Commentary on John 11:1-44
This story is rich in literary and theological themes interwoven with what has gone before in John’s gospel and with what is to come.
Situated just after the “good shepherd” discourse and just before Jesus’ anointing and final entry into Jerusalem, the story is pivotal to the plot of John’s gospel and lifts up central theological themes of the Gospel as well.
Lord, if you had been here…
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, three adult siblings from Bethany, are friends and followers of Jesus. Lazarus has fallen gravely ill, and his sisters Mary and Martha send for Jesus, who is “across the Jordan” (10:40; 11:1-3). Jesus’ response to their situation seems surprisingly nonchalant. “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” (11:5-6). Jesus expresses confidence that Lazarus’ illness will not lead to death, but rather to the glory of God (11:4), yet by the time Jesus finally gets to Bethany, Lazarus is already dead and buried.
We can understand the anguished cries of Martha and Mary to Jesus, who greet him separately but with the same words: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21, 32). Implied in this statement are some pointed questions, perhaps even accusations. Where were you, Jesus? Why did you take so long getting here? I thought you loved my brother. I thought you cared about us. Some of the neighbors gathered also ask among themselves, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (11:37).
Aren’t these exactly the kinds of questions we ask, or would like to ask, when tragedy strikes? Where were you, Lord? How could you have let this happen? Couldn’t you have prevented all this horrible pain and heartache?
It is noteworthy that Jesus does not rebuke Martha or Mary or their friends for what they say. To Martha, he responds with a promise: “Your brother will rise again” (11:23). After Martha confirms her belief in the resurrection on the last day, Jesus responds with another promise: “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” (11:25-26). Jesus pulls the hope of the future resurrection into the present, promising abundant, eternal life that begins here and now.
John does not recount a verbal response by Jesus to Mary, but tells us that “when Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (11:33).Then, after asking where Lazarus is laid, Jesus himself begins to weep (11:34-35).
Jesus does not answer all the questions that we might wish he would answer. He doesn’t explain to Mary and Martha and all those grieving why he didn’t come sooner and prevent Lazarus from dying. But it is clear that he is completely with them in their pain and loss, deeply moved and grieved.
Calling his own by name
Of course, Jesus does more than share in the pain and sorrow of his friends. He also acts. When they come to the tomb, he says, “Take away the stone” (11:39). Martha is alarmed. Even though she had boldly professed to Jesus when he arrived, “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him” (11:22), she is not so confident now that Jesus knows what he is doing. Does Jesus really understand about death? “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (11:39).
Jesus is undaunted by the stench of death. The stone is taken away. After repeating his promise that this would all lead to the glory of God, and praying out loud for the benefit of the crowd, Jesus cries, “Lazarus, come out!” (11:43). Obediently, Lazarus comes out, probably stumbling with his grave clothes still wrapped around his face and body. “Unbind him, and let him go,” Jesus commands (11:44). This poignant scene recalls earlier statements of Jesus: the promise that “the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out” (5:28-29a); and that the shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (10:3).
Jesus had seemed so slow in coming. It seemed as if he was too late. But with Jesus, we find out, it is never too late. Even when we are convinced that all is lost, even when we are ready to concede to the power of death, Jesus demonstrates that there is no loss, no tragedy, no power in heaven or on earth or under the earth, that can place us beyond the reach of his infinite love and abundant life.
John tells us that many of the Jews who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done (11:45-46). As the story continues, we learn that so many Jews were coming to believe in Jesus because of his raising of Lazarus that the chief priests and Pharisees were getting nervous, worried about the reaction of the Roman occupiers to the attention drawn to Jesus (11:47-52).
So from that day on they began plotting to put Jesus to death (11:53), and not long afterward, plotting to kill Lazarus as well, “since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and believing in Jesus” (12:10-11). The disciples, Thomas in particular, had feared that returning to Judea would lead to certain death for Jesus (11:8, 16), and they were right. Jesus’ return to bring Lazarus back to life leads directly to his own death in Jerusalem. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep (10:11, 15).
The good shepherd lays down his life in order to take it up again (10:17-18). The resurrection of Lazarus prefigures that of Jesus. The tomb won’t be able to hold Jesus any more than it could hold Lazarus once Jesus showed up. In Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life, death has met its match.
Much of the time, honestly, it does not feel like death has been defeated. Like Mary and Martha, we cry out in pain and ask our agonizing questions — about job loss, wayward children, financial crises, chronic illness, loss of loved ones, war and terrorism — whatever casts death’s shadow across our lives.
Even as we cry out of the depths, however, we live and wait in hope. Like Martha and Mary, we learn that God does not act exactly when, where, or how we think God should act. But God will act in God’s good time, and death will not have the final word. The day of resurrection will come.
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.
The glory of these forty days ELW 320, H82 143
I am the bread of life ELW 485
Jesus is a rock in a weary land ELW 333
God so loved the world, Robert Chilcott