3 Perspectives on the story of Lazarus

From three different directions recently I have been reminded of the story of Mary, Martha and Lazarus.

Firstly, Alan spoke about it in a recent church service, where he looked at the story from the point of view of the progression of Martha’s faith through the story. You can read about it on his website.

  • At the start, Martha believed that Jesus loved her brother.
  • She believed that if Jesus had been present, he could have prevented the death of her brother.
  • She believed that even though her brother had died, Jesus was still powerful.
  • She believed that her brother would rise at the last day.
  • She believed that Jesus was the Christ.

Alan says: What an amazing moment it must have been for Martha to realise that the power of resurrection, which she affirmed as part of her faith, was present, incarnate in the man called Jesus.

As the resurrection, Jesus promises that for anyone who dies believing in him, death will not have the final word. As the life, Jesus promises that anyone who believes in him will have a quality of life that death cannot touch.

It is one thing to make these claims. (I could claim to be able to fly between tall buildings: the fraudulence and futility of my claim would be revealed at the first attempt). By commanding Lazarus to emerge from the tomb, Jesus demonstrated the reality of his claim.

Then I came across this story again in Elisabeth Elliot’s Daily Devotional, where she was looking at instances in the Bible where deliverance did not come – at least not in the way or in the time expected by those who prayed.

She asks: What did the household at Bethany not do that the Widow of Nain had done? How shall we align it all? Who rates and who doesn’t? Whatever it is that we might have chosen to say to them in the days following their experience of death, we would have had to come to terms somehow with the bleak fact that God had done something for others that he had not done for them.

From the vantage point of two thousand years, we later believers can, of course, see that there was something wonderful in prospect, and that it emerged within a very few days. But of course this line would have been frosty comfort for Mary and Martha, if we had insisted to them, “Well, surely God is up to something. We’ll just have to wait.”

And yet what else could we have said? Their experience at that point was of the utter finality of death, which had thrown everything they had expected into limbo. For them there was no walking and leaping and praising God. No embracing and ecstatic tears of reunion. Only the silence of shrouds and sepulchres, and then the turning back, not just to the flat routines of daily life, but to the miserable duel with the tedious voices pressing in upon their exhausted imaginations with “Right! Now where are you? Tell us about your faith now! What’d you do wrong?”

The point is that for x number of days, their experience was of defeat. For us, alas, the “x number of days” may be greatly multiplied. And it is small comfort to us to be told that the difference, then, between us and Mary and Martha’s experience of Lazarus’ death, is only a quantitative difference. “They had to wait four days. You have to wait one, or five, or seventy years. What’s the real difference?” That is like telling someone on the rack that his pain is only quantitatively different from mine with my hangnail. The quantity is the difference. But there is, perhaps, at least this much of help for us whose experience is that of Mary and Martha and the others, and not that of the widow of Nain and Jairus and that set: the experience of the faithful has, in fact, included the experience of utter death. That seems to be part of the pattern, and it would be hard indeed to insist that the death was attributable to some failure of faith on somebody’s part.

There is also this to be observed: that it sometimes seems that those on the higher reaches of faith are asked to experience this “absence” of God. For instance, Jesus seemed ready enough to show his authority to chance bystanders, and to the multitudes; but look at his own circle. John the Baptist wasn’t let off–he had his head chopped off. James was killed in prison. And the Virgin herself had to go through the horror of seeing her Son tortured. No legions of angels intervened there. There was also Job, of course. And St. Paul–he had some sort of healing ministry himself, so that handkerchiefs were sent out from him with apparently healing efficacy for others, but, irony of ironies, his own prayer for himself was “unanswered.” He had to slog through life with whatever his “thorn” was. What do these data do to our categories?

But there is more. Turning again to the disclosure of God in Scripture, we seem to see that, in his economy, there is no slippage. Nothing simply disappears. No sparrow falls without his knowing (and, one might think, caring) about it. No hair on anybody’s head is without its number. Oh, you say, that’s only a metaphor; it’s not literal. A metaphor of what, then, we might ask. Is the implication there that God doesn’t keep tabs on things?

And so we begin to think about all our prayers and vigils and fastings and abstinences, and the offices and sacraments of the Church, that have gone up to the throne in behalf of the sufferer. They have vanished, as no sparrow, no hair, has ever done. Hey, what about that?

And we know that this is false. It is nonsense. All right then–we prayed, with much faith or with little; we searched ourselves; we fasted; we anointed and laid on hands; we kept vigil. And nothing happened.

Did it not? What angle of vision are we speaking from? Is it not true that again and again in the biblical picture of things, the story has to be allowed to finish?

Was it not the case with Lazarus’ household at Bethany? And is it not the case with the Whole Story, actually–that it must be allowed to finish, and that this is precisely what the faithful have been watching for since the beginning of time? In the face of suffering and endurance and loss and waiting and death, what is it that has kept the spirits of the faithful from flagging utterly down through the millennia? Is it not the hope of Redemption? Is it not the great Finish to the Story–and to all their little stories of wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins as well as to the One Big Story of the whole creation, which is itself groaning and waiting? And is not that Finish called glorious? Does it not entail what amounts to a redoing of all that has gone wrong, and a remaking of all that is ruined, and a finding of all that has been lost in the shuffle, and an unfolding of it all in a blaze of joy and splendor?

And finally, I read a prayer by Scotty Smith, taken from his book ‘Everyday Prayers’ which is also reproduced in a daily devotional form. Scotty based his prayer on the verse from this beautiful story, ‘Jesus wept’:

Dear Lord Jesus, this may be the shortest verse in the Bible, but it’s immeasurably long in terms of comfort and encouragement.  Your hot, compassionate tears, shed outside of Lazarus’s tomb, are one of the greatest showers that has ever fallen upon the face of the earth. You wept a waterfall of mercy and grace; a river of kindness and peace; a torrent of tenderness and strength.

You knew that within a matter of moments, your friend would breathe again. You knew he’d walk again. You knew you’d enjoy Lazarus’ company very soon. And yet you wept so full-heartedly, as you allowed yourself to feel the implications of his death. Those privileged to see your sacred fury and great sadness, offered profound commentary, “See how he loved him!” (John 11:36).

Jesus, we’re so glad you are such a tenderhearted Savior. Many of us will soon face the death of a loved one. Some of us have recently buried a friend, a parent, a spouse, or most painfully, a child. Others of us are coming upon the painful anniversary of great loss. Thank you for validating the pain, the emptiness, the confusion, the great sadness we feel.

At times, like Lazarus’ sister, we cry, “Lord, if only you’d been there”, and you don’t wince, roll your eyes or shame us. You never glibly say to us with impatience, “Get over it.” Rather you say with great understanding, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

Because no one hates death more than you. No one. Perhaps some of your tears outside of Lazarus’s tomb were offered knowing he’d have to go through the whole rotten dying process again—such is your hatred of death. No one feels its horrid implications more profoundly. No one grieves its ugly violation more deeply. No one is more looking forward to the day of “no more death” (Rev. 21:4) than you. And no one has done more to put death to death, than you.

Today we rest our sobered and saddened hearts on your shoulder, with the peace and comfort that comes from knowing you as “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). The last enemy will soon be a long gone enemy (1 Cor. 15:26). And because of your resurrection, we sing in advance of our resurrection, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55). How we praise you! How we exalt you! How we rest our heavy hearts in your loving hands! So very Amen we pray, in your grave-robbing name. Amen.

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