The Raising 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 listened in on the conversation between Jesus and Mary, the sister of Martha. Today we consider the actions and event of the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

Upon arrival at Lazarus’ tomb, the evangelist simply tells us, Jesus wept. How Jesus’ weeping is interpreted depends on how his being ‘perturbed’ (33, 38) is understood as described previously. The weeping of Mary and ‘the Jews’ is denoted by the Greek word klaiō, found forty times in the NT and eight times in the Fourth Gospel, and very often in the context of weeping and wailing. There is only one other place in the Gospels where it is recorded that Jesus wept: when he wept (klaiō) over Jerusalem and its impending judgment (Luke 19:41). It may be significant that the evangelist uses a different and rare word, dakryō, for Jesus’ weeping in 11:35, the only place it is found in the NT. Perhaps he is showing by his choice of this word that Jesus’ weeping was of a different order from that of Mary and ‘the Jews’. He was not joining with them in their weeping and wailing, but expressing his sorrow at the faithlessness he found all around him.

Seeing Jesus weep, the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ They interpreted Jesus’ weeping as a sign of his love for Lazarus, and grief at his death. But did the evangelist agree with them? Has he included their comment because it correctly interprets the reason for Jesus’ weeping, or simply because that is what ‘the Jews’ thought (mistakenly) without endorsing it? Did ‘the Jews’ fail to realize he was weeping because of their faithlessness, not the death of Lazarus? The dead can be raised, but the faith can not be forced upon an unbeliever. They can only be given signs that they might believe.

The tomb is described as a cave (spēlaion), suggesting a natural cave, rather than a man-made rock tomb. When the body of the deceased, Lazarus, was put into it, a large stone was placed across the entrance, as was later to be the case when Jesus was buried (20:1).

Standing before the tomb, Jesus said, Take away the stone. This instruction created problems: “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days” (v.39). Despite her earlier confession (vv.23–27) Martha was not expecting a miracle. She was concerned that the corpse by the fourth day would be starting to decompose and be giving off a bad odor. The fourth day has another significance in Jewish belief. As already mentioned, the soul of the departed was believed to stay near the body of the dead person for three days in the hope it might resuscitate. When it saw the change in the color of the face that takes place by the third day, it departed permanently. The person was then well and truly dead. That Lazarus had been in the tomb four days indicated there was no hope of resuscitation, thus highlighting the greatness of the miracle Jesus was about to perform.

Unperturbed by Martha’s objection, Jesus reminded her of what he had said earlier (something not recorded by the evangelist): “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” (v.40). Addressing Martha individually (using the second-person singular) and recalling what he had said before, he urged her to focus, not upon the apparently hopeless situation of her dead brother, but upon the revelation of the glory of God about to occur. Jesus’ reply was enough to satisfy Martha’s objections

But before Jesus acted he prayed (vv.41-42). Jesus’ prayer doesn’t ask for a miracle; but is one of thanksgiving to God and meant to be overheard by those standing by. Perhaps like the Eucharistic Prayers in Mass, while they offer thanks to God, it is also a proclamation to those who overhear the prayer.

Jesus’ shout “Lazarus, come out!” might echo Jesus’ earlier words: “Do not be amazed at this, because the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28-29).  What is clear is that shout (kraugizo) in v.43 gives life. The same word is used of the crowds shouting for Jesus’ death (18:40; 19:6, 12, 15). (It’s only other instance in John is 12:13 where the Palm Sunday crowd shouts their Hosannas.) It is in response to Jesus’ word that Lazarus finds life. It is also in response to Jesus’ word that Lazarus is freed from his restrictive bindings, by other people. Not all of God’s works take place supernaturally. Sometimes they require work on our part.

 Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him. (John 11:45)

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

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