11Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “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.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When 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.”
33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
What I Am Learning:
One day an old friend called me to say that her mother had died. She wasn't sure that she had the strength to deal with her death, with the family dynamics that would emerge and the conversations with family friends she would have.
I told her that each of us has a backpack ready by our door for such occasions. All we need to do is trust that we have what we will need when the time comes.
She breathed a sign of relief and went to face the day with a lighter, if still grieving heart. We talked later and she handled all things pretty well and felt good about how she had responded.
We have all been there.
Death of our loved ones is baked into the cake of our universe.
We tend to see the raising of Lazarus through this lens - that in this story Jesus responded in solidarity with Mary and Martha first by weeping with them (and all of us) and then by raising him up from the dead.
The problem here, however, is that Jesus doesn't raise all our loved ones a few days after death. We are glad that Mary and Martha have him back, but what about our loved ones? If this is just a "one-off" then what difference does it make? Or worse, what if this shows what God could do, but chooses not to, for all of us.
Our personal grief at the loss of loved ones is not the primary meaning for this story.
Mary confessed that Jesus was the messiah. She believed that on the last day, the messiah would raise up the dead so they could experience life as God intended it. The messiah was to inaugurate the reign of God, free the people from the occupying army, bring equity and justice to everyone and help people live as loving neighbors.
"Messiah" was a political term: it meant the king/priest/prophet that would replace Caesar and bring the reign of God, God's way of mutuality, to the everyday world. The messiah would bring fulfillment part of the Lord's Prayer that reads: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
The raising of Lazarus was a sign that Jesus was the messiah. God raising Lazarus from the dead was a sign of things to come and God's affirmation that Mary had it right. Once word of Lazarus' resurrection spread, Jesus would be seen as the true leader of the People of Israel.
Immediately following this reading, the Pharisees and the Council met. Here is what John says about that:
46But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” 49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
You can see from this reading what they thought the stakes of the raising of Lazarus were: political challenge to the Roman Empire.
That Jesus did not intend to use violence to make this political challenge would not matter very much to the Romans or to those collaborating with them such as the Council.
So what does this mean for us? Doesn't this interpretation mean that Lazarus' resurrection is first-century response to a first-century problem?
It is vitally important for us to place Jesus in his first-century context. We then consider the way that he oriented himself and his disciples to the the kingdom of God in his context. Then we consider how we can be oriented to the kingdom of God in our own context.
Today we have vast income and wealth inequality.
We have a change taking place as big as the industrial revolution in automation, which took over 9 million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2010. This will only increase! We live in a culture that sees people as having value to the degree they produce things. What happens when whole swaths of people are not needed - and thus are deprived of work and meaning? A Princeton University study spoke of the "deaths of despair" among white working class people. Read more here.
We have a leader in our country who, instead of naming the issues of automation, is using language that is increasing hate speech and hate incidents in our country. While he blamed Mexicans for taking jobs and Muslims for taking our security, Jews, LGBTQIA, Sikhs, Hindus and other vulnerable groups are all experiencing violence, micro-aggressions, and a general sense they don't belong here.
We are using up resources at a pace that our planet cannot sustain - either resource wise or by the changes to our atmosphere.
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The underlying theme in our time: despair for our future and the future of the planet.
Jesus addressed the underlying despair of his people, caused by many of the same sort of issues. He worked to free his people up to work on these issues with hope that God's future, that God's way of mutuality was coming. In the story of Lazarus, we see a signal that there is something at work in the world greater than death and despair.
He addresses us still. He tells us that the power of God revealed in Jesus is still at work in the world. We are invited to hope in a brighter future for all the human family.
Typically, Jewish people believed that the spirit of a person hung around the body for three days. Once grieved, then they could rest until the Last Day when all would be made right. Lazarus was dead for four days. He was beyond hope of an immediate resurrection. Until Jesus called out: "Lazarus, come out!"
Like Lazarus, many of us experience times when we too are "beyond hope." We feel that hope is an illusion that we can no longer entertain, a friend that no longer visits us, dead and buried. Then Jesus calls out to each of us, "Come out!"
Hope is not an add on to the human experience. Hope is necessary for us to to be human and to recognize others as human. We do not live by bread alone.
This story reminds us of the power of God to raise our hope from its cold, dead place to new life in our bones, bellies, heart and voices.
May the hope of God, revealed in Jesus raise us to new hope and to the courage and energy that comes from glimpsing God's vision on humanity's horizon.