Should Jesus Go to Bethany?

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 discussed the outline of the passage and the setting of the gospel story, introducing a theme previously given by John:“I have come that they might have life and have it to the full” (10:10). Today we consider the debate among Jesus and the disciples about returning to Galilee to attend to the illness of Lazarus.

After Jesus’ bread of life discourse in John 6, “Jesus moved about within Galilee; but he did not wish to travel in Judea, because the Jews were trying to kill him” (7:1).  The recent appearance in Jerusalem had also ended with the religious authorities seeking to have Jesus stoned to death (10:31-33).  Naturally the disciples ask why Jesus would want to do such a blatantly dangerous thing. At one level of meaning, it shows that in choosing the time to enter Judea, Jesus is choosing the time (“my hour”; see 2:4; 7:30; 8:20) for his death – God is in control of these things.  This choice has already been expressed to the disciples: ““This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.” (10:17–18).  Finally, the reason is summarized in v.15: that you may believe.

It is in the context of this summarizing reason that one gains insight into Jesus’ explanation in 11:9-14. The “twelve hours in a day” refers to Jesus’ presence among the disciples, guiding them that they not stumble because they see the “light of the world” – i.e., Jesus (cf. 8:12; 9:5). As Jesus’ hour approaches, the time for the disciples to move from darkness to light is limited. The stumbling block is not death, rather it is walking apart from the light of the world. The disciples see a clear stumbling block and note: “the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” (11:8)

The metaphor of sleeping as death is well used in the NT (see lots of examples: Mt 27:52; 1 Cor 7:39, 11:30, 15:16-20, 51; 1 Thess 4:13-15) – and so Jesus describes Lazarus’ death (that will not end in death (v.4) – although ironically leading to Jesus’ death) as being asleep and says the in the end Lazarus will be awakened (John 11:11). The disciples rightly ask: ““Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” Which I suggest can be understood as: “Well, good… if he is only asleep, let him wake, and let’s not tempt the authorities with our presence.” The word “saved” (sōzō) used in v.12 can mean either “saved” or “healed.”  Given the nature of the disciples’ response it seems that “healed” would have been the better option for the disciples – but the subtle Johannine word play is lost to English readers.  This gives rise to Jesus making clear in v.14 that Lazarus has died. What is unusual in this response is that Jesus so quickly clears up their misunderstanding – perhaps only highlighting the shortness of time.

Thomas’ response is that of the obedient disciple who does not fully understand what is being revealed to him, but will trust and operate out of that trust – assuming he is responding to the imminence of Jesus’ death. Thomas’ response is actually ambiguous – the “him” of v.16 could refer to Lazarus since that is the most immediate death in context. It is perhaps no more than unclear grammar, but again it may well be the choice that faces all would-be disciples: “believe” (v.15) and as Jesus dies and is resurrected, so too will the disciple die, but be saved.

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

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