Lent 5, Year A, 2008

The time is getting close.

The clock is ticking.

Our gospel story today has all the passion and intensity of the cliffhanger season finale of some character drama.

Immediately following the raising of Lazarus, some of the witnesses get freaked out and run to tell the Pharisees what happened.  This act, of course, leads to Jesus’ arrest and execution.  But, we’ll get to that next week.

For now, Jesus is still safe and sound.

We meet up with Jesus as he is traveling with his disciples.  Jesus gets the news that his friend Lazarus is ill in Judea.  We don’t know how Jesus knew Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha, but they are the only people described as Jesus’ personal friends in the Bible.  Janice, our parish administrator, and I spent some time speculating about this.  We’ve decided, that we would like them to be childhood friends.  Maybe they went to grade school together.  Maybe they have known Jesus since before he was this big shot miracle worker.  Maybe they knew him when he was just Jesus, that carpenter’s kid.  Maybe they tossed a ball around or caught lizards in jugs and surprised their mothers with them.  Maybe with Lazarus, Mary and Martha, Jesus does not feel any pressure to be “the Holy Son of God”.  They quietly accept him for who he is, they do not fawn over him or demand to be healed.

However they know each other, it is well enough that Mary pours expensive oil all over Jesus’ feet to anoint him.  They also know each other well enough that Martha and Jesus snap at each other when Mary is too lazy to help with the dishes at a dinner party.  Their intimacy with each other has a domestic, everyday feel to it.

We should feel no surprise then, at how intense Jesus’ emotions are around the event of Lazarus’s death.  Jesus seems to experience incredible internal conflict around Lazarus’s illness and death.  At first, he seems almost indifferent, delaying the trip to Judea and casually mentioning that the illness will lead to God’s glory.  Even after he hears of Lazarus’s death, Jesus seems very nonchalant as he tells his disciples he is going to Judea to “wake Lazarus up”.

Jesus does not fall apart until he sees his friends.  You know the feeling. You’re holding everything together, just barely, and then you see a person you trust and love and all your defenses crumble around you.  Jesus manages to hold it together through his conversation with Martha, where she makes great proclamations of faith in him, but when he sees Mary weeping, he falls apart. His dear friend Mary, who is so open and free with her feelings.  Mary, who sat at Jesus’ feet and then anointed those same feet with expensive oil.  Mary, who had such faith in Jesus and now seems so disappointed.

When Jesus does weep, he does not weep in the same  way that Mary does.  The Greek word used to describe Mary’s weeping is klaio.  The word for Jesus’s weeping is dakruo.  This is the only time in the bible the word dakruo is used.  We don’t know why the author of this story chose to use a different word.  I imagine the quality of weeping was different.  The culture of the time had a kind of ritualistic weeping that was done at funerals to properly honor the dead.  Perhaps the author wanted to distinguish what Jesus was doing from that kind of ritualistic weeping.

I imagine Jesus’ tears came from somewhere deep, deep inside himself.  I wonder if, because Jesus knew God had given him the power of resurrection, he was unprepared for the reality of Lazarus’s death. Jesus had grieved before—the death of John the Baptist was deeply upsetting to him—but never before do we see him weeping.  Not only does Jesus weep, but he also feels “greatly disturbed in his spirit”.  While some Bibles translate this word to mean compassion, the word has a more disruptive, angry edge to it.   Jesus was really traumatized by Lazarus’s death.

There is no passage in the bible, in my opinion, that better sheds light on Jesus’ humanity than this one.  Jesus has been ministering to people for years by this point, but somehow the reality of what it means to be human—to be finite, to have a beginning and an end, to be born and to die—really seem to sink in for him here.

Immediately before this passage, Jesus has been describing himself quite frequently as the Good Shepherd.  And in fact, he goes on and calls Lazarus by name, just as shepherds call their sheep by name.  Lazarus hears his voice, and obeys, even after death.  But for now, Jesus is just another sheep.  He is one of us.  For now, in this moment, he understands our feelings of grief and hopelessness.  He tastes the bitter reality of loss.

In this moment, Jesus cements himself as someone we can trust.  In this moment we realize that he has credibility—that he truly understands what it means to be us.

Because of this, we know we can trust him as a Shepherd, who will guide us gently and compassionately. Because of this, we can have the courage to follow Jesus on the rest of his journey to Jerusalem.  We feel empathy for him because of his own experience of loss, but Lazarus’ resurrection also makes us wonder if perhaps Jesus can outsmart his enemies, after all.

Maybe the road to Jerusalem, into the heart of political and religious power, is not a one way road.  Maybe Jesus still has something to show us.  Maybe the rising of Lazarus is just the beginning.

Starting next Sunday, Palm Sunday, we’ll spend eight days in Jerusalem with Jesus.  Come join us and find out how the story ends!


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