Fifth Sunday in Lent
Reflections on the Season’s Lectionary Readings
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But 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.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus 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. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.
Faithful preaching attends to the life of Jesus Christ as that life is narrated for us by the Scriptures. (As John Behr says, our relationship to Christ is primarily—although of course not exclusively or ultimately —literary.) Christ’s life is the life of God lived under human conditions, and as such it is a life that reveals God to himself and to us and us to ourselves and to God. As we attend to and are absorbed by his life as the Scriptures give it to us, we begin to see God and ourselves truly, and just so are transformed by what we see.
During the Lenten season, we turn our attention to Jesus’s story in preparation for the events of Holy Week, events which are both-at-once divine and creaturely, eternal and historical—and therefore eschatological. Unlike all other historical events, they did not simply happen at particular moment to certain people. They continue to happen to all of us, enfolding us in their happening in ancipation of the final happening that carries creation into its fulness in God. We bother to talk like that because only so can we see that this week’s Gospel reading does not merely report something Jesus once did for one man and his sisters. In John’s telling, Lazaraus’s story performs for us the here-and-now coming of Jesus. As we read in faith and in hope, the very same Jesus who presented himself to the characters in this story re-presents himself to us. Lazarus’s friend is our contemporary, too.
“Lord, he whom you love is ill” John Chrysostom, commenting on this passage, observed that “many are offended whey they see any of those who are pleasing to God suffering anything terrible.” Yet the hard truth is that those who are “dear to God” are no more exempted from the sorrows of this life than are non-believers. Nor would they want to be, of course. Still, now, no less than then, it is a hard truth to hear that someone we love—and someone we know loves God—is ill. We inevitably find ourselves asking some form of this question: why does an all-powerful, all-good God allow any evil or suffering at all? If God in fact does love us, and if, as my 8 year old son puts it, God “has it in him” to keep us from sorrow, then why is anyone ever ill or in trouble? There is, in short, no good answer for us to give to that question. We can offer no adequate theodicy, no just justification for God. Instead, we have to live with what we have received: the hope that when all is said and done, God will show himself to be worthy of our confidence. Until then, we pray and we wait. We pray the prayer of the prophets—“How long, Lord?”—and the prayer of the apostles—“Come quickly, Jesus.” Above all, we pray the prayer of Jesus— “Father, let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
“This illness … is for God’s glory” As with the blindness of the man in John 9, so with Lazarus’s terminal illness—and with all illnesses and disease in all times and places: it is “for God’s glory.” But this does not mean that God first imposes illness so that he can later dramatically heal it. God’s work does not need to be staged for effect, and God never needs to rely on tricks of timing to demonstrate his power. Illness—disease or suffering of any kind—is what happens in a world gone wrong, a world in which God’s is willing that his will not be done, at least not all-at-once. And yet it’s precisely that kind of world in which God’s will can be done mercifully and redemptively. God’s glory, then, is made known only as there is truly a need for mercy and time for redemption to take shape.
To say that all illness/disease is for God’s glory also does not mean that God is glorified by our need for him. God does not need our weakness to make his strength obvious. He does not need darkness for his light to be visible. God needs nothing, not even our neediness. We cannot remind ourselves too often of this truth: God does not stand out in comparison to any creaturely reality because God, as Creator, is not in competition with creaturely reality.
Finally, to say that all illness/disease is for God’s glory does not mean that God is glorified in the power displayed in meeting our need. It is not as if God has abilities that he needs to showcase, powers that he needs to show off. God is not a conqueror but “more than a conqueror”—altogether beyond any and all comparison and just so beyond any and all conflict. Only because divine strength is not the opposite of human weakness can it be perfected in that weakness. This is why Jesus says to the disciples that he is glad for their sake that Lazarus has died: “Lazarus isn’t asleep. He’s dead. And for your sake, I’m glad that I was not there to keep him from dying. After I have awakened him from his sleep — or, as you think of it, after I have raised him from the dead — your eyes will be opened to what you’d never have noticed otherwise.” As Augustine says, “Lazarus has to die so that when he is raised the disciples’ faith might be raised with him.”
“they thought” Again and again, John’s Gospel confronts us with ironic misunderstandings. Here, the disciples—like the master of the wedding feast (in chap. 2), Nicodemus (in chap. 3), the woman at the well (in chap. 4), the man born blind (in chap. 9), as well as the Pharisees and “the Jews” (in chaps. 6-9)—misunderstand Jesus’s words and actions. And yet, in a doubling of the irony, the disciples’ misapprehension is in some ways truer than their apprehension would have been. When they think that Lazarus is only asleep, they cannot imagine why Jesus is worried for Lazarus. Their incredulity at Jesus’s concern is unmistakable: “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be alright.” But when they realize that Lazarus is in fact dead, they panic. Their faith is so weak, their fear of death so strong, that they are sure they are going to their own deaths by following Jesus to Bethany. Their feelings move further away from the truth as their understanding comes to a better grasp of the facts.
It is this fear of death that reveals what Paul, in this week’s Epistle, names as “the mind of the flesh” (Rom. 8.6–11). So long as we are afraid of death, dominated by a faithless half-awareness of our mortal condition and our utter conditionedness, we cannot please God. Notice, Paul is not saying that God is offended by our faithlessness. It is not that “the mind of the flesh” displeases God, but that it makes it so we cannot please God. Living “in the flesh” is inhumane. To live in that way is to live at odds with our own nature. Only after we are delivered from this fear of and rebellion against our conditionedness are we freed to live joyfully the life afforded to us. Once we realize that God is absolutely dependable, we no longer resent that we are absolutely dependent. But of course the only way to realize that God is dependable, is to accept, by faith, that our dependance is a gift and not a burden.
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
When 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.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The 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. 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?”
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus 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.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I 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.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The 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.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.
“Lord, if you had been here” As Rowan Williams has said, in this story we find Christ on trial. Martha, and then her sister, Mary, face him with the same protest: “if you had been here, Jesus, our brother would not have died.” “The Jews,” too, wonder why, if he can save others, he does not save Lazarus, whom he so obviously loved. Strikingly, Jesus does not defend himself. And he does not silence the questions that arise. He simply asks them to take him to the tomb: “where have you laid him?” And they respond: “come and see,” a phrase that recalls other moments in the Gospel, including Jesus’s invitation to his first disciples (1.39), Nathanael’s call to Philip (1.46), and the Samaritan woman’s call to the people of the city (4.29). Jesus does indeed follow them, showing that he has come not only to welcome us into his reality—“I go to prepare a place for you”—but also comes to be welcomed into our reality, however dark, however cold. In this, Jesus reveals the sacred heart of godliness, the beauty of God radiating from a human life. To quote Williams again:
Saints are people who don’t silence us, but let us speak out of what is most real to us, even if it’s painful, even if it’s challenging. A saint is somebody who says to you, “You have God’s permission to be yourself, even if that means pouring out the anger, misery, guilt, confusion.” And a saint is somebody who says, “Let me come with you to where it hurts.” A saint is someone who says, ‘‘Trust and you will see what you never imagined,” because the saints in the Church are above all the people who give us hope, the people who show us that things can be different, that humanity doesn’t have to work in a sort of cyclical, miserable reworking of resentment, unhappiness, and selfishness. Saints break that open and they tell us, ‘‘Trust God and God alone knows what you will see in his world, and what you will see of him.’’
“I am the resurrection” Meeting Martha’s grief, Jesus assures her by identifying himself: “I am the resurrection and the life.” We might say, as St Augustine does, that he is the resurrection because he is the life. But it is no less true that the life he promises us is the life of resurrection—and so a life that comes on the far side of death. He is our life because he is the resurrection; in other words, God does not save us from death but through it. Jesus is the answer to his own question, which he put to Ezekiel: “Mortal, can these bones live?” This is why he can promise Martha that those who believe in him “even though they die … never die.” Just as darkness is light to God, so death is life to him.
“She knelt at his feet” Like the woman at the well returned to Samaria, Andrew returned to his brother, Simon Peter, and Philip had sought out Nathanael and convinced him to come and see Jesus (Jn 1.35–51), Martha, having confessed her confidence in Jesus, returns to call her sister. When Mary goes to him, she kneels at his feet—in recollection of her earlier kneeling to listen to his teaching (Lk 10.39) and in anticipation of her later kneeling kneeling to anoint Jesus’s feet with pure nard in preparation for his death and burial (Jn 12.1–7). In this, she models for us the heart of faith.
“Jesus began to weep” Jesus, John tells us, is “deeply moved” and begins to weep. But why is he so moved? Why does he weep, knowing what he is about to do for Lazarus, for Martha and Mary, for “the Jews,” for the disciples? John does not tell us, and so we are left to wonder. Obviously, we know he does not weep because Lazarus is dead. It may be, as many have contended, that he is agitated by the unbelief of those who have gathered at the tomb, but that can only be true in the sense that he pities them. It would seem that he does not weep merely to show that he is human (although of course, as many Fathers observed, his tears do reveal the depth of his humanity). And I would argue that he does not weep merely to show us how to grieve (although, as Chrysostom suggests, his weeping shows that weeping for the dead is not inherently faithless and ungodly). Be that as it may, even if we cannot finally say what moved Jesus to tears, we can be sure that Jesus weeps because he is taking into himself human experience in its fulness. As Rowan Williams has said, Christ carries our grief in his love. Later in the Gospel (20.11), Mary Magdalene weeps at Jesus’s tomb, revealing that Jesus has entered so fully into the human reality that he knows both what it is to weep and what it is to be wept for, what it is to grieve and what it is to be grieved. His identification with us is absolute and entire, encompassing not only our life but also our death. What is ours, he takes as his own so that what is his, we may receive as our own.
“there is a stench” Even though Martha believes in Jesus and trusts his promise to raise her brother from the dead, her protest—“Lord, there is a stench!”—shows that she (like Alyosha in Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov) cannot suppress her fear and disgust at what death has done to her brother. We should not fault her for it. Jesus doesn’t. He simply reminds her of the promise: “you will see the glory of God.” In truth, we should be wary of the naïveté that disguises itself as “faith,” because it deadens us to the realities of our mortal existence. But we should also be wary of any kind of despair disguised as “realism,” because it deadens us to the presence and the promises of God. Either way, it strips us of our humanity and renders us incapable of seeing—or being seen as—the glory of God.
“Unbind him, and let him go” As readers of this Gospel from Origen to the present day have noted, John’s stories are made to work as master-parables for the life of faith. Even the minutest details in these stories (think, for example, of the woman leaving her bucket at the well or the man by the pool taking up his mat after he is healed) are mysteriously freighted with significance. Lazarus, called back to life but still bound in his grave clothes, figures for us what Romans 8 describes as the conflict of “flesh” and “Spirit.” Even after we have been baptized into Christ’s death and filled with the Spirit of his new creation life, we remain bound by the “graveclothes” of the old humanity (“Adam”). Long after we are delivered from slavery in Egypt, we find that we still engage the world as slaves. We are delivered from death not only to life-with-God but also life-with-neighbor. We are saved not from one another, but for and to one another. And so continually we have to have our minds renewed, our hearts purged, our imaginations sanctified, our loves reordered. We have continually to be converted not only to Christ, but also to Lazarus.
“Many … believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees …” I never read this story without thinking of Franz Wright’s “The Raising of Lazarus,” and, especially, the ending lines, which capture the shock and horror and wonder and bewilderment that must’ve descended on everyone that day:
Peter looked across at Jesus
with an expression that seemed to say
You did it, or What have you done?
And everyone saw
how their vague and inaccurate
life made room for his once more.
The ambiguity of that last “his” is perfect. Does it refer to Lazarus? To Jesus? And why are the lives of the onlookers “vague and inaccurate”? Because they have yet to die? Because they have yet to live? The answer, I think, to all of these questions is “Yes.” This is a gospel story; therefore, it is about both Jesus and Lazarus—to make room for one is to make room for the other. And the gospel makes clear that the only way to live an accurate life—to live truthfully, accessibly—is through radical identification with Jesus in his care for our neighbors. As his disciples, ourselves impossibly saved from death, we have to join him in his journey to where it hurts most (as Williams puts it). We have to roll away the gravestone from our lives and the lives of our neighbors—even if that means we expose a deep corruption. We have to make room in our lives for Christ to call the dead to life so that we can take up in his Spirit the work of stripping away the “grave clothes” that bind them to their past.
We should have no illusions: not everyone will rejoice in what we do. And we won’t always take joy in it ourselves. But like Thomas and the other disciples, like Martha and Mary and “the Jews,” all we have to do is show up where Jesus is—and wait for him to do what only he can do.