The Gift of Life at Death's Door
Death has been too much our companion in recent months, near us not only in the disaster of Sept. 11, but in molten lava submerging a village, crumbling houses in Turkey and a horrendous fire in Lagos. Death walks with Jesus in today’s Gospel as he moves in measured pace toward his suffering and death. The raising of Lazarus is the final and greatest sign of Jesus, a symbolic narrative of his victory over death at the cost of his own life.
Three elements shape the theology and the dramatic tension: the message to Jesus from Martha and Mary, “Master, the one you love is ill”; Jesus’ response that the illness is not to death but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it; and the Evangelist’s editorial comment, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” No other passage in the New Testament speaks so often of Jesus’ love—and of his subsequent grief. Despite his love, Jesus waits two days before setting out for Judea.
Though the story is commonly called the raising of Lazarus, the most profound theology is to be found in the conversations with Martha and Mary. The sisters are models for Johannine Christians of their own journey to a profound faith. Martha meets Jesus and greets him with simple faith in his power as a miracle worker, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Yet she has deep trust that God will grant Jesus’ request. As so often in John’s Gospel, Jesus simply transcends the comment and says, “Your brother will rise.” Again, the familiar Johannine technique of misunderstanding occurs as Martha expresses faith in the common Jewish belief of the time in the general resurrection of the dead “on the last day.”
Jesus’ reaction, which stands at the very center of the whole narrative, is to pronounce those words that bring such consolation at funeral services: “I am the resurrection and life; whoever believes in me even if he [or she] dies will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die.” Jesus says to Martha, “Do you believe this?” Somewhat strangely, Martha’s answer has no direct connection with resurrection. She confesses Jesus in language stunningly similar to Peter’s confession in Mt. 16:16-18: “You are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” In this manner the Evangelist tells us that to experience Jesus as the true life that conquers death, one must accept him as God’s anointed Son.
The story then shifts to the meeting of Mary and Jesus—poignant and powerful. Mary was home weeping but rose to greet Jesus with the other Jewish mourners. Falling down, she worships him but speaks the very same words of simple faith as Martha. Jesus does not respond immediately, as he did with Martha, but the Evangelist tells us that he was “perturbed and deeply troubled,” strong language that expresses Jesus’ anger at death’s power and sorrow over its ravages. Jesus goes to the tomb, and—in one of the most extraordinary incidents in the New Testament—at the door of death, now the barrier between himself and one he loves, “Jesus wept,” shedding tears of loss over a loved one.
Arriving at the tomb, Jesus is again perturbed and orders the stone to be removed. Martha reappears, and her words are another instance of the Johannine technique of misunderstanding. In the colorful words of the King James Version, she says, “Lord, by this time he stinketh,” which, like the realism of Jesus’ anger and grief, enhances the horror of death. After praying to his Father, Jesus cries in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” “The dead man” emerges totally wrapped in the burial shrouds. Lazarus will die again, but Jesus, whose burial cloths are left in the tomb, is the giver of life who will never die.
This Gospel provides a wealth of material for reflection as Holy Week approaches. Jesus offers “eternal life,” which begins with faith now and lasts forever. “Eternal life” in John is not primarily unending life, but authentic life, or life in its fullness. No other section of John captures so well the great paradox that Jesus is from above, who was the “Word with God and was God” (Jn. 1:1), yet truly became flesh. Like his devoted followers in centuries to come, he weeps in the face of death. As Sandra Schneiders says eloquently in her study of John 11, “Eternal life conquers death without abolishing it,” and “We are not asked not to weep, but only not to despair, for the one in whom we believe is our resurrection, because he is our life” (Written That You Might Believe). Because the raising of Lazarus provokes the religious leaders to agree that Jesus must be killed, Jesus here is a model of that greater love that lays down life for a friend, a narrative that will be played out between now and Easter.