The Guard's Story

 Today is Easter Sunday, the most important day of the Christian calendar. This is the day Jesus was resurrected, much to the shock of his followers. The first of them to hear the good news were the two Mary’s, as Matthew tells the story. But they are not the only witnesses – there are also two guards. They have been sent by the temple officials. They know that Jesus had spoken about coming back from the dead. They assume that the disciples will want to perpetuate this fiction and will come to steal the body. So, the temple officials send guards to prevent this crime from happening.   

But, as we heard, things don’t go according to plan. The guards witness an angel rolling back the stone with an earthquake. Matthew tells us they were so scared they were like dead men, petrified stiff. The Mary’s are scared, too, but they still have their wits about them. They are told that Jesus will meet them all in Galilee. So, they leave. The guards leave, too. They tell the temple officials what happened. This is terrible news for the officials, so they pay the guards to tell a different story. The guards spread the rumour that the disciples stole the body. And Matthew, writing 50 years later, says this story is still circulating to this day.  

The problem for Matthew, and for us, is that it is much easier to believe the guard’s version. There’s no need to believe in supernatural miracles to accept the guard’s story. They say that Jesus was a criminal pretending to be a Messiah. He was executed on a cross for his lies, then his equally dishonest disciples stole his body from the tomb, then claimed he was resurrected. Nothing supernatural happened, just some religious zealots spreading lies, and endangering the peace. The guard’s story is all utterly plausible, no miracles needed.   

But there is a subtext to the guards’ story: the world is a dangerous place. The chance of crime is always present. Life is dangerous, and the best defense is to post more guards. That’s the guard’s story, and it lasts just as long as the Christian story of what happened on that Easter Sunday.     

The guard’s story is still with us. If you watch American television at all, you may have noticed that there are a lot of shows about crime. On the big three networks this week, every night has at least one show about detectives solving crimes, usually murders. Some nights there are as many as 6 – Law and Orders, CSI, SWAT, The Rookie, NCSIs, the FBI programs, Chicago PD. These shows are usually set in big cities, and tell the story of normal people, usually middle and upper middle class, who have been murdered, often by a stranger. It is rarely obvious who the killer is, and it takes time and ingenuity to figure it out. This version of the guard’s tale for our times is that life is risky, any one of us could be killed, and we’re lucky to have so many dedicated guards to protect us.  

The other part of the modern guard’s story is that when crime increases, the best response is to hire more guards. In New York City, home to many crime shows, the real-life current mayor is a former transit police officer. A guard.  When murders rose on the subway system, more police we assigned to the subway cars, with orders to clear out all homeless people.[1] In Toronto, when violence increased on the TTC, we also hired more police and security personnel to go into the subway system. The latest City of Toronto budget gave the police a 48-million-dollar increase, since life is dangerous here, and more police will keep us safer.  

But there’s a problem with this modern version of the guard’s story. According to Statistics Canada, the highest proportion of murders per capita don’t happen in cities, but in rural areas. If we wanted to make a Canadian version of CSI, which city would it be set in?   

CSI: REGINA To be accurate, the show would be set in Regina.  

LAW AND ORDER: WINNIPEG LAW AND ORDER could be set in Winnipeg, which also has a high murder rate.  

Thunder Bay PD And we couldn’t leave out Thunder Bay, which has the highest homicide rate for many years in a row.   

Toronto is actually a very safe city – it has the 17th highest homicide rate among Canadian cities.[2] On Law and Order: Canada, the show would rarely feature any killers who were strangers. Most people get killed by someone they know.[3] Women are usually killed by lovers, past and present.[4] Men are usually killed in gang-related deaths, or because of revenge or a debt that needs to be paid off. Also, solving homicides happens quickly, half of the time within 5 days since the killers are known to their victims. [5]  

Our modern guard’s story misrepresents who gets killed, and how often.     

Here’s a graph showing the murder rate in the United States since 1990. It has dropped significantly, even while the number of crime shows has risen.   

Here’s the same data for Canada. We are safer than ever before, but the media and the police tell a different story.    

The media tell us innocent people are always at risk. But, In Canada, the stats reveal that over half of all murder victims have criminal records, and so do their killers.[8] A realistic homicide show in Canada would feature plots where every third victim was Indigenous or racialized. And overall, 80 percent of all victims would know their killer. [9] People who are killed by complete strangers are rare, but they make great headlines.   

The story our guards tell us encourages us to live in fear of random violence from strangers. They tell us this so we will demand protection by hiring more guards. We are being told the guard’s story all the time, and it is highly misleading. But it is good for the guards.   

In Matthew’s Easter story, he wants us to see that the guard’s story is fiction, and that there is another way of understanding the resurrection. It’s a story that is meant to change the world, one person at a time. But if you pay attention, it is a strange story. Not just because Jesus rises from the dead, something that is normally impossible. That’s bizarre and strains belief. But that isn’t all.   

When the Mary’s and the guards see the angel roll back the rock, it reveals a tomb that is empty. Jesus isn’t in there. That means he left the tomb before the rock was rolled back. But how did he do that? There’s no explanation. It should be impossible. If he left on his own, pushing the rock from the inside, the guards would have noticed, and the tomb would have been open when the Mary’s arrived. But Matthew tells us, that’s not how it went down. Jesus got out with the rock in place. So, the guards have been useless. They were there, but they did not prevent the crime.   

Then the angel is seen sitting on the rock, and he tells the women that Jesus is raised, and they should go tell the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Ok, that’s a plan, sounds straightforward. But not long after the women set off back to Jerusalem, Jesus appears to them. The women are amazed, dropped to their knees and kiss his feet. This is wonderful. You can imagine their shock and delight at seeing Jesus alive again. The last time they saw him he was on the cross, his body mangled, and here he is alive. Their hearts must be bursting with joy and amazement.   

But why is Jesus here? The angel just told the women that Jesus would meet them all in Galilee. This is all very mysterious, and the important thing to notice is that it doesn’t make much sense. The dots don’t connect. Unlike a detective story where all the clues lead up to a revelation about who done it, in Matthew’s telling, he is undermining our ability to use common sense to understand the resurrection. The whole rock covering the tomb detail is a red herring, Jesus was already gone even before the stone was pushed back. The angel says one thing, Jesus does another. Jesus just seems to be popping around, no longer bound by normal rules of physics and common sense. The guard’s version of events is way more believable, and Matthew knows that, but he wants us to believe this very strange story where Jesus confounds common sense.  

Matthew is saying that the way forward leaves common sense behind. This story is like a Zen koan. Koans are little thought puzzles that are meant to push novice Buddhist monks out of rational thought towards enlightenment. What is the sound of one hand clapping? There is no rational answer, it is an invitation to reach a higher plane of spiritual awareness. That’s what this resurrection story is doing. For the Christians who embrace it, their old lives are done, dead to them, for they have embraced and bowed at the feet of new life. The guards don’t get it, they are dead spiritually and stay dead, spreading a lie. The women, however, they get it. They are not paralyzed by fear. They believe what the angel says, and act on it. Because of this, a change of heart, Jesus appears to them, in all his impossible nature. Jesus has taught them to believe that there is a way out of the guard’s grim version of life, where fear and violence rule. There is a higher form of life, which is mysterious, abundant, and whose power makes little sense to the rational mind.   

The resurrection is a call to a spiritual breakthrough. Are you ready to believe in something others call nonsense? Not so you can become a gullible fool. Rather, to believe in this resurrection is to believe in everything else that Jesus Christ taught while he was alive. That rebirth is possible. That the most horrible sinner can be redeemed, turn their life around. That the addict who steals and lies can get clean, go sober, get a new lease on life. That even after centuries of racism and sexism, we can still turn our society around, make amends, build bridges, build a just society. Christianity’s key event, the resurrection, asks us to believe the impossible.   

If we can take the risk to believe in this bizarre, strange event, our minds can grow large enough to have the moral imagination and courage to see beyond the guard’s story. In the words of the movie Thelma and Louise, “You get what you settle for.” The guard’s story is based on fear and intimidation, and it is everywhere, even today. Christ is offering us a way up and out. A way to believe that this reality is not the final word, that we have been offered a way to a richer moral and spiritual vision, where we can look at a situation and see that there are other, better ways of doing things. Ways of living where we celebrate beauty, take joy in helping people to thrive, delight in nature’s gifts and being.   

We have been invited to embrace what is impossible on this Easter Sunday. Let’s dare to imagine an angel rolling back the rock on our heart to set it free. Let’s ask for help to join Jesus on a life the guards may never understand. And, perhaps, we’ll get a chance to open their hearts, too.  


 [1] Lex Harvey, “‘There is no overnight fix’: New York relied on police to stop transit violence. Should Toronto?” Toronto Star, April 5, 2023 [2] Top three cities, and Toronto is 17th: Jean-Denis David and Brianna Jaffray, "Homicide in Canada, 2021." Statistics Canada, November 21, 2022 [3] Among men, they know their killer 60% of the time, see below for women: Jean-Denis David and Brianna Jaffray, ibid. [4] 70% of the time by a former or current lover: Jean-Denis David and Brianna Jaffray, ibid.  [5] Jean-Denis David and Brianna Jaffray, ibid.  [6] [7] [8] Amelia Armstrong and Brianna Jaffray,"Homicide in Canada, 2020," Statistics Canada, November 25, 2021 [9] Amelia Armstrong and Brianna Jaffray, ibid.