The Last Straw

There is no mistaking the fact that the raising of Lazarus was the moment that the religious leaders decided that Jesus had to die. Was Jesus searching his own heart to know whether he loved Lazarus enough to lay down his life for him. Was his groaning and even his tears at the tomb, which caused bystanders to remark on how Jesus had loved Lazarus not just for Mary and Martha, but for himself, and for what he was about to set in motion. Was this the moment when Jesus actually let go, and laid down his life?



Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. John 11:


In his Gospel John tells us of the impact the illness, death and resuscitation of a man named Lazarus had on the life and ministry of Jesus. The other Gospels name the sisters, Mary and Martha, but they do not name Lazarus. The family’s home is in Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem, no further from Jerusalem than Garland is from here. Since the Gospels mention several Marys John makes sure we know about whom he is writing by telling us that this Mary was the Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet with ointment and then wiped them with her hair.


The sisters’ brother is ill, deathly ill. In their distress they send a messenger to ask Jesus to come quickly in the expectation that he could do for Lazarus what he had done for others. In John 10: we learn that Jesus was about twenty-five miles away, in Perea, a place beyond the Jordan. It reads: “39Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands. 40He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier, and he remained there.” – to be beyond the Jordan meant he had gone outside the jurisdiction of Caiaphas, the High Priest, to a place of safety. There must have been something special in their relationship because in their message the sisters say of their ill brother that he is a man Jesus loves.


At first Jesus dismisses Lazarus’ illness as merely a long sleep from which his awakening will bring Glory to God. But then, after waiting two days, he tells his disciples “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples immediately understood the implications of Jesus’ decision: “Rabbi,” they say, “the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” After a brief discussion about the wisdom of this decision Thomas registers his resignation to Jesus’ determination. He says: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”


Of course there is much else for us to consider in the rest of this drama.


From the fact that friends of the family, the professional mourners and “the Jews”, (and by that John means the ruling class), would be on hand to ‘comfort’ the family we learn that the family of Lazarus was influential. It also means that these others would be witnesses to Jesus’ return to Caiaphas’ jurisdiction.


Jesus arrives with little notice. Martha came out side of town to meet him. Her circumscribed faith believed that had Jesus come sooner he would have healed Lazarus but she didn’t expect Jesus to call back from the grave one who was already buried. It is here that Jesus makes a spectacular claim, a striking declaration, that he is the Resurrection and the Life – words that we would never expect from a sane person. He is the power that opens every grave. He gives life to sleepers. He calls everyone to a new existence, endowed with eternal being that is in him and which proceeds from him.


As we look a couple of weeks down the road, when Jesus’ own tomb burst open, we know that he did it for all humanity and in him humanity overcomes the power of death.   Listen again to his words, words we’ve spoken at innumerable memorial services: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And then the question is directed to Martha: “Do you believe this?” Put yourself in her sandals for a moment. How would you respond? She responds by the good confession that embraces all, Martha’s creed, Peter’s creed, the true “Apostles’ creed,” the only creed of the Apostolic church. “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”


Jesus asks Martha to secretly call Mary to come to him. But those who had gathered to mourn, without invitation, follow her with their thunderous mourning cries. John tells us that Jesus groans when he sees the crowd. We generally think that Jesus was upset at the misdirected mourning. I’ve come to think that it is in this moment Jesus’ presence in Bethany becomes public. Whatever, what we have next is the shortest and yet one of the most touching verses in all of scripture: “Jesus wept” John tells us. “Behold how he loved him!”   Some of the Jews were touched by the evidence of tender affection. Others, remembering the healing of the blind man right there at Jerusalem, also asked if Jesus had come earlier could he not have saved Lazarus from death, the same question that Mary also had asked when she first met Jesus.


At Jesus’ instruction they took the stone away from the tomb despite Martha’s practical reminder that Lazarus was already four days in the tomb. Jesus thanked God that God always hears him – even in Gethsemane, when the cup was not taken away.   With a loud voice he called Lazarus from the tomb. “Loose him” he said “and let him go.” And death obeyed. And many Jews believed. But others went and reported to the Pharisees.


In one sense this was not a resurrection at all – Lazarus will have to do it all over again.  He will have to grow old. He will get sick again. And he will certainly die again. I’ve often wondered what this felt like for Lazarus. Was he pleased to have been raised? Or did he feel like the peace he had finally found was being interrupted. How did he live with knowing that because he had been given his life back Jesus had lost his? To what extent was the taking up of his life again in some strange way also a laying of it down. Surely he could not have gone back to “business as usual” after this. Surely knowing he had been the cause of Jesus death, however unintentionally, placed a burden of responsibility on him that he could not easily have shaken? What little evidence history gives us indicates that Lazarus went on to become a bishop in the early church, so he certainly remained a man of faith and of calling.


As a result of Lazarus’ being raised the leaders of the Jews, the Sanhedrin, gathered. The Romans are coming. That’s what they were told to fear. But, of course, the Romans had already come – in force. And even though they lived as subjects in a garrisoned state their Roman overseers let them manage their own affairs. From the perspective of the Chief Priest, if the nation followed Jesus it would be interpreted as rebellion against Roman and the Romans would, as a result, destroy Jerusalem, the temple, and their ecclesiastical authority. The crises was alarming. And few truly understood. But Caiaphas, the high priest did. He was a Sadducee, a crafty and cruel politician who had been high priest for fifteen years. He told the gathering “You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” For Caiaphas, Jesus death was merely collateral damage in his political calculations. It has been a tragedy that for so long we have allowed Caiaphas to be our theologian. But from that moment on Jesus could no longer walk freely and openly among the people. From that time Jesus was a hunted man. From that day Jesus’ death was the official decree of the Sanhedrim.


The infuriating question asked by Martha, Mary and the gathering of mourners, and that with which we struggle as well is, why Jesus delayed at all? Given the time it would have taken for a messenger to travel to Perea from Bethany and for Jesus to have returned with him, even if Jesus had not delayed for two days, his presence would not have changed the outcome. Most likely Lazarus died soon after the messenger began his journey. Jewish custom had it that the soul would linger around the body for three days seeking to re-enter it, but once decomposition began on the fourth day, the Spirit would leave. So, perhaps Jesus simply wanted everyone to be sure that Lazarus was truly dead.


Or was it this, that he was weighing the cost of what he was about to do? Was this a ‘little Gethsemane’ for Jesus – a time when he was faced with a choice. He could ignore the whole thing, grieve with the sisters and then go on his way, knowing that he could probably escape the inevitable. Or, he could give life back to Lazarus, knowing that it would be this very act that would seal his own death. There is no mistaking the fact that the raising of Lazarus was the moment that the religious leaders decided that Jesus had to die. Was Jesus searching his own heart to know whether he loved Lazarus enough to lay down his life for him. Was his groaning and even his tears at the tomb, which caused bystanders to remark on how Jesus had loved Lazarus not just for Mary and Martha, but for himself, and for what he was about to set in motion. Was this the moment when Jesus actually let go, and laid down his life?


The most easily quoted – but most difficult to apply – statement of Christ is found in John 15:13: “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.  These were not just words for Jesus. As he received word that his friend Lazarus was sick to death, he must have realized that the time had come when he would be required to live these words. Lazarus was dying, but, as the weight of the moment settled on Jesus, he could not yet go to him.


Had you the capacity to give life to someone, to enable them to live more fully, more vibrantly, more meaningfully – to discover what it means to be truly alive – would you do it, if by so doing it would cost you your own life? One things we learn from this story is that life always comes at a cost. To bring life to others costs us something of our own life. To trust another costs us something of our independence and our right to question and accuse. To take life up and embrace it fully, costs us something of our freedom to spend it on frivolity and meaninglessness. The question is how willing are we to pay the price. Ultimately each of us will need to make a choice. Will we seek to avoid the cost of life, and give ourselves to shallow, cheap imitations? Or will we have the courage to take hold of life with all we have, paying the high, but well-warranted, price to take it up and to give it to others wherever we can?

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