Setting and Life

The gospel reading for 5th Sunday in Lent is the account of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45). In yesterday’s post we placed this reading in the context of the flow of John’s gospel and consistent with John’s use of miracles/signs: they point to Jesus and are given that we might believe (Jn 20:26). In today’s post we discuss the setting of the gospel story and consider a previous statement:“I have come that they might have life and have it to the full” (10:10)

The great Johannine scholar, Fr. Raymond Brown suggests the following outline of this narrative (vv.1-44) which he calls: Jesus gives life to Lazarus – a sign that Jesus is the life,

  • Setting (vv.1-6)
  • Should Jesus go up to Judea? (vv.7-16)
  • Jesus arrives at Bethany: arrival and greetings (vv.17-33)
  • Raising of Lazarus (vv.34-44)
  • Meaning (v.45)

Setting. Here the setting means more than the location or geography. While there is a mention of “Bethany” a village located in the vicinity of Jerusalem, the opening verses (vv.1-6) are really an introduction of the family whom Jesus loves and who are believers. Even their introduction is laced with references to the impending death of Jesus. The editorial aside (v.2: Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair) points forward to Mary’s anointing of Jesus as a sign of preparation for death and burial (12:1-8) placing that death at the very head of the story of Lazarus.

The sisters’ message (v.3) does not explicitly ask for Jesus to respond or take a specific action, but since the message characterizes Lazarus as the one whom Jesus loves, the implicit request is there:  come and love Lazarus to life. We are given great hope in Jesus’ response: This illness is not to end in death (v.4); surely those words gave the hearers the impression that again Jesus would provide a healing – as before giving glory to God – but then Jesus inexplicably stayed put for two days. At this point within the narrative one can only speculate as to the reason, but from outside the narrative one can begin to wonder about the words: “that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” From the beginning of the fourth gospel the purpose of the signs (semeia) has been to reveal the glory of Jesus: “Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him” (John 2:11).  Jesus’ glory is described as his possession since before the foundation of the world (17:5, 24) one that is founded in love and indicates oneness with the Father (17:22).

In a key and important way, John 11 continues the central narrative about the signs that Jesus performed in order for people to believe and because of that belief have life.  The sign given in John 11 is the raising of Lazarus – technically a resuscitation, i.e., being restored to the life that was before. On one level, Jesus is glorified by the resuscitation of Lazarus. On another level, the hour of Jesus’ glory is his suffering and death. Lazarus’ illness (and resuscitation) is for the glory of God not just because of itself, but because it will ultimately lead to Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Too quickly people move to point forward to Jesus’ own resurrection as though Lazarus only served to point to that event. As all the other signs (semeia) in John, the raising of Lazarus points to Jesus who is the source of life – both here and in the “last days.”  John has already introduced us to the “life” theme when speaking of rebirth (Nicodemus) and living water (Samaritan woman); in reference to the life-giving word; in context of the life-giving bread (Jn 6); in Jesus’ self description as the “light of life” (8:12); as well as the previous chapter’s assertion “I have come that they might have life and have it to the full” (10:10).  All of these accounts continue to remind us that meeting Jesus always operates on the physical and spiritual level – and often the miracle (sign/semeia) serve as the vehicle to make this point clear.

The raising of Lazarus from death has the meaning that is clear and evident: one who was dead has been raised from death and restored to life.  It also possesses a symbolic meaning – the giving of life to all people whom Jesus loves. This sign also carries meaning about spiritual death seen as separation from God and spiritual life as connection with God. Both are part of John’s message in this text.  One should note the similar dual meaning that was part of the story about the healing of the man born blind man wherein there is both physical and spiritual blindness.

Image credit: The Raising of Lazarus, Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1310), Kimberly Museum of Art, Public Domain

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