Back from the Grave

Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A)


I’ve read this gospel story many times before. But I just noticed recently that no one asked Lazarus whether or not he cared to come back. Actually, it appears neither Martha or Mary asked Jesus to bring him back either. Maybe they thought it secretly in their hearts, but no one said anything out loud about raising the dead. It was something never ever heard of, so no one would have even for a single moment entertained the idea. But every now and again, the impossible and improbable may cross people’s minds. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Did Martha really think Jesus could have prevented her brother’s death? Or did she just say that in a fit of frustration because it gave her someone to blame? “Jesus, if you had been here, Lazarus would have gotten better sooner. Or maybe he wouldn’t have fallen ill to begin with.”

But there is much we don’t really know about Lazarus. Now I’ve heard some of the perspectives of scripture scholars and theologians who will situate this miraculous sign authoritatively in the context of the other signs in the gospel of John that establish the identity of Jesus as God’s Anointed sent to redeem a fallen world. But I like taking the road less traveled, to explore an otherwise unexplored perspective. When Lazarus became ill, his sisters sent word to Jesus of his condition. Is this something they did often, every time any of them got sick? Or was there something more serious about his illness this time that they felt the need to send word to Jesus? Was Lazarus elderly and his health seriously compromised? Or was he too young to be this gravely ill? Hard to tell. But there was definitely an urgency in their message. “Master, the one you love is ill.” And yet they did not specifically ask Jesus to come. We know that among family and close friends, that is exactly what they were saying. And like we often do among our own family and close friends, we will mean to say a lot more when we say little or nothing at all. Are we missing something? Did it get lost in translation? Was that a subtle jab at him for not visiting them more often, some passive-aggressive attempt to tell him he should have known better? Friends do that to friends sometimes.

We know that Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus very much. Scripture says they were close friends. Perhaps they spent a lot more time together before Jesus took up his public ministry. That’s why we don’t hear any examples that point to their close friendship. Nonetheless, it was an established fact. So it made sense that Jesus would have wanted to know if any of his close friends were sick. It’s what people do who know and love each other well.

But clearly Jesus did not rush to Lazarus’ side. Instead, he remained two days where he was. Scripture tells us he had a plan. He didn’t mean to be flip. “This illness is not to end in death (which it clearly did), but is for the glory of God (something no one would have anticipated), that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” So in the end, Jesus would send his disciples and his opponents a chilling message about the reality of his identity and the mission God had sent him to accomplish. Both would be profoundly shaken but for entirely different reasons. His disciples would rejoice for witnessing God’s great mercy, while his opponents would more intently seek to destroy him.

And in the middle of all this were Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Now Martha and Mary may have mentioned their disappointment at Jesus’ delay in coming to their brother’s bedside. Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said she did, but she didn’t just affirm Jesus’ claim that he was “the resurrection and the life.” Instead she clearly proclaimed, “you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Was that the exhaustion talking, the lack of sleep, the four days of grieving and mourning? I haven’t known that kind of loss personally, but Martha was remarkably sharp and focused.

In contrast, Mary did not come to meet Jesus when he first arrived. So when she did see him, telling him what her sister had already told him, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died,” he didn’t say much. But he was profoundly moved to tears by her grief. It was a scene right out of a Hallmark movie, lots of hugging and sobbing. Neither of them knew it yet, but their lives would be altered yet again.

And Lazarus? What do you say to a man who comes back from the grave? Did you miss me? Would you care for a drink? And will your life be any different knowing someone who used to be dead? And what do you tell people if you were Lazarus? Boo! Do you go back to living like nothing happened? Or will things be different and new? Will you get a new place and new friends? Will you have many of the same interests and concerns? Will you be more or less attentive to other people and their needs? Will you be as petty and selfish as you are now, or will you be more loving and considerate? Will you choose your words wisely? Or your politics? Or your religious beliefs?

We might think the raising of Lazarus points to Jesus’ own resurrection from the dead. But there are big differences. Coming back was not something Lazarus choose. It may have been his family and friends’ choice, which may have played a part in Jesus’ bringing him back. And most significantly, Lazarus would have to die a second time.

Two weeks ago, the Samaritan woman at the well asked Jesus for living water. Last week, the physically blind man did not ask for physical sight, and could have rejected the gift when he realized his life would be turned upside-down. Instead he embraced it and received spiritual sight as well. This week, Lazarus had little to say in Jesus’ decision to bring him back from the dead. But the love of his family and friends may have moved Jesus to give him a second chance. So we know our pain is not alien to God. But God’s actions are intended primarily to achieve God’s purposes, not ours.

Lazarus’ life after being raised from the dead was likely not much more different from his life before, except whatever he chose would be different. He could have chosen to be more patient and loving and kind. He could have chosen to focus more on affecting the lives of other people for good rather than for personal gain. He could have chosen to be more intentional, more confident, more willing to take risks. He could have chosen to be less wasteful of time, of his own efforts, of other people’s patience, and of his resources. Lazarus could have chosen to live his life differently after coming back from the grave. Or he could have just gone back to more of the same.

Would we need to come back from the grave before we choose to live differently and better? Maybe people we love have been asking exactly that of God this whole time. Maybe God heard their prayers. But how we live is still our choice to make.

Rolo B Castillo © 2019