The Questions of Jesus: "Whom do you seek?"

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." Saying this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?" (John 20:11–15)

This question--"Whom do you seek?"--runs through the Gospel of John like a light red thread. It isn't overwhelming at first and it is easy to overlook, but once you see, you can't unsee it. The thread started running with the very first words Jesus spoke in this Gospel, which formed a question directed at the disciples of John the Baptist that started to follow after him. To them, Jesus said, "What do you seek?" (1:38). When Jesus utters an even more personal form of this question to Mary Magdalene, it is not the second but rather the third time this basic question has appeared. In between the first and the last is the question of Jesus not to his would-be disciples, not to this first witness of his Resurrection, but to the band of soldiers his betrayer has gathered. To them, too, he asks, "Whom do you seek?" (18:4).

The question of desire runs from beginning to end in the Gospel of John. So what changes? In the beginning, Jesus asks the question of two early followers drawn to him by the force of curiosity. To them he asks not just what are you hoping to find here but more deeply, what is your heart's desire. This is the opening salvo of his ministry. 

In the second instance, he asks the question of those who also come after him, but who have set their hearts in a certain direction in advance. Jesus has walked in the midst of this people, he has performed signs, he has taught, and by it all "the thoughts of many hearts [have been] revealed" (Luke 2:35). The hearts of many do not seek him as he is, finding him rather unpalatable, a nuisance, better disposed of than heeded. This determination is clearly present in Judas and his gang, but they serve as the image of the whole, of the "world" that prefers darkness to light (John 3:19). Jesus is not so much betrayed as he allows himself to be betrayed--that is, handed-over, "knowing all that would befall him" (John 18:4). It seems that the "Lamb of God" (John 1:36) comes to give himself over into the hands of the many. The key question has never been about whether he will be betrayed (i.e., handed-over) or not, but rather how those to whom he gives himself will receive him. The question of salvation is tied up in that manner of reception. 

And so we come to Mary, weeping outside the tomb. What, in fact, is she looking for? She has gone to the tomb early in the morning in search of a dead body. She is looking for a corpse, a remnant of possibilitis lost and of hopes dashed. Whom does she seek? Jesus, of course, but does she seek Jesus as he is, for who he is, or for who she thought him to be, wanted him to be, settled for him to be? Is she looking for her own image of Jesus? It appears so. After hearing her own name from his lips, "she turned and said to him in Hebrew, 'Rabboni!' (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me..." (John 20:16–17).

She came looking for a corpse and he came to her as a living body. She never desired that; nowhere in her heart did that desire dwell. But seeing his living body, which confounds all expectations, is not yet enough. Does she see him? No, it seems that she still sees whom she thought he was: Rabboni! Mary, whom do you seek? A teacher, who speaks good words. And that is not enough. She has a ways to go, and as she moves according to his commission, her understanding of him begins to change: "Mary Magdalene went and said to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord" (John 20:18).

Mary moves and opens up more fully to who Jesus is, but the recognition and corresponding proclamation is not yet complete. Mary's part is the first part of a longer episode, and the answer to the question "Whom do you seek?" does not receive the total response until the end. Mary goes to the Twelve and we go with her, ultimately making our way to the last one of the Twelve whom Jesus encounters, in his glorified flesh. Thomas is not there when the Lord appears to them later that same day. He will not believe until he sees, until he feels, until he himself is encountered by the Lord, in the flesh. And eight days later, the Lord does come to him.

We like to think of Thomas as the "doubter" and it is easier to slightly disparage him and what appears to be his lack of belief. When we follow that light red thread from the beginning to the end of the Gospel, though, we see that rather than just a late-comer or a final hold-out in the apostolic community to belief in the Resurrection, Thomas is actually the one who responds in full to the first and continual question of the Gospel of John. 

"What do you seek?" The first two followers said, "'Rabbi' (which means Teacher)..." (1:38).

"Whom do you seek?" The soldiers in the garden said, "Jesus of Nazareth" (18:4–5).

"Whom do you seek?" Mary, at first looking for a corpse, eventually says, "'Rabboni!' (which means Teacher)" (20:15–16).

But Thomas says, "My Lord and my God!" (20:28).

He is the first to confess, in full, who Jesus is and matches that recognition with the deepest desire of his own heart, which has now been revealed to him through the encounter with Jesus in his glorified flesh.

Jesus hands himself over. The first act of handing over came at the very beginning, when "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" so we could behold him. He asks those first two followers what they're seeking, or rather, how they will receive him. He asks the soldiers in the garden. He asks Mary outside the tomb. The Word who was in the beginning and who comes into the world to save the world, humbles himself before our response. How will we receive him? Will we allow ourselves to be changed by him in order to make a home for him, as he is, for who he is? That requires the death of our old expectations and movement into a new mission, as it did for Mary. But with that movement we begin to release our private images of him, open up our smallish desires for him, and are renewed in him to proclaim in faith, "My Lord and my God!"

Whom do you seek?

Prayer: Jesus, teach me how to give myself to you as my Lord and my God.