A Provocation: The Fifth Sunday in Lent: April 2, 2017: John 11:1-45

John 11:1-45
11:1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

11:2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.

11:3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

11:4 But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

11:5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,

11:6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

11:7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

11:8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”

11:9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world.

11:10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.”

11:11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.”

11:12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.”

11:13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.

11:14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.

11:15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

11:16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

11:17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.

11:18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away,

11:19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.

11:20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home.

11:21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

11:22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”

11:23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”

11:24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

11:25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live,

11:26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

11:27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

11:28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”

11:29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him.

11:30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him.

11:31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.

11:32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.

11:34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

11:35 Jesus began to weep.

11:36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

11:37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.

11:39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”

11:40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

11:41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.

11:42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”

11:43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

11:44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

11:45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

A Question or Two:

  • Is it a good thing that Jesus knows that he can raise Lazarus from death?
  • Is his confident knowledge what leads him to scold two sisters who are mourning the death of their brother?
  • So, again, is it a good thing that Jesus is confident?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is a piece of complicated storytelling.

There is the complication that comes out of the choice that Jesus makes.  He did not have to delay, but he chose to, and Lazarus died during the delay.

There is the complication that comes out of the disciples response to his decision to go into Judea.  When told that they are traveling to Bethany where Lazarus lives (as he dies), they cease talking about Lazarus and direct their attention to the risk that Jesus is running by returning to Judea: the Judeans had tried to stone him, and now he is going back there.  Commentators often mock their lack of understanding, but their action is admirable.  “We might as well die with him,” they say.   In the midst of a strange interchange with Jesus about Lazarus who may be sleeping or dead, they know clearly that this is a matter of life and death, and they choose to move resolutely toward death.  This is the stuff that medals are made of.

And there is the complication of life and death and life and resurrection and resuscitation.  Martha does not care too much about the niceties of all this.  She sees to the heart of things: of course she trusts that the dead will be raised.  She is a faithful ancient Jew, after all.  She expects that God will regather all the faithful and balance all accounts, even if God has to recreate the cosmos to do so.  Resurrection is no difficult task, in her eyes, since that is what it would take for God to keep promises too long pending.  But she also knows that a general resurrection has no immediate impact on the fact of bereavement.  Lazarus, her brother is dead.  Trust in God’s ultimate balancing of accounts does not dull the slicing agony of losing him.  “If you had been here,” she says, “my brother would not have died.”  She is correct.  The storyteller shows us a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind, even to Jesus.  He delayed, and Martha points that out.

Mary does the same when she meets Jesus.

The women in this family speak directly and they do not pull their punches.

Jesus’ response to this (repeated) direct challenge is seldom translated directly.

The word in Greek is ἐνεβριμήσατο, and it is generally translated so that the audience is given a glimpse into the tender inner workings of Jesus’ heart.  He feels bad that Lazarus is dead.  He even cries.  What a guy.

But the word does not refer to tender inner feelings.

The word, ἐνεβριμήσατο, refers to the snorting of a warhorse.  It should generally be translated as “snorted in anger.”  Inner feelings, especially in the face of bereavement, are surely difficult to express, and even harder to translate, but the word will carry with it a note of anger disgust, even, and a proper translation will have to catch that or admit that it simply has decided to translate what the storyteller SHOULD have said, but didn’t.

Such choices always lead to bad translations.

They lead to even worse theology.

Jesus snorts in anger, maybe even in disgust.  Why?

One possibility is that, having been scolded by Martha (and my sense is that when Martha, direct person that she was, scolded you, you stayed scolded), being also scolded by Mary (who shares the family trait of forcefulness) drove him over the edge.  He was angry, and the storyteller shows us the anger.

Such a complicated reading will make most pious readers nervous.  Maybe they should be.

Another possibility is that Jesus is angry with himself.  Such a reading would catch the force of the prepositional prefix attached to the verb, ἐνεβριμήσατο, which directs the action inward somehow.  Such a reading would give us a Jesus who has just now realized the real-world, real-sister impact of his choice to delay,  It is a fine thing to do things so that “the Son of God may be glorified.”  It is another thing to crash two sisters hard into raw grief that he could have prevented.  Read C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed for an unvarnished picture of the horrors of grief.  Everything is smashed to bits, even for a person who had made his reputation as a calm and rational representative for confident faithfulness.  Martha and Mary and Lewis will have shared the same sharp pains of bereavement.  When Lewis asks, intemperately, whether God must not  be judged to be a “Cosmic Sadist,” Martha and Mary will have good cause to join his complaint against God.  Jesus told the audience that he intended to delay so that Lazarus would die.  That is torture, and there is no other way to say it.

And perhaps it is both of these options.

People who are caught out in the open with their blamable actions all too visible often find a way to direct blame in another direction.  Politicians do this all the time.  So do children.  So do adults who should know better.

Perhaps that is why Jesus snorts.  The storyteller may intend such a reading, given that we are given a glimpse of a Jesus who snorts (or is indignant, or is furious) ἐν ἑαυτῷ.  The Greek means “in himself.”  That could mean that we are here seeing an inner view.  Or it could mean that he is angry with himself.  This would be fascinating.  This would also be a strong complication in the storyteller’s portrayal of Jesus.

Perhaps the strongest complication is revealed the last time Martha speaks in John’s gospel.

Before we hear her words, she is identified one more time.  She is the sister of the dead man.  She is Martha.  Her name comes last.  Her relationship comes first.  Her bereavement leads her identity.  That makes sense.  Two of my sisters have died.  My identity is decisively shaped by having known them, having grown up with them, and having attended their funerals.  Martha is the same, I suppose.

And then she speaks, directly as always.

“Already there is a stench,” she says.

Jesus’ response makes it sound as if her comment is evidence of her not having listened closely enough when last he spoke to her.  If that is his intention (given him by the storyteller), my reaction is beyond irritation.  Martha, the sister of the man lying inert in the tomb, has just said, simply, that her brother’s corpse has begun to decay.  There is a stench.  Removing the stone will release the stench generally.  The unmistakeable smell of decay will assault everyone.  Especially the two sisters.

Stop and think about this moment in the scene.  Ancient burial practices included wrapping the corpse with aromatic spices that would partly cover the smell of decay.  This was a kindness to the family.  But no spices could completely mask the smell, but they could soften it.  For a while.  But Jesus delayed for two days, and now Lazarus has been in his tomb for four days.

And Martha has to remind him that there is a stench.

Again, Jesus responds.  Again, his words sound rather like scolding, maybe even angry scolding.  “Did I not tell you…,” he begins.  Commentators typically have no trouble with his words.  And maybe they shouldn’t.  Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, and Lazarus is alive at the end of the scene.  But I find myself trying to make sense of  the impact of these words on people.  Martha-and-Mary-people, but also the theological impact on people who hear the story told to them.  I find myself wondering how many of them learn to associate Christian faithfulness with scolding, with a demand that they not be affected by death and other loss.  “Did I not tell you…,” says the voice of coercive faith, faith that expects perfect imperturbability from them.

The season of Lent may be a good time to reflect on this aspect of this scene.  If we imagine that we ought to be perfectly confident at all times (and that anything less than that is evidence of a flawed faith), then this Lent is a good time to repent of that dangerous notion.  Maybe this really IS the Lent to re-read Lewis’s A Grief Observed.  The flatfooted honesty with which Lewis writes about reactions that echo those of Martha and Mary.  Which means that the Jesus who shows up in this scene might also scold C.S. Lewis.  He surely would scold me.

That is why I like Martha.  Her honest retorts and reminders dare to risk being scolded.

And they reveal a real and faithful understanding of what it means to be human.  I am glad that she does not EVER apologize for telling the truth.

One thought on “A Provocation: The Fifth Sunday in Lent: April 2, 2017: John 11:1-45

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s