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 Jews 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 Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:32-37)
Warning: this series is not written by a biblical scholar or theologian. So I hope everyone’s taking everything I write with a grain of salt. Because I found myself reading this morning’s gospel passage in light of a potentially problematic idea.
“No one has ever seen God,” wrote John in prefacing his account of Jesus. “It is only God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:18). So as I read the story of Lazarus, I wondered how the words and actions (and, at one point, inaction) of the Son of God show us the heart of God the Father, and help us understand our relationship with God. That still seems right to me, but I don’t want to read this story in such a way that I emphasize the divinity of Jesus so much that I neglect his humanity. Anyway, here’s some of what struck me…
As the story begins, Jesus receives a message from two sisters in Bethany, Mary and Martha, letting Jesus know that their brother Lazarus (“he whom you love”) is sick. Clearly, they hope that this man who has already healed the son of a royal official (4:46-54), healed a paralyzed man at Bethesda (5:1:18), and healed a blind man (9:1-12) will heal their brother. But Jesus replies, confusingly, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4). He lingers for two more days before finally setting out for Bethany.
In these first few verses, I was reminded of the mysterious nature of prayer: we reach out to God, telling him what he already knows, and ask him to do what he may or may not do. Like Jesus with far-off Mary, God can seem slow to answer, distant and implacable. And yet long before the story comes to its dramatic pinnacle, Jesus has already revealed two vitally important aspects of our relationship with God. First, Jesus loves Lazarus — before the story is done, he will even weep for him. (I suppose we could chalk this up solely to Jesus’ humanity, but couldn’t it also “show us the heart” of a not-so-impassible God? Again, not a theologian…)
Second, there is purpose in his silence.
I don’t yet know anyone who is gravely ill with COVID-19, but if and when that happens and I want to pray for healing, I hope that I remember these verses. I hope that I remember that God loves the person I love, perhaps even grieves their suffering, and has an unknown, perhaps unknowable purpose hiding in the silence of any apparent non-response.
When Jesus does decide to return to Judea to see Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, his disciples both comprehend the danger and misunderstand the hope. They fear that Jesus is risking his life (and perhaps their lives, too), and they don’t realize that Jesus means to save someone else’s life.
It’s not the first time that death and life will intertwine unpredictably in this story. As it’s wont to do, the lectionary reading for today cuts off before we reach the most troubling part of the story. By bringing life out of death at the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus convinces a certain faction of Jewish leaders to plot his death (vv 46-53)… which will lead to the greatest of the many signs recorded in John’s gospel: Jesus’ own resurrection.
But that’s getting a couple weeks ahead of ourselves… Back to Lazarus, who has been dead for four days by the time Jesus and his disciples can reach Bethany. Jesus now reveals something else crucially important about God: he listens to women, even when men don’t. Often in the gospels, Jesus notices women who keep the silence expected of them, but here Martha and then Mary ask him to work a miracle and bring their brother back to life. Speaking so boldly, they defy the expectations of their society in order to ask the Son of God to defy our expectations about death itself.
In the process, they illustrate something important about the nature of belief in God.
This first half of the Gospel of John tells of signs that inspire faith, starting with Jesus turning water to wine in Cana — which “revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (2:11). Later that chapter, Jesus is in Jerusalem for Passover, and “many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing.” (What sign are you going to give us then,” asks the crowd in John 6:30, “so that we may see it and believe you?”) But Martha professes her belief in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God before he provides the sign. “I am the resurrection and the life,” he tells her, while her brother is yet in his tomb, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:25-26). And Martha believes… though Jesus needs to remind her of this when he actually answers her prayer and raises Lazarus: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (v 40)
“Note the ordering of belief and glory,” comments Marva Dawn at this point. “How often we reverse these two and demand to see glory in order to believe! God’s glory is always more deeply revealed to those whose faith opens their eyes.”
From a gospel that uses the word believe more often than any other book in the Bible, we can be sure of this: while the world did not know the Word that brought it into being (1:10), God still loved that world so dearly that he sent into it the Word made flesh, his Son, “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (3:16). Thanks be to God!