Next week's readings:5th Sunday of Lent
Posted: 02 Nov 2006 @ 00:00
IN SCENE after scene, John’s Jesus has baffled or appalled his
interlocutors. First, Nicodemus is confused: “Anyone who is not born again from
above”, Jesus tells him, “cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3.3). The
Samaritan woman is bemused in her turn.
Jesus then heals a cripple on the sabbath. The story itself is quickly told
(John 5.1-9). The Jews — with horror — come close to seeing what Jesus claims
for himself. He is making himself equal to God. Jesus confirms that God has
given him two powers that are God’s alone: the powers of life, and of
judgement. So Jesus can say: “The time is coming, and now is, when the dead
shall hear the voice of the son of God, and those who hear shall live”
Next, Jesus feeds the crowd. They follow him. He insists they are coming
after him not because they have understood the “sign”, but simply because they
have eaten and been filled (John 6.26). His demand that his followers eat his
flesh and drink his blood is so stark that many of his own followers abandon
him (John 6.66).
When Jesus heals the man born blind, the miracle again leads into
dialogues; Jesus’s opponents find every way they can to remain blind (John
9.1-41). Jesus now starts to speak of his own death: he is the good shepherd
who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10.11).
In the raising of Lazarus, the story and dialogues have become inseparable;
and this climactic miracle is itself the climactic moment in its scene. The
raising is the trigger, too, to all that follows. Jesus gives life to his
friend; and so sets in motion the conspiracy that will lead to his own death
(John 11.47-53). Here indeed is the good shepherd, laying down his life.
The story of Lazarus is a stirring conclusion to the public ministry of
Jesus. But, for that very reason, it has made many readers uneasy. The other
Gospels know nothing of it. Luke does know of Martha and Mary (Luke 10.38-42);
the two sisters are as clearly distinguished in his story as in John’s. Is it
really possible that Luke knew nothing, none the less, of their brother — or
that Luke chose to ignore the story that Lazarus returned to life?
It is surely telling that Luke does know of a Lazarus, the only named
character in a parable of Jesus: the dead beggar whom Abraham will not send
back to earth to warn the rich man’s brothers of their impending punishment;
for “they will not believe,” says Abraham, “even if one were to rise from the
dead” (Luke 16.19-31). How easy it is to suspect that John has created his
story out of these various elements in a tradition that he shared with (or
learnt from) Luke.
But, if John’s Lazarus has not been woven into existence from the parable,
who was he? Jesus, John tells us, loved Lazarus and his sisters; and Lazarus is
among those reclining at table with Jesus in John 12.2. There is a suggestion —
disputed, but persistently revived — that Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple, who
later reclined on the breast of Jesus (John 13.23).
Whatever was the event that underlies John’s story of Lazarus, we do well to
acknowledge that John has made the story his own. Commentators are
enthusiastic: here, they say, is a masterpiece of narrative. Really? John has
loaded into this story so much theological freight that some may think it sinks
beneath the weight.
Jesus deliberately delays his departure to Bethany; by the time he moves,
one friend has died and two others are suffering. The double entendre between
sleep and death is leaden (John 11.11-15). Jesus’s great self-declaration is
famously odd (John 11.25-26): “Those who believe in me, even if they die, shall
live; and all those who live and believe in me shall not die, for ever” (John
11.25-26). Those who “live and believe in Jesus” are undoubtedly subject to
physical death. So, is Jesus promising freedom only from spiritual death? It is
strange, then, to tell a story of Lazarus’s return to the physical life that
will end with death again.
The opening words of each sister are the same (John 11.21, 32); Martha and
Mary are paired, as well as contrasted. Jesus may indeed be weeping in sorrow
for Lazarus (John 11.35); but he seems, by his delay, to have allowed Lazarus
to die. Jesus, in his prayer to the Father, must (bizarrely) qualify his
thanksgiving, to make things clear to those who can overhear (John 11.42).
Lazarus emerges somehow from the tomb, though his feet are still bound together
(John 11.44) — in contrast with Jesus, who will leave his grave-clothes behind
Once we admit the story to be formal and stylised, we can see its true
splendour emerge. The characters in the story have been baffled, teased,
cajoled and warned by Jesus; so have the John’s readers, by the Gospel
itself. The cripple and blind man have been brought by Jesus to new
health and new sight. So have the readers, by the Gospel itself.
Such readers may still have only the emerging faith of Martha; mixed with
the despair — but obeisance — of Mary. It is enough. Just those doubts and
despair form the tomb from which the readers need release. And now the readers,
buried in this tomb, are ready to hear the voice of the son of God, and to be
born again from above. When Jesus speaks to Lazarus, he speaks to us: “Come on
So the readers come to understand for themselves how Jesus is “the
resurrection and the life” (John 11.25). Such readers will indeed be loved by
Jesus; and will recline beside him, as Beloved Disciples, to hear the private
instruction that he gives to his closest followers alone.