Woman, why are you crying (John 20:15)?
These are the first recorded words of the resurrected Jesus. The first words we know he spoke on that first Resurrection Sunday — a simple question directed to Mary Magdalene.
Indeed, Mary was crying. She was crying as she stood outside the tomb. She was crying as she stooped to look inside the tomb (John 20:11). The angels, sitting where the body of Jesus had been laid, were the first to ask her the question, “Woman, why are you crying” (John 20:13)?
Then, still crying, she turned around. The man she saw standing there asked her the same question a second time, “Woman, why are you crying” (John 20:15)?
Why was she crying? She was crying because she did not know where to find Jesus. But she was also crying because, like the other disciples, she “did not yet understand the Scripture that he must rise from the dead” (John 20:9).
Why was Jesus crying?
John also tells us in his gospel that Jesus cried. At that time, another Mary had run to another tomb, also crying (John 11:31). Jesus had been deeply moved and joined Mary with his own tears: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).
Beside this tomb, Jesus had asked the same question Mary Magdalene would ask on that future Sunday morning, “Where have you put him” (John 11:34; 20:13)? This question cannot be separated from the tears. Someone Mary loved, someone Jesus loved, had been put somewhere. Lazarus’ lifeless body had been carried and laid in a tomb, and so Jesus wept.
Jesus, the Word who created all things, wept because this was not his design for creation (John 1:3). “In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (John 1:4). Yet here Jesus stood outside the tomb where his friend’s body had been placed. Jesus stood there, looking at his broken creation, and he wept.
But no one asked Jesus the question that he would later ask Mary outside his own tomb. They simply said, “See how he loved him” (John 11:36)! Yes, see how he loved Lazarus, and see how he loved us. See how he loved his creation, and see how he mourned over it.
Why Mary shouldn’t have been crying
Jesus’ question on Resurrection Sunday was not a rebuke of human grief. Jesus’ tears outside the tomb of Lazarus affirms that our own tears by the graves of those we love are appropriate.
However, Mary’s tears were inappropriate. She wanted to know where his body had been put, but his body had not been put anywhere. Jesus says, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it that you’re seeking” (John 20:15)? He gently reminds her that she is not seeking a body but a person. She didn’t need to find a body that could be put here or there, she simply needed to see the person she was looking for — the person standing right in front of her.
On the preceding Thursday night, Jesus had said, “Truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn, but the world will rejoice. You will become sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy” (John 16:20).
So, Jesus asks Mary Magdalene, “Woman, why are you crying?” He is saying, “Crying is inappropriate here. Crying was for Friday and Saturday, but not for today.” The body you think has been put somewhere cannot be put anywhere by anyone, because he is Lord over all.
Then she finally saw. Then her sorrow turned to joy, and she cried out, “Rabboni” (John 20:16). She rushed to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18). She hadn’t seen his body. She had seen him.
Why are you crying?
The question Jesus posed to Mary outside the empty tomb is the question he poses to all of us: “Why are you crying?”
Of course, we cry because we live in a world still broken by sin. We cry because we still put bodies in graves. But the victory of Jesus over death also speaks to us and asks us, “Why are you crying?”
Because Mary’s tears turned to joy on that Resurrection Sunday, every sorrow that we face will one day be turned to joy. As John would see at the end of his own life, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; grief, crying, and pain will be no more, because the previous things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).
So why are you crying?