Martha, the Sister of Lazarus

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 considered the debate among Jesus and the disciples about returning to Galilee to attend to the illness of Lazarus. In today’s post we arrive in Bethany and Jesus’ dialogues with the sisters of Lazarus begin.

Upon their arrival in Bethany, Jesus’ assertion about Lazarus’ death (v.14) is confirmed. The four-day period underscores the finality of death. According to popular belief, the spirit of the person hovered around the body for three days after the death, hoping to reenter the body. But after the third day, when the soul “sees that the color of its face has changed,” the soul leaves the body for good (Gen. Rab. 100). When Jesus arrives fellow mourners had already arrived to console the grieving sisters – but they will also serve another purpose: witness.

What was implied in v.3 is now explicit in v.21: we were hoping that you would have come and saved our brother. Martha speaks these words to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v.21). We know what she says; what is unclear is how, with what tone, she says them.  Most often commentaries have the words carry the tone of regret yet in a faithful voice.  Too often one cannot imagine the tone being a basic complaint. Yet the complaining is the language of the psalms, the language of Job and so many other passages in the OT – it should not be so quickly dismissed. The complaining tone make the faith statement (v.22) even more pronounced. Martha still believes that Jesus is the righteous man to whom God will listen (one need not move to rapidly to the confession of Jesus as Messiah in v.27).

Jesus’ response is simple and perhaps ambiguous: “You brother will rise.” These words could be taken to mean either ‘your brother will rise again in the general resurrection on the last day’ or ‘your brother will be restored to life immediately’.  Martha responds within the context of her Jewish beliefs asserting the belief in the general resurrection.

To move her beyond the orthodoxy of the Pharisees, Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.’ This statement contains the fifth of seven different ‘I am’ sayings with predicates in the Fourth Gospel (6:35, 48, 51; 8:12; 10:7, 9; 10:11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; 15:1, 5). It involves three claims:

  1. Jesus himself is the resurrection and the life, i.e. the Father has given him to have life in himself and to bestow resurrection life upon whomever he will (5:21, 26).
  2. People who believe in him, even if they die (as Lazarus had done) will live—Jesus will raise them from death on the last day. What he would soon do for Lazarus would foreshadow the resurrection of the last day.
  3. People who live and believe in him will never die; not even death can break their relationship with God.

With these claims Jesus made himself central to the Jewish hope of the resurrection and eternal life, and by asking Martha, Do you believe this?, he encouraged her to recognize this.

Martha’s response is a confession of faith: “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” She had moved beyond her previous beliefs about Jesus’ righteousness (v.22) and the general Jewish beliefs (v.24). She accepts Jesus’ central role in bringing about the resurrection on the last day, adding that she believed he was the Christ, the Son of God, the one whom the Father had sent into the world. The title ‘the Son of God’ is now known to have been used as a messianic title among first-century Jews. Martha’s confession echoes Nathanael’s confession (1:49), and is of the status of Peter’s confession (6:68-69) and Thomas’ (20:28) and is an example of what the evangelist hopes will be evoked by his Gospel in the hearts and minds of his readers (20:31).

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

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