Mary, 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 arrived in Bethany and considered Jesus’ dialogue with Martha, the sister of Lazarus. Today we listen in on the conversation between Jesus and Mary, the sister of Martha.

When Jesus calls, Mary responds. The mourners believed Mary was going to the tomb and so they followed, but Mary’s destination was to the feet of Jesus. Perhaps the evangelist wants us to see in Mary’s prostration an act of worship. And seemingly in tension with her worship, she reproached him as Martha had done (v.21,33) for not coming in time to prevent her brother’s death. Perhaps these two things can coexist, reflecting her faith in Jesus and her despair at the same time. She says nothing else. She doesn’t utter all the proper phrases like Martha about the all-powerful Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God or any belief about the resurrection of the dead. Mary just cries.

Verses 33 and 34 present a problem in translation – consider the following three modern translations:

  • When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled 34 and said, “Where have you laid him?” (NAB)
  • Jesus was greatly distressed, and with a profound sigh he said, 34 ‘Where have you put him?’  (NJB)
  • he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” (NRSV)

The word translated ‘perturbed/great distressed, greatly disturbed’ is embrimaomai. It is a rare word, found only here and in John 11:38, and elsewhere in the NT only in Matthew and Mark.  Its meaning is to “snort as an expression of rage” – which seems to be the sense here in John, i.e., become indignant, be furious. If directed at someone it means to “scold” (Mark 1:43; 14:5). The inner reaction of Jesus has a strong emotional sense – but also raised two questions: (a) in response to what/who? And (b) what has he seen in the what/who to whom he has responded?

Two interpretations of embrimaomai in 11:33 have been suggested. First, Jesus was ‘perturbed’ with compassion for Mary when he saw her weeping, and second, that he was ‘perturbed’ with anger. It is hard to linguistically justify the sense of “compassion.” Anger is more consistent with the word’s meaning In the latter case there have been a number of suggestions why he was angry: (1) he was angry because of the faithless weeping and wailing of Mary and ‘the Jews’—they were grieving, as St Paul said, ‘like the rest of men, who have no hope’ (1 Thess. 4:13); (2) he was angry with death itself, the consequence of sin, which caused such pain; (3) he was angry with himself for not coming sooner to heal Lazarus and so prevent his death and the grief it caused Mary and Martha. This last suggestion is unlikely because Jesus knew he was going to raise Lazarus from death. The first suggestion has most to commend it, because the text says it was when Jesus saw Mary weeping like the rest that he became perturbed…but we often rebel at that interpretation.  Why? I suspect it is because of the influence of the Lukan portrait of Mary, the one who sat at the feet of Jesus.

But this is John’s narrative. In the two sisters we have two partial ways to come to Jesus. While Martha had depth in her confession, there was little emotion. Mary has great emotion, but perhaps little depth in the knowledge of her faith. While it might appear that Mary’s tears moved Jesus to raise Lazarus, that isn’t the case. Jesus had told his disciples before they had arrived that he was coming to “wake up” “sleeping” Lazarus. He went there with the intention of raising Lazarus before either sister came to him. While both approaches are less than whole, less than complete – none the less each is a pathway to a relationship with the Lord.

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

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