John 11 – Lazarus and his Sisters
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 20, 2007
Craig D. Atwood
Introduction Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church.. Today is confirmation for our youth and it is a time of graduation for our local colleges and universities. It is a day of new beginnings. Our lesson for this week is the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This story is definitely the climax of the first part of John’s Gospel. It is the seventh and most dramatic sign that Jesus did. This story plays a big role in Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. The main character wanted to prove his complete and total freedom from all the constraints of society. He randomly killed an elderly woman. Instead of being free, he found himself enslaved by guilt and fear. Eventually he is sent to a prison camp in Siberia. His only friend in the world comes to visit him every day, and she reads the story of Lazarus over and over until the criminal is reborn as a living and loving human being. The rebirth of Lazarus from death is one of the great stories of the Bible, and we will spend quite a long time examining it.
Lazarus One of the central figures in this story is the dead man, Lazarus, but we know very little about him. He is the only man named in the Gospel of John who is described as someone Jesus “loved.” This has led a few scholars through the years to propose that Lazarus was the Beloved Disciple who wrote the Gospel of John. It is interesting that biblical scholars tend to ignore the fact that the Gospel of John also says that Jesus loved Mary and Martha. Could it be that one of them was the Beloved disciple who wrote the gospel?
The name “Lazarus” is a shortened version of the Hebrew name Eleazar, which means “God helps.” Some scholars believe that the name of the dead man in this story was purely symbolic since “God helps” is the theme of the story. But Lazarus was a very common name in first century Judea, as were Martha and Mary. There have been lots of bone boxes (or ossuaries) found in the region with the name Lazarus on them. In fact, in the 1940s a tomb was discovered near Bethany that had ossuaries with the names Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Thus, we can say with full confidence that around the time of Jesus a man named Lazarus died, but the only record we have that Lazarus was raised from the dead is the Gospel of John.
Luke and John One thing that troubles many biblical scholars is that this story is found only in John and is not mentioned in the other three canonical gospels. How could such a dramatic story not have been central to all of the gospels if it had actually taken place? There is a parable about a man named Lazarus in the Gospel of Luke. A parable is a fictitious story told to communicate a true idea. The parable says that there was a poor beggar named Lazarus who was ignored by a rich man. When the beggar and the rich man died, one went to paradise; the other to torment. The parable ends with a statement that people will not believe “even if someone is returns from the dead.”
It is odd that this is the only parable of Jesus in which one of the characters is named. The name could be symbolic since Lazarus means “God helps,” but it is possible that Jesus had in mind a real Lazarus. Some scholars speculate there may have been a connection between the gospels of Luke and John, and that the story of Lazarus in John is an extrapolation of the parable in Luke. In John’s version, Lazarus is raised from the dead and people do not believe.
Other scholars reject this theory for several reasons. For one thing, there is no indication in the John account that Lazarus was a poor man. For other, the statement about coming back from the dead in Luke’s parable is not integral to the parable. It makes more sense that the idea of resurrection was added later to the parable in Luke rather than proposing that John created a resurrection story based on a parable. In other words, it is possible that Luke knew something about the resurrection of a man named Lazarus but he did not include the story in his gospel since it was not in Mark, his primary source. Instead, he tacked on a statement about resurrection to the parable of a man named Lazarus. It is also possible that these two stories have nothing in common other than the name of the main character.
Jairus’ Daughter There is a parallel between John and the synoptics that is worth exploring. The synoptics have a story about the raising of Jairus’ daughter from the dead (Mark 5, Luke 8) that is not found in John. It is no more surprising that the story of Lazarus is not in the other gospels than that the equally dramatic story of the raising of Jairus’ daughter is not in John. The simplest explanation for this difference between John and Mark is that most of the historical material in John comes from Judea, especially Jerusalem, and most of the material in Mark comes from Galilee. It is possible that Mark and his church had not heard the story of the raising of a dead man in Judea and that John had never heard the story of the resurrection of a dead girl in Galilee. The difference between the gospels is not as significant as some claim.
It is worth noting that all of the gospels, including the non-canonical ones, state that Jesus raised the dead. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus tells the disciples of John the Baptist that “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” In other words, even though there is no solid historical evidence to prove that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, all of the earliest sources we have claim that Jesus raised someone from the dead.
Literary Intention One reason some biblical scholars doubt the historicity of the Lazarus story in John is because it is such a beautifully crafted story. It is one of the longer narratives in the NT and it reads like a play rather than like a story from oral tradition. There is drama and dialog and multiple characters. The “actors” in this drama are people who figure more prominently in John than in the other gospels. Thomas, Mary and Martha all have speaking roles. Unlike the other miracle stories in John, this story is preceded by a long discourse of Jesus with his disciples and with Lazarus’ sisters on the nature of the resurrection. The placement of this story as the pivotal event before the passion also raises doubts about its historicity because the story fits too perfectly with John’s narrative for it to have actually happened this way, according to many scholars.
Several scholars have proposed that there was an original story about Jesus raising the brother of Mary and Martha from the dead. That story probably included the details that the location was in Bethany, that Lazarus was buried, and that the sisters were grieving. This event might have happened much earlier in Jesus’ ministry, but John uses this story as the climax of the Book of Signs and the bridge to the story of the Passion. John expanded on the original story with dialogs between Jesus and his followers on the resurrection of the dead. These dialogs probably reflect the teachings of Jesus to his disciples, but here they are interwoven into a dramatic framework.
By now, we should have become accustomed to the fact that the author of the Gospel of John was an artist who shaped the tradition he received and crafted it for theological purpose. We have encountered this repeatedly in our study so far. The writer admits that he has done this when he says “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” John’s Gospel never claims to be the kind of objective biography a modern historian would write. It is a story of faith so that the community of faith may understand Jesus and his work. It should be no surprise that a theological artist would have crafted the story of one of the most important deeds of Jesus in a way that highlights its significance and draws out its symbolic meaning. The story is important in its own right, but it is even more meaningful in its literary context.
Factual? Of course, the real reason that many scholars view this story as a theological fiction created by John is that many modern people simply do not believe that Jesus could have raised anyone from the dead. We live in a world where the dead don’t rise and the lame do not leap. In the 19th century, some historians even proposed that when Jesus said that Lazarus and the daughter of Jairus were sleeping, he meant that literally. In other words, these are stories about awakening someone from a coma that were taken as miracle accounts by the gullible. 20th century scholars tended to just see the whole thing as a fiction with no basis in reality.
The question of whether Jesus raised the dead is something that cannot be decided by historians because there is no way to verify the sources. If you are convinced that death is final and cannot be reversed by God, then you will reject the story of the raising of Lazarus as well as the resurrection of Jesus. The fact that some of us walking around today have been brought back from death by scientific means will not change your mind. If you believe that death is death and that Lazarus never emerged from the tomb, than I hope that you will at least approach the story of Lazarus as a parable.
For those of you who do not believe that death is the only thing certain in life, this story may have a different meaning. Gail O’Day sums up the issue of the historicity of the Lazarus account well: “For religious people, this mystery, the overlap between the natural and the supernatural, is seen as evidence of God’s transcendence of the categories by which God’s creatures understand the world to be ordered and of God’s intervention in the workings of creation. It is thus a question of faith whether one can acknowledge the possibility and, indeed, reality of God’s miraculous intervention in creation. … The only answer to the question of whether this miracle could have occurred is another question: Can we believe that God, acting through Jesus, has power over the course of life and death?” (O’Day, Gospel of John, 693).
There you have it. The raising of Lazarus from the dead remains a mystery even if it is historical. If it is not historical, it is at least a great story with an important point. What you decide will depend in large part on whether you believe that the Creator acts in the world or whether nature is the highest reality and the death the final word. I think that if you believe in this story about Jesus bringing life into situations where death appears to be the final answer, your life will be filled with hope and joy even in the midst of grief. Now it is time to read the first part of this great story.
Mary and Martha The story begins a little awkwardly, and that may indicate that this is a story that was edited a couple of times. There is the simple statement that Lazarus was sick and that he was from the village of Bethany, the village of Mary and Martha. These two sisters must have been very important in the church of the Beloved Disciple and were known beyond that congregation. There is no reason to doubt the tradition that they opened their home to Jesus during his visits to Jerusalem. They are always mentioned together, and there is no indication that either one of them married. It was scandalous for adult Jewish women not to be married since the first commandment is to have children. Women were valued primarily as child-bearers. We do not know why Martha and Mary were unmarried, but one of the things that Christianity brought into the ancient world was the option for women to remain single.
The only other gospel to mention these two women is Luke where we see Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus while Martha served the dinner guests. Thus, in both Luke and John, Mary and Martha are identified as disciples of Jesus. In Luke, Mary sits at the feet of the teacher listening to his words. In John, Jesus instructs Martha in the meaning of resurrection in a more direct way than he did with his male disciples. Martha is the first person in the Gospel of John to say that she believes that Jesus is the Son of God. We should remember and honor Martha for this proclamation of faith rather than simply as the overly busy housewife cleaning up from dinner.
I hope you are noticing an important feature of John’s Gospel: the first person to believe in Jesus as the Messiah was the woman of Samaria. The first person to profess belief in Jesus as the Son of God was also a woman. The first witness to the resurrection will be a woman as well. Despite the very real and painful history of sexism in the history of Christianity, there is no doubt that women played a prominent role in the early church, especially in the church of the Beloved Disciple. I don’t know why it is the churches that claim to take the Bible literally that refuse to ordain women when a literal reading of the Gospels reveals that Jesus chose women to be his disciples and his witnesses to the good news of salvation.
Anointing At the beginning of ch. 11 Mary is identified as the woman who anointed Jesus. This is a little odd because the story of the anointing has not been told yet. That will be in ch. 12. It is possible that one of these stories has been moved from its original place. The other gospels tell the story of the anointing earlier in the career of Jesus and they do not name the woman. It is also possible that John assumed that his readers knew about the Mary who anointed Jesus and wanted to make sure that they understood the sister of Lazarus was the same Mary. It is also possible that this verse intentionally looks to future events so that the reader understands that the resurrection of Lazarus is connected to a greater story of resurrection.
The Delay Whatever the reason for identifying Mary as the one who anointed Jesus, the effect is that the story of Lazarus is placed in the larger story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. When Jesus delays in answering the summons to come to Lazarus, we are reminded that the Father did not save Jesus from death on the cross. Just as there was a greater message in the death of Lazarus than there would have been with a healing; there was a great lesson in the death of Jesus than in avoiding death.
This story raises all sorts of questions for us, and we may not be able to answer them all. I remember when I was a teen-ager being very troubled by aspects of this story. If Jesus loved Lazarus and Mary and Martha, why did he not hurry to them? Why leave them in grief? As it is written, Jesus sounds almost callous. He lets Lazarus die so that he can reveal his power. We are told throughout the Gospel of John that Jesus did not display his own power or seek his own glory. He was doing the will of the Father and revealing the glory of God.
The delay at the beginning of the story prefigures the cosmic silence of the Father when Jesus is crucified. It is a hard teaching, but it is none the less true, that sometimes great things come at a terrible price. Lazarus had to experience death in order to be resurrected. Mary and Martha had to grieve in order to celebrate. One thing that is clear in this passage, as with the story of the man born blind. The Gospel of John rejects the notion that suffering and death are punishment for individual sins. Lazarus’ death was for a greater good, not because he was a sinner. In John’s Gospel, the work of Jesus is to overcome the power of death.
We will continue with the story of the raising of Lazarus next week.