Commentary on John 11:32-44
John 11 opens with these words: “Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. . . . So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’”
Chapter 11 is often called “The Raising of Lazarus.” It’s true that Lazarus is raised along the way, but Lazarus never actually speaks in the passage.
Martha, in fact, is the one who engages Jesus at a deep theological level and receives one of the great I AM statements from Jesus. Jesus alludes to that conversation in verse 40. If I had to give a title to the whole of chapter 11, it would be “The Confession of Martha (with the help of Mary)” instead of “The Raising of Lazarus.”
Obviously, ours is a passage for the ages, one that deserves to be unpacked in more than one sermon or one posting on WorkingPreacher.org. But let’s do what we can.
The main moves I want to highlight are these:
- Tie in the earlier parts of chapter 11 to this portion
- Compare Mary and Martha
- Compare chapter 11 as a foreshadowing to Jesus’ own Passion; the language of death; the tomb; the stone at the tomb; the presence of a Mary who weeps and moves the gospel story along
- Consider christological implications: is Jesus most human or most divine in this passage? Is it a false dichotomy? He weeps and is troubled — is that his most human or most divine side? He raises Lazarus, thus showing his power over life and death. Yet, Lazarus will surely die again, eventually, while Jesus will “lay down his life in order to take it up again” (10:17-18).
- Note the importance of the communal aspect of healing and resurrection
Our opening verse finds Mary’s body language at odds with her words. Sure, to show respect and homage, she falls at Jesus’ feet (“kneel,” as the NRSV has it, is not really correct because it gives the impression of kneeling in worship as the magi did — proskuneo; in this instance, it’s literally “fell at his feet,” and marks a force and desperation that is not as dignified as proskuneo). But she has an issue with Jesus and, truth be told, it’s an issue some of us can relate to: “Lord, IF [only] you had been here, such and such would have gone differently, would have gone the way it SHOULD have.”
If only. If only. Recall the earlier part of chapter 11 where Jesus and the disciples arrive in Bethany. Martha rushes out to meet them, crazed with grief. In verse 21, Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if [only] you had been here, my brother would not have died.” If only. If only. How many hours a week, a month, a year, do we spend on the “if only” game? Our necks are craned to the past, fantasizing about what could have been, dreaming of would-be destinies — as if we could change the past. We can’t. And neither can Martha. Or Mary. Her brother is dead. He’s really dead. Rotting in a grave, stinking to high heaven. If only.
Verses 33-35 are famous for Jesus’ show of emotion. Jesus sees Mary weeping (klaio) and her companions co-weeping and this creates in him a dual reaction. The same verb translated “disturbed” occurs again in verse 38. Here’s where I think you get to have “fun” as a pastor/preacher. Johannine scholars have extremely lively debate over what exactly Jesus is feeling here. Many think that the first phrase, translated by the NRSV as “disturbed in spirit,” reflects anger on Jesus’ part.
So, Frank Moloney, a Catholic priest and esteemed Johannine scholar writes, “When Jesus sees Mary weeping, and ‘the Jews’ who are with her also weeping … he is strangely moved. It is not compassion — or lack of it — that creates Jesus’ being moved to anger in spirit and troubled … As Jesus’ public ministry draws to a close he is frustrated and angrily disappointed (enebrimesato), and this is manifested in a deep, shuddering internal emotion (etaraxen).”1 Is Jesus sad, depressed, disturbed, angry, troubled, or all of the above? He certainly weeps in verse 35, but the verb there is distinctly different — when Jesus does it, it’s dakruo; this is a hapax legomenon in the NT (meaning it only occurs once, here); when Mary and the Jews do it, it’s klaio, which occurs more commonly. Have fun with that!
Verse 36 gets at the point: Jesus’ emotion is generated by his love (here, phileo). I have found that many people try to drive a distinction between the kind of love God has for us, which they refer to as agape, and the kind of “lower-order” love people have for each other (phileo); John obliterates any such notion. The divine/human dichotomy or dualism that many of us insist upon is not tolerated by the Jesus in John.
Jesus comes to the tomb (mnemeion) in verse 38. This noun occurs 14 times in John. Now, if you are like me, you will get chill bumps when I tell you where else this word occurs in John. In 5:28 Jesus says, “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves (mnemeion) will hear his voice.” The next time we see the word, Jesus is calling out to Lazarus in a loud voice to “come out.” The next occurrence after that is Jesus’ own tomb, where another stone (lithos) appears, and is taken away, as in verse 39 (cf. 20:1).
Here the attention turns back to Martha, because she is the one chapter 11 focuses upon, in spite of the lectionary. Verse 40 only makes sense in light of the earlier exchange between Jesus and Martha in chapter 11. She emphasizes how dead Lazarus is with the comment of the stench. Of course, right after this passage, Mary, the sister of Lazarus (not a prostitute or sinner as in Luke 7 and not Mary Magdalene, but Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus) will anoint Jesus’ feet as a furtherance of the foreshadowing of his death here in chapter 11 and will amply overturn the stench. At 12:3 we learn, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” If this detail does not make you love the Bible and does not astonish you with the intentional connections being made, you might be in the wrong business. It’s magnificent stuff.
Standing by the tomb, Jesus prays. His trust in God’s glory and faithfulness and ability to restore life is unequivocal; not so for the bystanders. So he prays for their benefit, and, true to his prophecy in chapters 5 and 10, he calls his sheep by name and they come out of the places of dank death. Verse 44 tells us that the “dead man came out.” But the dead man was still bound. Notice what Jesus does. He does not zap away the trappings; rather; he calls the community to unbind the man who had been held captive by the dank stench of death.
And that is probably the most powerful preaching point of this text, a point made real to me for the first time in fall 2011 when I taught a seminar on John, as I am wont to do. For the creative project, one student wrote a “Coming Out” Liturgy in which the rest of the class participated in the removal of the bindings. Though I study and write on John for a living, I had never thought about the fact that Jesus started the process but the community was enjoined to participate in unbinding the dead person and restoring him/her to life. This has obvious implications for congregations with GLBTQ commitments, but I think it applies much more generally as well.
1 Francis J. Moloney, The Gospel of John. Vol. 4 (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1998), 330.