Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:
The Death of Lazarus
1Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”
4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.6 Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
7Then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”
11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.”
12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.”13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep.
14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Today’s listed gospel reading the first of three readings that tell story of the death of and resuscitation of Lazarus. As we’ve said about several of the other stories in John, this is a long and complicated story. Jesus says things to people that they don’t understand, so he needs to explain what he means. And also like other stories in John, there’s not really one single lesson in this story – instead, it sheds light on several aspects of our lives as followers of Jesus.
But the insights in this story strike me as some of the most important in all of the gospel accounts. So it’s definitely worth spending three days’ Reflections to think about it.
As the story begins, Jesus and his disciples are away from Jerusalem – they have crossed the River Jordan to the area where John the Baptist had been conducting his ministry. A messenger comes from the town of Bethany, were Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus lived. John tells us that Jesus loved this family. And it seems significant that the Greek word translated as “loved” in the story isn’t agape, which is the Greek word for love for a neighbor or even an enemy. Agape means a concern for the welfare of another person, whether you like them or not. But that’s not the word used here for Jesus’ relationship with these three siblings. The word that John uses is phileis, which means the love for a brother (or sister). So these people were literally ‘like family’ to Jesus.
In fact, we’re told that it’s the Mary of this family who will later pour perfume on the feet of Jesus and wipe them with her hair. It seems that John wants us to understand the deep affection between Jesus and the siblings. In fact, I think you could probably make a case that this story goes more deeply into the emotional life of its characters than any other story in the gospels. And that includes the emotional life of Jesus himself.
It seems odd at first glance that Jesus would intentionally stay away from Bethany as his dear friend Lazarus lies gravely ill there. From the way the story is told, Jesus clearly knew how the story would end. But when you think about it, it would have been equally clear to Jesus that this drama that was playing out would bring great heartbreak to Mary and Martha, who were also beloved friends of his. So it must have been heartbreaking for him to delay his return to Bethany, knowing what the girls would be going through.
But Jesus understood that these events were unfolding for a greater purpose: What was happening here was for God’s glory, and to lead others to believe.
When we think about how this story added to God’s glory, the first thought that comes to our minds might be that Jesus would be ‘glorified’ as a miracle worker for bringing Lazarus back to life. But in the Gospel of John, the ‘glorification’ of Jesus usually refers to his death on the cross. So some Bible scholars say that what Jesus really had in mind was that by raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus would force the hand of the Jewish leadership. They already wanted Jesus eliminated, and if he was seen by the population as someone who could raise the dead, the leadership would have no choice but to double down on their efforts to get rid of him.
In the story, when Jesus announces that time has come to return to Bethany to intervene in this tragic situation, the disciples immediately remind him that the Jewish leadership had already been plotting violence against him. But Jesus tells them that it’s time to do what has to be done – that’s apparently what he means when he talks about the twelve hours of darkness and light.
Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus is asleep. Of course, we know that he’s speaking metaphorically – we know that Lazarus is dead by this time. But as often happens in John, Jesus is misunderstood. The disciples just figure that if Lazarus is asleep, he’ll wake up. But Jesus has to spell it out for them: Lazarus is dead, but things will turn out all right in the end, because their faith and the faith of others will be strengthened by what happens.
So Jesus and his disciples set out for Bethany. And it’s worth noting that it’s Thomas who speaks up and encourages the other disciples to get up and go with Jesus, even if it means going to their death. That’s the Thomas who will go down in history as “Doubting Thomas.” But in this story, he’s ‘Courageous Thomas’ – the disciple who calls the others to follow their master into the heart of hostile territory, where they all might wind up dead.
In tomorrow’s reading, Jesus and the disciples will arrive back in Bethany, walking into the scene of chaotic mourning.
Let’s pray. Lord, we are touched by the thought that Jesus shared in human friendship, that his relationship with humankind was not “just business” to him. And we thank you for this powerful story, in which our master was willing to set aside his love for dear friends for the sake of bringing about his ultimate glory – and yours. Amen.
Grace and Peace,
(The other readings for today are Psalms 1 and 33; Job 30:1-31; and Acts 14:19-28.)