- Madeleine L’Engle
A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus who was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.” When Jesus finally got there, he found Lazarus already four days dead. Bethany was near Jerusalem, only a couple of miles away, and many of the Jews were visiting Martha and Mary, sympathizing with them over their brother. Martha heard Jesus was coming and went out to meet him. Mary remained in the house. Martha said, “Master, if you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now, I know that whatever you ask God he will give you.” Jesus said, “Your brother will be raised up.” Martha replied, “I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.” “You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Master. All along I have believed that you are the Messiah, the Son of God who comes into the world.” After saying this, she went to her sister Mary and whispered in her ear, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.” The moment she heard that, she jumped up and ran out to him. Jesus had not yet entered the town but was still at the place where Martha had met him. When her sympathizing Jewish friends saw Mary run off, they followed her, thinking she was on her way to the tomb to weep there. Mary came to where Jesus was waiting and fell at his feet, saying, “Master, if only you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her sobbing and the Jews with her sobbing, a deep anger welled up within him. He said, “Where did you put him?” “Master, come and see,” they said. Now Jesus wept. The Jews said, “Look how deeply he loved him.” Others among them said, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.” Then Jesus, the anger again welling up within him, arrived at the tomb. It was a simple cave in the hillside with a slab of stone laid against it. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” The sister of the dead man, Martha, said, “Master, by this time there’s a stench. He’s been dead four days!” Jesus looked her in the eye. “Didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” Then, to the others, “Go ahead, take away the stone.”They removed the stone. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven and prayed, “Father, I’m grateful that you have listened to me. I know you always do listen, but on account of this crowd standing here I’ve spoken so that they might believe that you sent me.” Then he shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” And he came out, a cadaver, wrapped from head to toe, and with a kerchief over his face. Jesus told them, “Unwrap him and let him loose.”
- John 11.1-3, 17-45 (The Message)
In the narrative of the Fourth Gospel it is raising Lazarus, not cleansing the Temple, which stuns the religious leaders with the awareness that this one must die. Without asking which version of the story is historically accurate (an irrelevant question when one desires to penetrate to the meaning of the narrative, which is its heart and soul), it occurs to me that John’s account is more compelling. It alone motivates such a severe reaction to Jesus and the threat he poses.
In the synoptic account, Jesus is a distraction, a troublemaker to be sure, and he certainly disrupts business as usual in the Temple with his prophetic act. In the Fourth Gospel, however, Jesus’ actions reveal the new, revolutionary face of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When they gaze on Jesus the religious leaders see, as Marcus Borg might say, the God they never knew. And they are fearful. This new face of God is at once tenderer, more intimate, and more powerful than their experience suggests. Mores the pity; should they look more closely, they could see that this new face of God dispels any notion that God is to be feared, that God is to be kept at a safe distance, that God has room in God’s heart for anything other than the creative power of Love.
In his encounter with Lazarus, Jesus reveals the new face of God that we can trust with all that we are, and all we possess. Jesus is tender, moved by the plight of humankind, and determined to bring to it the fruits of compassion, healing and wholeness. And this Jesus is powerful. It is the very power of creation that can stand before death in its stark reality and call forth life.
Before this vision of the Word become flesh, before this intimation of the new face of God, we stand awestruck, stunned, and speechless. For this is the face of both tenderness and power. This is the face of One who understands and dispels our fears, the face of One who calls forth life from the jaws of death. Gazing on this face we finally understand the words of the psalmist, “I fear no evil.”