“Lazarus, come out!”
They are arguably the most dramatic words that are said in any of the Gospels, cried out by Jesus at a tomb of a man dead four days.
It is referred to as the Gospel of John’s final and pinnacle sign and miracle: the raising of a man long dead.
There is no denying that this is essential to the structure of John’s Gospels. Through a series of miraculous signs, God’s power in Jesus is being demonstrated to all who would believe.
Like all good stories, there are often multiple messages being claimed and taught. I believe that the Gospel writer uses these stories for a secondary point. The way we see it is by examining the entire story.
John’s 11th chapter begins with the news that a certain man, Lazarus of Bethany, brother to Mary and her sister Martha. We are told that Mary “was the one who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair”, a story that will be told in the next chapter. But what is more important for the moment is that we are told that Jesus and this family love each other. The Gospel writer may be alluding to Luke’s story of Martha and Mary who host Jesus, with Martha serving and getting upset with her sister who “does nothing”. Or for all we know, there are a collection of stories of this family that were previously told by others. We only know for certain that this is the first time Gospel writer John is mentioning them, but he is making it clear that the sisters’ message to Jesus about the illness comes not out of reputation, but out of an established relationship.
Jesus hears of this news, and reacts with an all-knowing response: “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified thorough it.”
THIS IS IT! Thinks Jesus. The final sign: GLORY FOR GOD THROUGH THE SON.
So he intentionally stays away…two full days longer…in the place where he was.
Jesus then says, all-knowing, that it is time to go to Bethany. “Why would you go there?” his disciples ask. “It’s too dangerous for you (and for us).”
“Lazarus is dead,” says Jesus. I’m glad I wasn’t there, so you may believe.”
Everything is perfectly set up with intention. Lazarus is dead, Jesus is going to deliver the show-stopper: raising a dead man from the grave, just outside of Jerusalem where everyone will hear and “know God’s Glory.”
Jesus, full of divine power, sets off to perform the miracle.
Now it’s time to make an important observation about Jesus in The Gospel of John. What is apparent, dominant actually, is Jesus’ divinity. In the Gospel of John, Jesus talks a lot. And he talks like no human ever has. He talks with divine knowledge and insight: with eternal power. He might look human, he has a human body, but he comes across the way that the Gospel’s prologue describes him. He is the Word of God, with God from the beginning of creation, he was one with God, and is God. In John’s Gospel, he starts at the place of eternal, and “becomes flesh,” rather than in the other Gospels where he comes into the relationship of oneness with God.
This means that his humanity, to be honest, isn’t particularly convincing. One wonders how much, if any, of Jesus of Nazareth’s actual life is reflected in this portrait of “Jesus the Christ.”
But this Gospel writer does this intentionally to demonstrate something else that is compelling to us who call Christianity our way to God. Jesus the Christ, within this journey, moves closer to us, towards all of humanity.
Consider for a moment the first miracle/sign of Jesus: The Wedding at Cana. This first sign, changing water into wine, only happens because Mary his mother insists. Consider the interplay:
When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
Something is clearly missing from this dialogue. There is nothing that suggests Jesus is going to act, and yet his mother is now telling the servants he will. I will speculate to some different versions of the story.
Perhaps Mary gave him the scalding look that only a mother can give her son. As the disciples reacted with uncomfortable silence, Jesus, thinking better of it, nodded consent to his mother.
Better yet, imagine this dialogue:
Mary, calmly, says “Jesus, may I speak to you privately for a moment.”
The two go off to the side hallway, and Jesus speaks first.
“Look mother, I have things planned out, and this is not my place to intercede. It’s not important in the grand scheme of things.”
“No Jesus, you look. Running out of wine at a wedding is a great dishonor, and you know that! This is the couple’s biggest day of their life. Their families will be embarrassed, and this is what people will talk about when they remember the occasion. How dare you do nothing when you could do otherwise!”
Jesus was silent for a moment. “Of course I will help.”
The point here is this: Jesus the Christ doesn’t yet fully understand humanity. Jesus’ argument not to act is the justification to ignore the plight of your neighbor as not your problem, and it is to ignore the hospitality need of the moment because it wasn’t the way you had things planned.
Jesus in the end rejects his own excuse not to help, and changes the water to wine: the first sign.
Fast forward back to our story today, the arrival at Bethany. Martha goes out to meet him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Perhaps this is a face-value statement by Martha, but coupled with our insight that Jesus intentionally stayed away, it becomes a touch accusatory. We then get the theological conversation necessary for John’s Gospel, but our secondary story continues when Mary finally arrives:
When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the (Judeans) who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the (Judeans) said, ‘See how he loved him!’
This is a reasonable conclusion to make: Jesus is weeping because Lazarus died, and Jesus loved him. But it’s wrong. Jesus KNOWS what he’s going to do. He raising Lazarus from the dead. There’s no reason to weep over his death.
No, what gets to Jesus is the realization that HE HAS CAUSED the suffering of Mary, Martha, and the others gathered. He could have gotten there. He could have prevented all this from happening. One can make the argument that, for the first time, the Word of God gets insight into what it truly means to be mortal in this human life, and what pain is caused to others by death.
It is this that greatly disturbs his spirit, and moves him to tears.
The secondary message of the Gospel of John, and perhaps the message with greatest impact for our lives right now, is that we should be compelled to do all that we can to potentially alleviate the suffering of others. That’s why so many of us are staying at home, and distancing ourselves physically from others. Since none of us can raise the dead, we are called to protect others by doing the things that we ask of Jesus that we can do, like tending the sick, giving rest to the weary, blessing the dying, soothing the suffering, pitying the afflicted, and shielding the joyous.
And we do it all, for love's sake.
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