A Pivotal Reunion in the Garden—John 20:1-18

Studies in John’s Gospel—Lesson 44

by Reta Halteman Finger

"Noli Me Tangere" by Lavinia Fontana
“Noli Me Tangere” (Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene as a Gardener) by Lavinia Fontana, 1552-1614, oil on canvas. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Image from Wikipedia Commons

John 20:1-18 is part of the climax to one of the most profound stories you will ever read. All that came before and all that follows centers around this moment in the garden. Something has happened since Friday’s burial of Jesus—but so far it is God’s big secret.

Just before Sunday’s dawn a disciple, Mary Magdalene, comes to the tomb and finds the stone rolled away from the entrance (20:1). She mistakenly thinks enemies have come to steal the body. She runs to tell two friends: Peter and an unnamed “other disciple.”

Do you get it?

While she runs, let’s take stock of the bigger picture. The Prologue of this Gospel states that the Wisdom/Word came down from God to live with God’s people, but that most of them did not recognize him (1:10-11). Over the 19 chapters we have read, we can identify characters by what they “get” or don’t “get.” Only those “in the know”—who “get it”— receive power to become children of God (1:12). With this in mind, let’s watch this scene unfold.

Does he get it?

First, what do we know about this “other disciple,” sometimes called the Beloved Disciple? In the Synoptic Gospels, Peter is clearly dominant, but the Fourth Gospel favors the Beloved Disciple, who is probably an author or major source. For example, he sits next to Jesus at the supper, so Peter has to go through him to ask Jesus a question (13:23-25); he knows the high priest (18:15), so must live near Jerusalem; he doesn’t deny Jesus as Peter does (18:25-27). Here, the Beloved Disciple outruns Peter, but waits deferentially until Peter first enters the tomb (20:4-8), a sign he is probably younger than Peter. Although none of the three disciples understands the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead (20:9), somehow the other disciple “saw and believed” (20:8). He knows something Peter and Mary do not. Was it easier for this disciple to comprehend Jesus rising from death because he is Lazarus, who had also been awakened from a tomb? (11:44).

Does she get it?

The men leave, but Mary stays and weeps by the tomb. John 20:11-18 recounts what is surely the most poignant scene between the risen Jesus and an earthbound lover in all the Gospels. We see a peasant woman from a small village in Galilee, one whom Jesus previously healed from mental illness (Luke 8:2). She weeps in despair because even his dead body has been disrespected. Does this mean that everything he taught and did is now invalidated? The seven demons of her past (Lk 8:2) lie in wait to attack again. Angels in the tomb only mock its emptiness, and when someone behind her asks why she is crying, she thinks it must be the gardener. Only when Jesus says her name does she turn around and see him. It is her Teacher, her “Rabbouni”!

In this moment frozen in time, Jesus’s prophecy from John 10:1-18 is fulfilled: the Good Shepherd “calls his own sheep by name,” and “the sheep hear his voice” (John 10:3). “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Mary rushes to him in shock and ecstasy, holding on as if to keep him from disappearing again. Jesus’s response in all recent translations is similar to the NRSV: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” The Greek word for “touch” or “take hold of” is aptō, and Walter Bauer’s lexicon translates the phrase, mē mou aptou as “Stop clinging to me!”

Mary Magdalene’s one-on-one encounter with the risen Jesus places her in a position where she knows more truth than any other disciple. Her status of being “in the know” is extremely high. As Jesus sends her to tell the others, she becomes the first apostle. Hear that jubilant cry in John 20:18: “I have seen the Lord!”

The women get it!

As a feminist reader, I page back through this Gospel looking for people “in the know,” and I find they are mostly women! Mary Magdalene’s knowing in today’s lesson parallels that of other prominent women in this Gospel:

•  Jesus’s mother (John 2:1-11), who knows him better than he does himself;

•  the Samaritan woman (John 4:1-26), who understands Jesus’s theology better than Nicodemus, the teacher in Israel (John 3:1-10), or the male disciples (Jn 4:27-34);

•  Martha of Bethany (John 11:20-27), who names him Messiah;

•  Mary of Bethany (John 12:1-8), who intuits Jesus’s coming death and anoints him for his burial.

In a male-oriented culture where women are not encouraged to speak in public, the Johannine author moves them onto center stage! I can only find three men (besides the Beloved Disciple) who are “in the know.” John the Baptist and Nathaniel both identify Jesus as Son of God in 1:29-34 and 47-49. In 9:1-34, a formerly blind beggar now sees and knows that Jesus comes from God. But in every situation where the (presumably male) disciples travel with Jesus as a group, they seem to know very little—barely more than the educated temple leaders and Governor Pilate, who know nothing at all.

Next time: further reception of the good news; the other disciples finally get it!

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1.  Can you find more examples in this Gospel of those who “get it” and those who don’t?

2.  Do you have an opinion about who the author(s) of this Gospel might be?

3.  Do you understand Jesus’s resurrection as physical/bodily or as metaphor?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.