Commentary on John 11:1-44
(Author’s note: I discussed the latter part of this pericope in an earlier essay for Working Preacher. I encourage you to consult those comments. For this essay, I will focus on the earlier portion of the text, verses 1-31).
John highlights the relationships intersecting at this time of illness and death. Verse 1 introduces the family as “Lazarus … Mary, and her sister Martha.” In verse 5 they are mentioned again in reverse order: “Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Between those two verses, we are told that Mary will anoint Jesus’ feet in the following chapter, thus joining Jesus and this family even more closely. The sisters trust Jesus enough to request his presence during this critical time (their message sent in verse 3 simply reports that Lazarus is ill, but the unspoken request seems clear: “come”). Jesus, for his part, loved these three siblings (verse 5).
It isn’t difficult to empathize with Martha and Mary. During times of grief and worry, we long for those we love and who love us. We need hugs and shoulders to cry into. For too many, Covid meant that times of illness and grief happened without that community presence. The sisters had some idea that Jesus could prevent the worst from happening (verses 21, 32). But even if that were not the case, the sisters knew that Jesus loved them and their brother, and that would have been enough reason to ask Jesus to come.
This makes Jesus’ delay all the more surprising. As The Message puts it, “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, but oddly, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed.” Yet at the start of verse 6 the Greek text joins Jesus’ love to his delay with the word oun, usually rendered as “therefore.” But why would Jesus’ love (verse 5) lead to Jesus’ absence (verse 6)? The NRSV’s questionable translation of “though Jesus loved … he stayed” is trying to address that apparent non sequitur.
John’s readers experience Jesus’ absence even while continuing to dwell in his love. They are part of a community which remembers Jesus’ departure to the Father and subsequent sending of the Paraclete as an act of Jesus’ love. Jesus’ love is the reason that he is absent from these three loved ones, so that his glory can be revealed leading to faith. Among us Jesus’ glory is revealed (and faith is nurtured) not so often through the dead being restored to life as it is through being present for one another with patient and fierce love in the midst of injustice and grief.
Martha does not hide her frustration (and perhaps disappointment) from Jesus. Complaint is not incompatible with faith in Israel’s tradition, as the lament psalms so profoundly demonstrate. She goes out to meet him, and expresses her conviction that if Jesus had been with Lazarus, he could have pushed death back. Yet Martha still sees in Jesus the possibility of something more: “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” It is a bold move. What if Lazarus stays in the grave? What would that mean? That Jesus doesn’t care enough to ask? Or that Jesus is not who Martha claims he is? Martha’s confession is a risky commitment.
Martha hears Jesus’ response, promising that her brother will rise again, as an unsurprising expectation. Martha’s reply is orthodox and true (at least for some within Second Temple Judaism, and certainly for John’s community), affirming that resurrection will come for God’s people at the end (as Jesus said in 6:39, 40 44, 54). She has still not grasped the reality of the One who is with her, and so Jesus tries again: “I am the resurrection and the life … Do you believe this?” It is a challenging inquiry, especially with Lazarus in the tomb and Martha’s grief still so fresh. Yet it moves Martha beyond her earlier statement, and she declares that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
This is faith expressed in terms which echo the purpose of this Gospel (20:31), but even Martha still has a way to go in her faith. She is now using proper Johannine terms, but doesn’t seem yet to grasp their meaning, as her worry about the stench from the tomb in verse 39 will make clear. She doesn’t grasp what it means that Jesus himself is the resurrection and the life, even for her in her grief and Lazarus in his tomb. How could she?
Jesus asks Martha to reorient herself to the world, to find both life and death reconfigured by Jesus. For Jesus to claim that he is “the resurrection and life” points to two intertwined aspects of Jesus’ life-giving presence. Verse 25 claims Jesus’ life-giving power over the believer’s death, and promises resurrection at the end. Verse 26 claims Jesus’ life-giving power over the believer’s reality here and now, a life-giving effect that cannot be broken even by death. Both our future and our present are determined not by death, as we may mistakenly think, but by Jesus.
We often turn to this text at times of funerals and grief. But the text claims that Jesus’ power over death is effective now, not simply in the pious expectations of the End (or the less biblical images of “heaven”). In the midst of injustices and tragedies and griefs and disappointments, preachers have a chance to proclaim that in it all we are held and loved and determined not by the powers of death but by the risen Jesus. That is so because Jesus is not simply one who can restore life, but the one who is life itself.
Jesus is the place where death ends and life begins. We, like Martha, believe and yet still struggle to grasp what this means. With Martha we confess what we cannot fully comprehend. From Jesus we hear the word of life which calls us to confront the stinking places of death and decay with hope.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of new life,
As Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, renew and restore us to new life, leaving in the grave all that prevents us from loving you fully. Amen.
God so loved the world, Robert Chilcott