Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
Jesus Comforts the Sisters of Lazarus
17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.
21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.”29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him.30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Today’s reading is the second part of the story we started reading and thinking about yesterday – the story of the death and resuscitation of Lazarus. And by the way, you’ve probably notice that I’m using the term ‘resuscitation’ here, not ‘resurrection.’ Lazarus later died again to this life, but resurrection is a permanent state which began with Jesus, and which we believe we will share with him.
Yesterday’s Reflection looked at the beginning of the story. Jesus and his disciples were away, near where John the Baptist had been conducting his ministry. A messenger brought the news from the town of Bethany that Jesus’ dear friend Lazarus was gravely ill. And even though Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha were such close friends – maybe his closest friends – Jesus stayed away from Bethany until after Lazarus had died.
Today’s reading picks up the story as Jesus arrives at Bethany. We’re told that by then, Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bible scholars say that the period of four days is significant, because in Jewish thought of the time, being dead for three days meant you were really dead beyond any doubt. In fact, they say some ancient Jews had the custom of visiting a loved one’s tomb after three days just to make sure. So it seems that John wants us understand that Lazarus was really, definitely dead.
The rest today’s reading relates the conversations Jesus has with Lazarus’ two sisters. These are powerful scenes, full of the conflicted emotions that go with a tragic death – grief and loss, but also disappointment – and maybe even anger – toward Jesus.
When word arrives that Jesus is nearby, Martha comes out of the house but Mary stays inside with the mourners who have come to comfort the sisters. Some Bible scholars have pointed out that this seems consistent with what we know about the two sisters from the story in Luke about Jesus being a guest in their home. Martha is the more active of the two. She seems to instinctively want to be doing something. Mary is the more introspective, just sitting and processing her grief. Mary might also be the more emotional of the two – Martha walks up and starts talking to Jesus, while Mary throws herself at his feet.
But both sisters say exactly the same thing to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” That really does reveal those powerful emotions we mentioned above, don’t you think? First of all, the girls clearly believe that Jesus has great power to heal the sick. But isn’t there also a measure of disappointment there? A sense that their beloved friend Jesus has failed them?
But then Martha goes on to add something more: “But I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” Not all the Bible scholars agree about exactly what she meant by that, but to me it seems like a desperate plea for Jesus to raise her brother from the dead.
But Jesus doesn’t immediately act. Instead, he starts out by making a theological statement: “Your brother will rise again.” Lots of Jews in that time believed in the resurrection, and Martha’s response might have been an expression of what those religious Jews believed: “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
So Martha might have thought Jesus was just repeating “common wisdom” about life after death. But he wasn’t. Jesus was revealing a very important truth: that he was and is the living embodiment of that resurrection she hoped for. That resurrection would soon become a living reality through Jesus. His resurrection would be a sign that those who believe in him will share eternal life in the kingdom he had come to announce.
Then Jesus asks Martha a direct question: Do you believe this? And Martha declares her belief, not only that what he has said is true, but also that he is in fact the Messiah promised to her people through the prophets over the centuries.
Imagine Martha’s emotional state at this point. Minutes before, she had been in the grip of the deepest grief and heartbreak she had even known. But now Jesus has brought a glimmer of light into her darkness. He’s revealed a truth of new life that she could hardly comprehend. I’m not sure Martha had ever really considered the possibility that her friend Jesus was the Messiah. Remember, it wasn’t that obvious to his disciples, and Jesus was nothing like what the Jews expected of the Messiah. But here in this story, through her tears on a road outside Bethany, Martha is led to understand that Jesus was and is the Messiah.
Then she leaves and goes to Mary. She tells Mary that Jesus has arrived and is asking for her. We’re told that Martha calls Mary aside to tell her this, so presumably that’s significant. Martha may intend for Mary to slip away to talk privately with Jesus. But if that’s what Martha has in mind, it doesn’t work. Mary goes out with such a sense of purpose that the others around her get up and follow.
And reaching Jesus, Mary falls at his feet and expresses to him the very same mixture of grief and faith and disappointment that her sister had expressed moments before: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
In tomorrow’s reflection, we’ll read and think about the ending to this powerful story from the Gospel of John.
Let’s pray. Lord, we thank you for this great story, and for the faith and friendship these sisters felt for our Lord and theirs. We thank you that their faith in Jesus, even in moments of deepest grief and disappointment, can cause our own faith can be strengthened and built up twenty centuries later. Amen.
(The other readings for today are Psalms 62 and 97; Job 31:1-23; and Acts 15:1-11.)