Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]
That name, Israel, was given to Jacob after an experience of wrestling with the Lord for the entire night. That’s what that word, Israel, means: the one who wrestles with God. The people of God—the Israelites—lived up to their namesake, after the example of their ancestor. Time and again, the Israelites would wrestle with God, by going their own way. And every time, the Lord would draw them back to himself in love.
We see this habit of wrestling with God in our gospel today, in that play of “back-and-forth” that happens between Jesus and certain others. Jesus has a message to share, but many are intent on their own narrative.
That first narrative is introduced by the sisters, Martha and Mary, at the start of our passage. They send word to Jesus: “Master, the one you love is ill.” The request is implied: come, heal your friend, who’s dying.
But Jesus moves according to his own design. This is actually quite typical in the literary style of John. Unlike in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, where Jesus is often seen as descending into the human circumstance of others; in John, he’s often presented almost like a gravitational force that draws people to himself and into his story.
That’s true in this passage, as well. Jesus is noticeably calm about Lazarus’ illness. He even remains two days longer where he is at. You can see how the two narratives are already in conflict. It was only after Lazarus died that Jesus chose to return to Bethany.
And when he does, Martha tries to reclaim the initiative. She goes out to meet Jesus, and a verbal tug-of-war ensues. When Jesus speaks of Lazarus rising again, Martha tries to define what that means: “I know that he will rise again—in the resurrection at the last day.”
Then when Jesus tells her, “I am the Resurrection and the Life… do you believe this,” she repeats what others have already said about Jesus earlier in John: “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
This is the limit of her faith. Everything she says here is a repetition of what others have said. She falls short of true belief in Jesus. Later, she’ll even try to stop Jesus from entering into the tomb.
So Jesus then calls for Martha’s sister, Mary. Earlier, Mary had shown every sign of going beyond the limits of others in her faith. Here, at the summons of Jesus, she immediately goes to him. Unlike the crowd, who was focused on death, Mary is focused on Jesus.
Like her sister, she says: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Unlike Martha, she leaves it there. She allows God the space to act. But then, sorrow begins to overwhelm her.
When Jesus Saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. This is what troubles God to his depths. It wasn’t Lazarus’ death that anguished God, but the power that death had over their hearts.
And then, when Jesus asked them, “Where have you laid him?” They say, “Come and see”. It’s here that we hear what might be the shortest verse in the entire bible: Jesus wept.
That last time we heard that verse, “Come and see,” it was when John the Baptist saw Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”. The Baptist’s disciples, Andrew and John, left him and followed Jesus instead. In that moment, Jesus had turned and asked them, “What are you looking for?” They replied, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” And Jesus said, “Come and see.”
Jesus had invited them to come and see life and love in him. But here, when Jesus is invited to come and see, he’s invited into a kingdom where death seems to have the last word. And so, God wept.
Incidentally, when Mary and the Jews wept, the original Greek verb that’s used is κλαίω. The verb used for the weeping of Jesus is δαχρύω. This is the only place in the entire New Testament that this verb is used. It’s perhaps a hint that God weeps in a way that is uniquely different and for a different reason.
Immediately after, the Jews said: “See how he loved him!” That’s their narrative mindset—they completely misunderstand Christ’s tears. Sometimes, we can do the same.
At this point in the gospel, Jesus’ public ministry was coming to a close. And it seemed that no one had arrived at true belief in him. Increasingly, it becomes apparent that there is only one thing that will be able to move them no beyond their limitations.
Ultimately, Jesus himself will have to die on the Cross and rise again, in order to instill in his Church the unconditional belief that he is the Resurrection and the Life; that death is no bar to his call. Only his resurrection from the dead would bring their faith beyond death’s horizon.
Like the crowds, we at times can have a very limited faith. We can be locked into the logic of this world and driven by a worldly narrative. Death can seem to have the final word. But in those times, we ought to remember that we believe in a love that is stronger than death. We believe in life that is eternal. We have a Savior who rose from the dead and dies no more. That defies all the logic of this passing world.
We live according to laws that will not pass away. We live in view of eternal life and the Resurrection that is Jesus Christ. “I am the resurrection and the life,” says the Lord, “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?”
Raising Lazarus, by Carl Heinrich Bloch, c. 1875, oil on copper plate, [Public Domain]