ColumnsSunday’s Word

Jesus raises Lazarus to life

March 29, 2020


Ez 37:12-14

Dry bones come alive

Ps 130:1-8

Out of the depths I cry

Rom 8:8-11

The Spirit of love lives in you

Jn 11:1-45

Jesus raises Lazarus to life


As I write this, two weeks before the Sunday it will be read in church, public sites are being shut down by the threat of a coronavirus without a cure. We who belong to vulnerable populations are thinking thoughts of mortality, making arrangements, putting our affairs in order. It is in the midst of this that we come to the story of Lazarus.

The story has two sides, and this is shown in the encounter of Jesus with the two sisters. Each of the sisters addresses Jesus with the same words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But the two encounters unfold in different ways. Martha, the first of the sisters to speak to Jesus, engages with him in a discussion of new life. It culminates with the words of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life,” and Martha’s response, “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.”

The second sister, Mary, greets Jesus with the same words. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But this is the last thing she says. And Jesus weeps. Which is to say, he mourns the loss of his friend. And though he affirms the resurrection, he does not diminish the experience of death. Death is real, is total and requires grieving. And ­Jesus grieves. The belief in resurrection does not remove the pain of death.

There is an expression that describes his reaction. “He became perturbed and deeply troubled” (11:33). The first of these two terms is repeated when Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus. “So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb.” It expresses his reaction to the death of his friend. It is one thing to talk about death in general, in the abstract. It is another to encounter it in person, in the death of a loved one. But this is what is happening with Jesus.

The other term, “deeply troubled,” also appears again, but in the following part of the Gospel story. In 12:27, Jesus again says he is deeply troubled, but this is in the context of his decision to go forward with the demands of the Passion account. This moment is similar to the garden prayer of Jesus in the other Gospels. But John does not give an account of the Agony in the Garden. This moment serves that purpose. Here it refers to Jesus’ own death.

The term appears one more time at the supper, at 13:21. This time it concerns the betrayal of Judas. Which is to say, once again it concerns the coming trial and death of Jesus.

One can surmise that the moment when Jesus responds to Mary’s rebuke, and weeps at her words, he is in a complex moment of grief. He mourns the death of his friend. He also responds to the outrage of death, and awareness of one’s death, as a consequence of being part of the mortal human race.

And we might say that there is more. He is also responding to the awareness of his own death, for in returning to the Jerusalem area to revive Lazarus he is entering into the territory that is of grave danger for him. He knows this, as do his disciples (11:8, 16). In effect, he is trading his life for that of Lazarus, one whom he especially loved (11:5).

But this puts us in mind of his words at the supper, shortly to follow. “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (15:12-13). We see Jesus already doing what he asks of his disciples.

For reflection: Love means managing to be there.

Father Beck is professor emeritus of religious studies at Loras College, Dubuque.