March 26, 2023

Brief synopsis of the readings: In the Old Testament book of the prophet Ezekiel the Lord promises to open graves and lead the people back to their home. John’s Gospel describes the raising of Lazarus. Lazarus lived with his two sisters Martha and Mary and our reading opens with him being very sick. Jesus was close friends with them and when Jesus heard Lazarus was sick he waited two days before coming to his bedside. But when he arrived he learned that Lazarus had died and had been laid in the tomb four days earlier. Martha went out to greet Jesus while Mary remained at home. Martha told Jesus that her brother would have lived had Jesus been there. Jesus then asked to be taken to where Lazarus was entombed and instructed those gathered to remove the stone from the entrance to the cave. After praying Jesus commanded Lazarus to come out. Still bound in burial garments Lazarus stumbled out. Many who saw this came to believe in Jesus.

So what are the limits of what Jesus can do? We’ve seen him cure blindness and leprosy, turn water into wine and feed thousands with a few loaves and fishes. But were these really miracles? Last week I talked about the scientific method and how we know much more about how the world works than the ancient world. Because of that we know what we can do. We can give antibiotics to cure leprosy (now called Hansen’s Disease) but we can’t cure at the wave of a hand. We can do surgery to restore sight but we can’t spit on the ground, make mud and restore sight by rubbing it on the blind person’s eyes. But at the time of Jesus a person of doubt could claim that Jesus was just another magician.

Given that what could Jesus do that could remove all doubt that he was who he said he was? Well… OK you get it. Scripture gives us several examples of foreshadowing, little breadcrumbs that tell us to stay tuned. Our first reading in Ezekiel sees God promising to empty the graves of those who have died (he wrote this while they were in exile in Babylon to mitigate the horror of someone dying and being buried in a strange land). Our Gospel shows Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. All this foreshadows Jesus’ resurrection that we will celebrate in a few weeks.

And yes, even the most skeptical person can’t ignore someone who can bring someone back from the dead. But of all the characters in this reading Lazarus is perhaps the least interesting. After all, he really doesn’t do anything aside from trying to make an entrance while still wrapped up in burial garments. I have to confess an amused understanding of Martha and a genuine admiration for Mary. It must have been maddening for Martha to send word to Jesus that Lazarus was so sick and then learn that Jesus, well, dithered. It’s almost as if he were waiting for Lazarus to die and we can understand how frantic Martha must have been. She didn’t know the limits of Jesus’ power and nobody had ever returned from the dead before. Did Jesus wait too long? Even today when someone is sick we know time is of the essence; it would be as if we called for a medical emergency and learned that the ambulance crew stopped at Starbucks on the way over. Martha desperately wanted to have the faith to see a happy ending but it kept eluding her.

Mary, on the other hand, appeared much more calm and settled. She had no more information than Martha but on some level she knew things would work out. And while certainly Jesus knew what was going to happen, even he was affected. John 11:31 gives us the shortest verse in Scripture: Jesus wept.

So what can we take from these readings? Well, I think most of us already have enough Martha in us. We need to be gentle with her and with ourselves when we’re trying to have enough faith to battle grief and anxiety. Let’s admit the fact that even with all we can do we still can’t avoid grief and suffering.

When I see Martha I can’t help but think about (and plug) a book by Mitch Albom. Most people know him from his memoir Tuesdays with Morrie and that’s good but I really liked his fiction book The Five People You Meet In Heaven. The book tells the story of a man who dies when he’s 83 with a belief that his life didn’t amount to much. But he learns by meeting 5 different people that there was a great deal going on in his life that he didn’t see. Seemingly random events suddenly brought great meaning once he learned the rest of the story.

Frankly, this explains my opposition to medical suicide. I certainly learned how people can come to the end of their lives and feel helpless, useless and pointless. But we don’t know the whole story and perhaps they were destined to be cared for by someone who’s life will be changed by the relationship. A simple event whose meaning eludes one person changes the life of another; a nurse’s aid learns how to treat infections from a terminally ill patient begins a career as an immunology doctor.

Mary had no more knowledge than the rest of us and no more understanding of what Jesus could do. But her faith assured her that things would turn out and that gave her a sense of peace and calm while all others grieved.

And as for Jesus? I love John 11:31 because we’ve somehow convinced ourselves that faith should make us stoics and that we shouldn’t cry. I can’t tell you how many grieving family members have assured me that they will prove their strength by not crying. But Jesus, even Jesus, wept at the tomb of his friend. Frankly it didn’t make him weak, it made him human.

We don’t know what happened with Lazarus or what he experienced, but it would have been interesting to talk with him.