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Lazarus' tomb as represented in modern day Bethany

The assault on death in Bethany burned itself on the imaginations of those who witnessed it and announced the revolution to come.

Mary and Martha were especially close to Jesus, so when Lazarus fell ill, their first thoughts were for Jesus. They had seen his miracle working power over disease. They knew he attended to all those who called on him. How wonderful to have a friend like this in a crisis. So they send a message to their friend, knowing he won’t let them down. Except he does. If a close friend of yours was at death’s door and he or she asked you to come and pray with them, your common humanity - never mind your Christian calling - would lead you to drop what you are doing to attend on them. Jesus, by contrast, chooses to stay where he is for two days. And by the time he rolls up to assist, his friend has been dead and buried for four days.

The Gospel writers are sparing in their prose and in their expression of human emotion, more like the novelist J. M. Coetzee in his dispassionate economy of words than Tom Wolfe’s colourful exaggeration of human motive. Yet in this case it is not hard to interpret how the sisters felt about Jesus strolling into town in the middle of their bereavement rituals, long after the moment of salvation has passed in their minds. As Jesus is heard to arrive, Mary stays indoors, fatigued with grief and studiedly inhospitable in her refusal to go out and greet him in a mood any self-respecting Manhattan psychotherapist would describe as passive-aggressive. Martha by contrast rushes out, only to confront him with the allegation: ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. In other words: ‘You could have stopped this from happening, what were you doing? You make time for everyone who wants healing except your close friends’.

At first sight, Jesus appears like one of those ministers for God who are assiduous at meeting the needs of the community but neglectful at supporting those nearest to them. This is a charge that any minister for God is particularly sensitive to. There is a risk that in tending to myriad acute social needs, a minister does not pick up on the slow-burning needs of their family and friends. Yet this possibility does not hold up in this story because Lazarus was very ill and besides, Jesus was not prone to errors of judgment. This made his late arrival all the more perplexing to his friends.

Eventually Mary summons up the strength to greet Jesus. She also says to him: ‘if you had been here, my brother would not have died’. In the immediacy of bereavement, we are lost for words and often repeat the few phrases which form on our lips. You could imagine the sisters and those who mourned with them, in their grief and with a need to direct the anger which loss provokes, aiming this allegation again and again at the one they trusted most.

And then Jesus proceeds to raise Lazarus from the dead.

We knew he was going to do this at the start, because he told those around him that Lazarus would live, to the glory of God. It is hard for us to get inside his mind because he seemed prepared to make the trade off involved in allowing Lazarus to die and the sisters to experience tangible grief in order to demonstrate the power of God. The pastoral instinct is to minimise pain. Jesus, by contrast, is fighting a cosmic battle against the forces which oppress us. He does not attend to every emotion, any more than a government can afford to build foreign policy based on how gruesome any images of suffering are that the camera picks up for the TV news. There are sometimes bigger calculations to be made. This may sound hard, but Jesus was fighting the opening skirmish with the last enemy: death.

There is a duel here between Jesus and death. He would not be dictated to by death, like we are, hence his deliberately slow response to Lazarus’ illness. He would not allow death to impose its own frantic and malevolent timetable on him. In any contest, the one who wins must impose their authority on an opponent. Here Jesus exudes a mysterious and formidable power in the face of the one foe we cannot beat. In the same way that John the Baptist paved the way for the ministry of Jesus, the raising of Lazarus would be a forerunner of the fight which would culminate in the garden on the third day.

The courage and assurance Jesus shows when death confronts him should be contrasted with the meagre and sometimes foolish efforts we make to deny its power. The philosopher John Gray has written recently about the feeble human ambition to defeat death in his book ‘The Immortalisation Commission’. The image of the embalmed body of Lenin on display in the Kremlin for decades after his death, perfectly preserved yet utterly lifeless, is the most effective symbol of our impotency in the face of death. Cryogenics, in which the human body is frozen in the hope that one day a cure for death will be found, is the latest consumer version of this tendency. And throughout these schemes and the frightened human spirit that informs them, Jesus whispers ‘I am the resurrection and the life’.

In raising Lazarus from the dead four days after his heart stopped beating, Jesus ensured that there was a large audience of mourners on hand to witness his awesome miracle. This was not achieved behind closed doors, but under the full scrutiny of people who had made the journey from Jerusalem to support the family. A failure to raise Lazarus from the dead once he had set about it would have fatally wounded his standing. Once Lazarus emerged blinking into the sunlight, there was no chance it could be hushed up.

Anarchist thinkers coined the phrase ‘the propaganda of the deed’ to describe the symbolic effect of violence on a target as a precursor to revolution. Long before they turned this to harmful effect in the modern world, Jesus showed he understood its power. He knew what impact this miracle would make on Judean society. His assault on death in Bethany burned itself into the imaginations of those who witnessed it and announced the revolution to come.

Lazarus, as we know, was raised from death only to die again. When Jesus spoke of his resurrection power he was describing his unique role in the inauguration of a new community in the world to come. Those who die in Christ will rise with him in glory as surely as he shattered the power of death on the third day after his crucifixion in Jerusalem. This is the truth that this miracle points us towards.

There is, of course, one final commentary we should make on this strange story. Mary and Martha’s distressed formulation: ‘where was Jesus when we needed him most?’ is a familiar one to those who live by faith in Christ. Some of us have asked this question in the past. Some of us are quietly asking it now. Most of us will toy with it at some point in our lives. Time may pass in which we wonder why he has not answered our call for help. Yet as we pose the question he is on his way. Perhaps he is delayed because he will not accept the diabolical agenda that evil tries to foist on him. Perhaps he is biding his time until God’s peerless authority can be demonstrated in some alluring but unexpected way. Jesus would appear to keep an eccentric diary at times, but we should not mistake this for carelessness. He knows where he is going next, even if he sometimes ambles to his destination.



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