Sunday reflection: John 11:1-45

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection only represents my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion.Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here For previous Green Room entries, click here.

Today’s Gospel reading is John 11:1-45:

Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to Jesus saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away. And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.” As soon as she heard this, she rose quickly and went to him. For Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still where Martha had met him. So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her saw Mary get up quickly and go out, they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell 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 had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”

So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.

We traveled to Bethany on our pilgrimage last fall, and attended Mass in the Church of St. Lazarus. The town provides a stark contrast to some of the other traditional stops on pilgrimages for its poverty, perhaps even more so than other West Bank towns. The name Bethany means “house of the poor” or “house of affliction” in commonly accepted etymology, which may be why locals prefer al-Azzariyya (or al-Eizariya), the “Place of Lazarus” instead. It remains a place of poverty, where tourists and pilgrims provide much of their living.

If we accept that etymology for the name of the town, we can assume that Bethany was not a wealthy place in Jesus’ time either. The hospitality and love shown to Jesus by Martha and Mary earlier in the Gospel would have been extraordinarily generous, which must have touched Jesus significantly. Lazarus and his two sisters appear to be Jesus’ closest friends outside of the twelve disciples, his mother, and Mary Magdalene. Yet, when Jesus — who emphasizes throughout His ministry the need to serve the poor in particular — finds out that his dear friend in the poor town of Bethany has taken deathly ill, He makes the curious choice to do nothing about it for two full days. Before Jesus begins the journey to Bethany, He informs the disciples that Lazarus has already died, and pronounces that He was glad not to have been there, so that God’s glory may be done.

By this time in the Gospel, we know Jesus has lost two people close to Him: Joseph his earthly father, and John the Baptist. We do not know the circumstances of Joseph’s passing or Jesus’ mourning for him. We do know Jesus’ anger over the murder of John the Baptist, and His accusations against the leaders in Jerusalem for their disregard for John and his prophecies. Here, though, we have the all-too-human model of death and mourning not from evil acts but from disease.

Jesus comes to free us from death and knows He will triumph, and that Lazarus’ death and return will play a large role in freeing us. And yet, Jesus mourns over the loss of His friend, even temporarily, weeping over the pain of Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and their friends in Bethany. What does this tell us? God mourns death and the pain it causes — part of our natural order in this world, chosen out of free will in the Garden of Eden story when the first human beings chose to make themselves into gods rather than obey the Father. Our death, our pain, our poverty in means and in spirit — all these come from the same sinful nature, choices made by man and not by God. Jesus weeps for Lazarus and for all of us. He suffers in this passage, and we’ll see why momentarily.

First, though, note the reactions of Mary, Martha, and the villagers of Bethany. The two sisters pay homage to Jesus when first greeting him, but then almost scold Him for not being on hand to save their brother. Some of the villagers go directly to anger over the lack of intervention from Jesus. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man,” they murmur, “have done something so that this man would not have died?” In fact, this perturbs Jesus “again,” on top of His sympathy for their mourning.

How often do we do the same thing? When misfortunes befall us, we ask God, “You have the power to have taken this cup from my lips! Where were you? Why did you not intervene to stop it?” It’s easy to trust God when things are going well, after all, but when adversity arrives we start accusing God of forgetting us, even when we cause our adversity ourselves. Even here, though, Mary and Martha have faith in Jesus as the Son of God. Martha doesn’t think to ask Jesus to raise Lazarus, but is satisfied in her faith that her brother will rise again on the last day, and even objects when Jesus asks to have the tombstone removed.

Why does Jesus allow the poor villagers, some his close friends, to suffer for four days in mourning – as well as himself? As in last week’s reflection, sometimes God uses adversity to allow the Holy Spirit to work in ways to bring people closer to God. Jesus uses Lazarus’ illness and death in a similar manner. The resurrection of Lazarus clearly prefigures that of Jesus Himself. His Passion in Jerusalem is now very close, and Jesus needs to give one final demonstration of the power of God through Jesus, not for His own sake … but for the sake of His disciples.  (In fact, in John 12:17, the same crowd that witnessed Lazarus coming from the tomb “bore witness” to Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the start of the Passion.)

In order for His disciples to remain together after the death Jesus warns them will come from His entry into Jerusalem, they need a frame of reference for what is to come. Jesus performs His most powerful miracle of the Gospel in order to demonstrate His coming victory over all death. The disciples will need to understand this when Jesus is sacrificed for the sins of all to redeem the entire human race, especially in the hours between His death and resurrection. Jesus uses the adversity of the natural consequence of Lazarus’ illness to bring more believers to Him, but also to allow the disciples to grasp His mission when despair might otherwise rule the day.

There is another layer to this as well. Jesus comes to us as both fully human and fully divine but without the stain of the original sin. In the Temptation in the Desert, Jesus redeemed humanity from Adam’s fall, as well as that of the Israelites in their desert test. He does not have to suffer death at all, and this miracle demonstrates that powerfully. He could, as one of the other condemned men on Golgotha says in echoes of what Jesus heard in Bethany, save Himself at any time. Instead, He chooses to serve God’s will in finally breaking the chains of sin and death by dying for our sins. Jesus redeems us as a freely-given gift, which we only have to accept in order to be saved from eternal death. Lazarus’ resurrection shows the price Jesus pays for our redemption, and calls us to refrain from despair as well.

Yesterday, an instructor offered a question on which our class meditated in silence: imagine what your life would have been like without Christ. That’s not terribly difficult to visualize; I’ve seen it at times in myself, and in others. It doesn’t mean we all turn into antagonists or awful people, but that we look for material goods to idolize in place of Jesus Christ (and we all have a tendency toward that even with Christ). All of this fails; our material possessions disappear, our contemporary heroes fail us, family and friends can grow distant. Without Christ’s redemption at the center of my life, despair would take over — even if it’s a low-grade kind of despair, one that gnaws without clearly identifying itself. Death would become the greatest evil, and I would dive into sin as a way to escape from it, by chasing money, possessions, power, and sex for the momentary gratifications that only temporarily distract from that kind of emptiness. The more I chased after them, the more desperate I would become for the next distraction.

Jesus reminds us that the hoarding of possessions, pleasure, and power leaves us mired in spiritual poverty far greater than the temporal poverty of the villagers of Bethany in those days. We only have to recognize that poverty, that spiritual death, and ask Jesus to raise us from it so that we may have eternal life with the Holy Spirit. Jesus calls to all of us by name, “Come forth!” Will we shake off our shrouds and walk into the light?

Addendum: I thought you might enjoy a picture of the inside of the Church of St. Lazarus in Bethany from last November. I used a fish-eye lens, and then corrected for some of the distortion. The mosaic of Mary and Martha greeting Jesus and the altar are both quite striking, and the tomb motif of the carving on the front of the altar is worth checking out too. Click to enlarge:

Church of Lazarus' tomb in Bethany.