This story takes place only a short time before the events of what we now call “Passion Week.” Bethany, where this story takes place, is less than an hour’s walk from Jerusalem where Jesus will be tried and crucified. The fact that begins the plot of the story is that Lazarus is very sick unto death. The sickness is already introduced as being “for God’s glory” but we do not know how it will bring God glory.
It is interesting to note that when Jesus hears the news of his friend’s death, he does not act on it. He stays where he is two more days! When we encounter a crisis we tend to rush around in a panic, jump into action to get to the bottom of it, to resolve the situation as soon as possible. But Jesus waited, loitered even!
At first when Jesus refers to Lazarus’ death he uses a common euphemism for death—“Lazarus has fallen asleep”—but the disciples don’t get it, so he has to tell them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” Although Thomas’ pessimistic statement—“We’ll go die with you”—reveals that the disciples have a sense of the danger that awaits them, they are really unaware of what will all happen. But we should not be too hard on the disciples; we don’t have the advantage of hindsight in our own stories either. We have to live our stories frontwards just like the disciples did! We often don’t know what’s going on in our lives either.
The stage has been set: the delay, Jesus confidently facing the future, the disciples along for the ride without really knowing what’s going on.
The drama unfolds: Lazarus has been dead for four days, which is significant in the eyes of the Jews. They believed that for three days some kind of kind of resuscitation might be possible, but by the fourth day the person was more than mostly dead, the person was completely dead. Thus, we find them mourning with all hope of recovery lost.
Martha’s response to Jesus’ arrival is interesting. At the same time as she affirms her faith in Jesus’ power to heal, she also seems to blame him for her brother’s death. When Jesus tells her that Lazarus will rise again, she misunderstands, and thinks Jesus is talking about a future resurrection. This misunderstanding allows Jesus’ statement to complete or correct her misunderstanding. Martha, like most Jews, believed in a future resurrection, but this seemed to be of little consolation in the face of human loss and grief.
When human beings face death, the hope of a future life and meeting does not take away the sorrow and loneliness of separation and loss. Death is still death and death is the ultimate separator.
Jesus focuses on the present by saying, I AM—now, in the present—the resurrection and the life. The hope for humanity in the midst of suffering and death is not what might happen in the future, but is in the presence of the person of Jesus. Jesus is not present with us in the way he was for Mary and Martha but this is why the church is called the body of Christ. In the midst of our suffering we experience the presence of Jesus when our sisters and brothers sit beside us, hold our hands, speak words of comfort, and give us an embrace.
This article is part of a MennoNerds Synchro-Blog reflecting on suffering during the Lent season of 2015. To read more articles in this series, go to http://mennonerds.com/tag/mennonerds-lent-2015/. To find out more about MennoNerds in general, go to http://mennonerds.com/about.