Lazarus Is Us: Reflections on John 11:1-45
Jesus responds to Lazarus' illness with equanimity. He says that "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" (Jn. 11:4). He is not expressing his hope that, because of the miracle he is about to perform, he will be admired and praised. "God's glory" is a reference to Jesus' own resurrection. His raising of Lazarus from the dead will speed his own death, which will lead to his resurrection, in which we all participate.
The disciples respond to news of Lazarus' illness with indifference. Like most of the people in John's gospel, they operate at the physical, literal level. When Jesus says that Lazarus is "asleep," they don't get that he means he is dead. When Jesus suggests a journey to "wake him up," the disciples question his judgment. After all, if Lazarus is sleeping, they figured that that's a good sign that the worst of his illness has past, and, besides, doesn't Jesus realize the danger that awaits him in Judea? (Jn. 11:8)
Then Jesus resorts to plain speech. "Lazarus is dead." Thomas gets it. He gets that Jesus' raising Lazarus from the dead will speed his own death. "Let us also go, so that we may die with him." (Him refers to Jesus, not Lazarus.)
When Jesus approaches Bethany, another convoluted, miscommunicated conversation awaits him, this time with Martha, Lazarus' sister. She runs out to meet him and lays her guilt trip on him. "Lord, if you had been here . . ." (Jn. 11:21). He replies, "Your brother will rise again." She thinks he means at the last days. The belief in the resurrection of the body had been introduced a couple of hundred years B.C.E. in the Book of Daniel. Espoused by the Pharisees but not the Sadducees, it was widely accepted by the common people of Jesus' day (Brown, 434). So she thinks he is just saying something that people say at funerals to comfort the grieving family.
But he is not just assuring her of the resurrection at the last day, though the gospel of John includes that promise (6:54, "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day."). He is affirming the "realized eschatology" of John 5: 24: "Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life."
The detail that Lazarus had been dead four days by the time Jesus got there is meant to underscore that he was beyond resuscitation. The rabbis believed that the soul hovered over the body for three days and after that, there was no hope of resuscitation (Brown. 423).
Come and See
"Where have you laid him?" Jesus asks the crowd. They say, "Lord, come and see" (Jn. 11:35). It is hard not to flashback to 1:39 when would-be disciples were seeking Jesus out, asking, "Lord, where are you staying?" And he responds, "Come and see." His invitation to us is, "Come from your places of death and see my light and life." Here, as a prelude to raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus is willing, on our behalf, to come and see death face to face, up close and personal.
His response is to be "greatly disturbed in his spirit" (11:33). Other places in the gospels when Jesus shows this kind of emotional, spiritual disturbance that expresses itself in weeping are in Gethsemane (Lk. 11:39-46), and when he laments over Jerusalem (Lk. 19:41). These occasions have something in common: Jesus comes face to face with all that opposes him: sin, death, hatred. His response is lament and anguish. There may also be an element of indignation, almost of anger.
Jewish burial rite did not include embalming. The oil and spices used would have held unpleasant odors at bay for a while, but after four days it would have been overpowering. Except that the stench of death here meets the fragrance of the resurrecting power of God's Son.
When Jesus says, "Take away the stone," the reader can't help but be reminded of Jesus' coming resurrection. Our knowledge of the reality of future life colors our experience of present death.
Then Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The verb kraugazein occurs only eight times in the whole Greek Bible, six of which are in John. In chapter 18-19 it is used four times for the shouts of the crowd to crucify Jesus. The crowd's shout brings death to Jesus. Jesus' shout brings life to Lazarus and to us (Brown, 427).
Lazarus is us, bound by death in our current lives, called to life by Jesus who is the Light and the Life of the world. Jesus stands at the edge of our tomb, shouting "Come out!" We are to substitute our own name for that of Lazarus, hear his command, and walk into the light of day, pulling free of our grave clothes as we go.
Raymond E. Brown, The Anchor Bible Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Vol. 1, Chapters 1-12
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.