2 April 2017
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Lent 5A (RCL)
The raising of Lazarus is the last of the seven signs in John’s Gospel. And if understanding Jesus on the basis of the signs is a misunderstanding, then it is very easy to misunderstand this sign. Everyone in the story misses the point — even Mary and Martha. Part of our problem in understanding the story is a history of mistranslation.
Various translations struggle with the verb in v. 33. The KJV tells us that Jesus “groaned in spirit.” The RSV tells us he “was deeply moved in spirit, and troubled.” The NRSV tells us he “was greatly disturbed in spirit, and deeply moved.” The Greek tells us he was furious or indignant and harassed or troubled. Translators shy away from Jesus’ indignation when he sees Mary and the Jews who came with her weeping, but his anger is the key to understanding the story. They have failed, even at this point in the Gospel, to understand who he is.
When Jesus learns of Lazarus’ illness, he delays two days, so that the day of travel will be the third day. He delays in order that the Son of God may be glorified. The result of the raising of Lazarus is that Caiaphas and the council agree that Jesus should die, lest the whole nation perish. This is the glorification of the Son of God.
When Martha comes to meet Jesus, she says, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” I hear in this the question of the delay of the Parousia. If Jesus had come back sooner, these Christians would not have died. What gives? She goes on to say, “and even now, I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus replies that her brother will rise again, and she responds that she knows he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day. This is a misapprehension — Jesus is talking about something else. He responds, “I AM the resurrection and the life. whoever believes in me, even if they die yet shall live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She responds, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
She almost got it right. Just like the woman at the well, she is looking for the Christ in the future, and for a resurrection at the last day. Jesus is standing right there in front of her. He is not coming into the world; he is in the world.
Martha then calls Mary, and Mary and the Jews with her come to where Jesus is. Again, Mary chides Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” That’s when he gets angry. He asks where they have laid Lazarus, and they respond, “Come and see” — exactly the same vocabulary as when Jesus invited the first two disciples to come and see where he remained. Jesus then engages in a grandstanding prayer — another sign (I believe) that the audience in the story is about to misunderstand the sign.
He cries out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” We are told that the “dead man” came out, still bound in his grave clothes. Contrast this scene to the seen when Mary Magdalene enters the tomb and sees Jesus’ grave clothes lying neatly folded, with the cloth over his face folded neatly in a separate place. The raising of Lazarus is not a resurrection; it is the resuscitation of a corpse. Jesus has to tell them the obvious: unbind him and let him go.
The Incarnation of the Word in Jesus, and Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, somehow upends the reality we thought we knew. Jesus, the Incarnate Word, remains in the world, despite the destruction of the Temple and the crucifixion and empty tomb. The death of Jesus defeats evil, not him, and we live the resurrection life despite death. If we are hoping for a resurrection at the last day, we will see something like the raising of Lazarus. What binds us and prevents us from living a resurrection life now?