Food for Thought-Lazarus Is Still Dead


All Saints Sunday

John 11:32-44

At one level, there’s something about Lazarus’ story which seems horribly unfair and wrong. Who wants to die twice? Once seems horrible enough, to be forced to go through it twice seems a bit much, especially after you’ve firmly settled into eternity after four days. Here’s what we need to remember: Lazarus hasn’t had a near death experience. He’s not getting the traditional “second chance” on life after a brief flirtation with death. He’s been dead for four days (or better). His corpse has begun to decompose. Lazarus is being brought back from eternity, resuscitated, and renewed because his friends and family are sad at his passing.

While this is great for Jesus, Mary, and Martha (I’m still not sure how good it is for Lazarus), it seems really unfair that solely because Jesus knew Lazarus these grieving women get to reclaim their loved from the jaws of death. We know Jesus. We’re friends of Jesus. We identify ourselves as devoted followers of Jesus. Yet our loved ones remain underground, dead, buried, and gone for good. As much as we may want our parents, spouses, siblings, and friends back for a moment, an hour, a day, or years (no one really knows how long Lazarus lived before he died again), our relationship with Jesus doesn’t afford the opportunity of “one more time”. Go and scream at the sky, weep as Jesus did, and the dead will not arise ready to resume to life. Why not us Jesus? There are people we loved, in our lives, as much as you obviously loved Lazarus. Why does our grief fall short of your divine intervention? These are questions I want to ask and no one wants to answer.

It’s a metaphor, that’s what some will tell us. This text is not supposed to speak about me but to me. Jesus revival of Lazarus’ decomposing remains are but a foretaste of the resurrection itself. I am supposed to read a story of hope when there appears to be nothing but an empty tomb. Granted, this is the story we read on Easter Sunday. However the resuscitation of Lazarus is not the resurrection of Jesus. Resuscitation and resurrection are not the same. To equate the two sells Jesus short and turns the resurrected Christ into nothing more than a transparent zombie.

The story of Lazarus is the story of Jesus being deeply moved by grief, sadness, and sorrow. Jesus feels these emotions as we experience them when our own friends and family members die. I understand this. However, my questions will not go away. Was it selfish for Jesus to bring Lazarus back? The most important person in the story, Lazarus, has no say in the matter. He may have loved eternity. Mary and Martha didn’t ask for their brother to be returned. They only blamed Jesus for not healing Lazarus. But they didn’t ask Jesus to resuscitate Lazarus. There’s something not right about what happened here. From the sheer unnatural quality of bringing someone back after four days in the tomb to ignoring the wishes of the family, this whole story seems strange.

Why do Mary and Martha get Lazarus back and all we are left with a list of names and burning candles? I’m reminded of the dilemmas faced by those with terminal illnesses. I know many who’ve been sick with serious illnesses over the years. They’ve prayed and received a measure of healing. Others, in the same congregation with the same illnesses have prayed equally hard and died. Was God not listening to one set of prayers and ignoring the others? How does it make the family members of one person feel to hear “our prayers were answered” when another prayed the same prayers and feels they were denied God’s healing?” That’s kind of what I feel when I read this passage. Why do Mary and Martha get more time with someone they love and we are left waiting?

The honest answer:  I don’t know.  John’s gospel was written some sixty years (or longer) after Jesus lived. Lazarus, if he existed, was probably well into his second round at mortality. John wanted to show us Jesus had charge over the forces of life and death. I don’t think he needed to tell us this Lazarus story to make that point. The story of the cross does a fine job at driving this point home. Perhaps John simply wanted to humanize Jesus and show him grieving like the rest of us. John also wanted to demonstrate what happens when Jesus encounters “death”. This was difficult for John and early Christian writers. How do you show “death” as less powerful than it appears to be? People are dying from plague, sickness, illness, war, famine, and the like. Death seems to be sure footed and certain. Whenever Jesus enters into the picture, death is thrown off balance. Embedded within each encounter Jesus has with a person is one consistent message: death is thrown off balance and becomes less able to control how we live.  After their brushes with Jesus, people live freer lives, not bound by the emotional, physical, social, religious, or economic strictures which were “killing” them.  As unfair as this story is to people who want our saints back, I think John is ultimately trying to tell us that Jesus is throwing death off balance.  And that’s the essence of the good news.  Death exists but it’s off balance and doesn’t ultimately win.