From: Jonathan Bailes
Today in our gospel reading, we read the first half of the story about the time Jesus’ friend Lazarus dies and Jesus goes to visit his sisters in Bethany. In the end, it turns out to be a story with a happy ending (spoiler alert: Lazarus doesn’t stay dead) and we come away from reading it comforted in the knowledge that Jesus has the power to give life to the dead. The first part of the story, however, is just plain strange, and the seemingly irrational behavior of Jesus it relates is less likely to comfort than to disturb us. Perhaps most unsettling are verses five and six: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.”
Placed beside one another, these two sentences are odd enough, but what makes them really bizarre is the coordinating conjunction that relates the one to the other: “So”. “So” indicates a relationship of continuity and logical inference, like saying “therefore” or “and for this reason.” But surely this can’t be right? Think about the logic that it implies. Jesus loves Martha and Mary and Lazarus and therefore when he hears that Lazarus is sick, he just hangs around and does nothing? This makes no sense. After all, as we read on, it quickly becomes clear that Jesus’ delay results in Lazarus dying and the two sisters experiencing severe grief. Both Martha and Mary later confront Jesus with this fact, and they’re right. If Jesus had come, he could have prevented Lazarus from dying and saved his sisters from emotional trauma. And yet, we are supposed to believe that it was love that prompted Jesus to hang around for two days while his friend was mortally ill?
If I were an editor who had received John’s gospel in manuscript form, I would have suggested that he switch verse five with verse four. Then the narrative would read, “But when Jesus heard it he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it’…So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” This sentence order would make it clear that, while Jesus loves his friends, he nevertheless allows them to suffer pain and grief because there is something more important at stake than their well-being. This is an opportunity for the Son of God to be glorified, and if Martha and Mary and Lazarus must suffer a little for that to happen, well, then that’s simply a necessary sacrifice for a greater good. Now, to be sure, my version does not provide significantly greater comfort, but at least its logic makes sense.
But I was never given editorial responsibilities for John’s gospel, and that’s not what the text says. Like it or not, John 11:5-6 says that Jesus delayed visiting his friends in Bethany when he heard that Lazarus was ill not in spite of his love for them and not for some higher purpose that overrode the obligations of that love, but because he loved them. Because Jesus loved Lazarus, he let him die. And because Jesus loved Martha and Mary, he let them experience the grief of their brother’s death.
This passage tells a story that is meant to express Jesus’ love for his friends, but the love that we meet in it is a strange, unsettling sort of love, a love that refuses to conform itself to our expectations or explain its seemingly irrational behavior to us. Notice that, although Jesus does respond to Martha when she confronts him with the fact that he could have saved Lazarus, he never offers her any explanation for why he didn’t come sooner. This love can be frustrating, particularly when we find ourselves in situations like Lazarus or Martha and Mary, when we or our loved ones are suffering and we can’t help but wonder, “Where are you, Jesus? Why don’t you come?” When those times come, and they most certainly will, we can’t be guaranteed that Jesus will answer our questions, at least not in the way we would want or expect. But, we can be certain that he loves us and that, if we believe in him, “though we die, yet shall we live.”
I live in Brighton with my wife and three kids. We have been members of the community at Church of the Cross for almost six years now, and for that I am profoundly grateful.