “interesting” question is two-fold:
1) He is both gleeful and careful to weave hope of resurrection into his tale of crucifixion. Even in the midst of death, Matthew reminds us that God is the author of life.
2) Matthew’s climactic moment is in 27:54, when the Roman soldiers come to faith. Why is that climactic and how does it relate to the Walking Dead of 27:53? Good question! It’s because those soldiers were Jesus’ execution squad. And Jesus was hardly their first victim. They were professional killers, numb to the powers of death in their hands. In other words, they were the real walking dead. And yet something in Jesus’ sacrifice clicked in their minds and they turn from execution squad to exaltation team.
So the walking dead guys of 27:53 are not the real miracle of the story. They are merely a prelude to the real jaw dropper — the conversion of a death squad into a life song.
And you only “get” that when you ask the much more interesting question: what is Matthew trying to accomplish here?