Sunday, April 6, 2014

Lazarus: A Sunday Rumination

We interrupt this series of tirades about gun rights and the enemies thereof to reflect on one of the most famous deaths in the entire New Testament: that of Lazarus of Bethany, he who died and was returned to life by the intercession of Jesus:

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But 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.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

[The Gospel According To John, 11:1-45]

If you haven't yet had that read to you today, please ponder it for a moment now, before we proceed.

Despite its length, the story of the revivification of Lazarus should be read in its entirety, as above. We must take careful note of the sequence of events:

  • Lazarus falls seriously ill, word of which is conveyed to Jesus.
  • Despite the news, Jesus deliberately remains away from Bethany until Lazarus has died.
  • Jesus announces his intention to return to Bethany, incidentally telling his disciples that "I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe."
  • Upon arrival at Lazarus’s tomb, Jesus, “greatly disturbed,” weeps;
  • Jesus openly invokes his Father -- "I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me" -- and summons Lazarus forth from the tomb.

This story has disturbed me ever since I returned to faith. Sickness unto death is seldom pleasant, yet Jesus allowed it to happen to a dear friend. Indeed, the story strongly implies that had Jesus not tarried, he could have prevented Lazarus from dying at all. What's even more troubling is that he did so to establish incontrovertibly, through a miracle beyond all dispute by anyone present, that he was the Christ, the Son of God, with full authority to replace the Levitical Covenant with the New Covenant.

If there's any balm to be had, it's that he wept over it.

The revivification of a man four days dead is beyond the power of any man or men. In Judea at the time of Jesus's ministry, it constituted absolute proof that he was who he had been proclaimed to be. Despite two thousand years' advances in medicine and the understanding of the human body, it would still suffice today.

Yet he wept over it. I can imagine at least two sound reasons:

  1. The suffering Lazarus undoubtedly endured to become Jesus's demonstrator of his divinity;
  2. The necessity of the revivification to establish, among some at least, Jesus's nature as the Son of God.

The more I think about it, the higher the second point rises above the first. The revivification of Lazarus seemingly took from those who witnessed it any requirement for faith. Faith is belief that requires no proof, only an absence of incontrovertible disproof. Anyone who witnessed Lazarus's emergence from his tomb of four days had no need for faith on that day; he had seen incontestable proof that the Christ was among us.

But then, anyone who witnessed Jesus's crucifixion, culminating with his impalement upon the spear of Longinus, and later encountered the Redeemer walking about as if his execution had never occurred, would have been in the same evidentiary condition.

There are other, less unsettling quandaries inherent in the story: how a man dead four days could have his life restored as if it had never fled his body; in what state the soul of Lazarus reposed while the Redeemer made his way back to Bethany; and why the New Testament never says another word about Lazarus, Martha, or Mary, despite their obvious importance to Jesus. About these things, it is enough to say that with God, all things are possible, but about the two matters enunciated above the break, far more thought is required.

He who has been granted sufficient intelligence should reflect upon the Gospel stories critically and analytically. Indeed, the possession of that gift raises it near to a sacred obligation. There is no merit to be had from suppressing one's intellect to keep one's faith undisturbed. We are meant to be disturbed, by this and much else.

Scoffers routinely deride Christian theology from a temporal vantage point, as if God were a temporal being like ourselves. They challenge Christians with "the problem of pain:" why an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent God would permit frail human beings to suffer through no fault of their own. The acceptance of the scoffer's premise is the fatal step. Some of them know it and hope you won't notice; others merely lack the imagination required to spot their own deficiency.

But explaining why Jesus would deliberately allow his friend to suffer and die, specifically to use Lazarus's return to life as an indisputable proof of Jesus's divine stature, is a lot harder.

As I wrote above, faith requires a personal commitment to believe, as long as no definitive disproof of the proposition at issue can be produced. A proposition appropriate for the commitment of one's faith must therefore be one that's immune to disproof. Sometimes that merely requires the adoption of suitable postulates.

The crux of the matter, in my view, is the ubiquity of faith and operations founded on faith. They're far more common than some would believe...or than others would like us to believe.

In permitting Lazarus to die and then restoring his life, Jesus deliberately performed a miracle so dramatic that those who witnessed it were shorn of the need for faith. For them, Jesus's divine stature was as indisputable as a rigorously proven theorem of mathematics -- while they remembered the actual occurrence, the context, and retained the conviction that they had not been deceived somehow. But men's memories are perishable things. Our ability to doubt ourselves, including the remembered evidence of our senses, appears to have no limit. They who beheld Lazarus stumbling forth from his tomb didn't die on the spot and win immediate admission to heaven; they had longer to live -- years over which it was demanded of them that they have faith in their memories of the miracle.

The same could be said of those who witnessed the Crucifixion but encountered Christ Resurrected three days or more after his entombment. It could also be said of the Apostles whom Jesus permitted to witness his Ascension, and of the group upon whom the Holy Spirit bestowed the gift of tongues, that they might "teach all nations." Faith was still required of all of them, though it was faith of a different sort.

Another key to the Lazarus puzzle -- wow, "The Lazarus Puzzle!" What a title for a story! -- is Martha's declaration at the outskirts of the village of Bethany:

"Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."

Martha's faith preceded her act of witness. She didn't need to see her brother raised from the dead. Perhaps neither did the others who attended the miracle. But the demonstration became a story to be told to others not present -- persons who might never encounter the Redeemer in person, nor witness any of his deeds of love and mercy. Persons who would forever retain the freedom to doubt, as did Martha's sister Mary, though in her two previously recorded encounters with Jesus she had shown a greater devotion to him than her sister.

May God bless and keep you all.


bubba said...

The bible is specifically for us. Whether this is the end time or not doesn't matter; we must live in faith of Jesus and the stories in the bible bolster us.

Pleistarchos said...

Regarding the fact that Jesus wept, I think that most people miss very crucial yet simple points:

Orthodox Christianity, which in this case includes Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and other Trinitarian bodies,hold that Jesus had two natures, the human and the Divine. He had a human soul and was not merely animated by his Divine nature. When he approached to tomb, he felt anguish from both natures. One was of the God who weeps for the pain suffered by the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve (and I believe in the Talmud - I can't recall the other source - God wept over the body of Moses). The other source was his human nature; as a man, he felt deep sorrow for the suffering and fear that his friend experienced as death approached and for the suffering of Lazarus' family at this time.