JOURNEY TO BETHANY
THE RAISING OF LAZARUS
After being in Jerusalem last week where in the majestic temple shining on Mt. Zion Jesus preached that He is “the living water” for all who are thirsty (Jn. 7. 37) let us make the short journey to Mt. Olives where nestled in the south-east side is the village of Bethany where Mary, Martha and Lazarus had lived. Here Jesus loved to come and visit. It was always a time of refreshment and companionship.
As we set out for the two mile trip along the road to Jericho before turning off, perhaps our first thoughts would have been for that ancient city of Jericho that supposedly tumbled to its ruin when Joshua blew his trumpet (Jos. 6.20); and especially after last week’s journey into Samaria, of the kind Samaritan who took care of the wounded man on the side of the road outside this very ancient city (Lk. 10. 30 -7). Yet we cannot be too deep in our thoughts unless we miss the turn off in the road. As we turn east the Mount of Olives appears with its four peaks some of which were later given names associated with our Lord such as the Mount of the Ascension. Of course we know why it is called the Mount of Olives as olive trees clothe its ridges, those olive trees that will be hacked down by the Romans during their war with the Jews from A.D. 66 – 70. When we ponder on these olive trees we recall that it was a branch from an olive tree that the dove brought back to Noah (Gen. ). It figures too in that famous Jotham’s parable of the trees in Judges. In refusing to be king the olive tree argued, “should I leave my fatness, wherewith by me they honour God and man? (Judges. 9.9). In Revelations the two “witnesses” mentioned are spoken of as “two olive trees standing before the God of the earth.” This is very similar to what we find in Zechariah( Rev. 11. 14; Zec. 4.3, 11-14). Paul used the olive tree imagery as a way of teaching Christianity to the Romans. In that most theological letter he taught of those like “olive-tree, wild by nature” (Rom. 11:24). So the shoot or cutting of the good olive-tree which, left ungrafted, grows up to be a "wild olive" (Rom. 11.17). Yet if the shoot from the wild olive tree is grafted “into a good olive tree” gradually the sap from the good will make the grafted branch good and it will bear not sour but good olives. Accordingly the Gentiles, being a “wild olive,” but now “grafted in” when baptised will bear through the sap good olives. (11. 24). With the Mount of Olives featuring in the history of Israel we have to wait to the time of David when he is in flight and fighting for his life as the son he loved, Absalom, had rebelled and was seeking to kill his father. It would have been an event that Jesus must have pondered on as He retired to Bethany during His last few days.
It is one of the most moving scenes in all of scripture. After David’s journey from the city, he had made his own, he reaches the Olivet, tired and weary. It is a pitiful site as He sits and weeps – weeps in penitence, as do the people who follow Him. All this happens overlooking the valley of the Kidron that valley Jesus will also cross to be betrayed.
It is here that David learns that Ahithopel, one of David’s counsellor had gone over to Absalom, but who when his counsel is rejected by him, knew the coup d’etat would fail, and he went and hanged himself (the only other person to do so in scripture beside Judas –II Sam. 16, 31; 17. 1 – 23). His advice had been rejected as from Mt. Olivet David sent Hushai to Absalom with advice that vetoed Ahithopel’s that probably would have given success to Absalom but he was not politically astute to realize this.
Yet none is associated more with Mt. Olivet than our dear Lord. How many times did he sit on its summit and look across to Jerusalem and recall its history? As His time of trial came closer He wept over it as He had been rejected by those He had come to enlighten and have eternal life. Here he would have prayed and rested. Here He would have taught His disciples to pray. Here He told the beautiful parables of the ten virgins and the talents we find in the Matthean Gospel in Ch. 25. From Mt. Olives Jesus journeyed into Jerusalem where He was greeted as a hero as palm branches waved gleefully all around Him. And in the Synoptic tradition He came to be strengthened by His Father for the agony ahead in the garden of Gethesemane. 'O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt' (Matt. 26.39) According to Luke it is here too He would ascend into heaven twice if you please – on Easter Sunday in the gospel and after forty days in Acts (Lk. 24. 50 -1, Acts 1.12). Nestled into the south-eastern slope of this mount is Bethany as its hills descended towards the Dead Sea. It is east of the Jordan River where John baptised (Jn. 1. 28). Previously some of the exiles had settled here on their return (Neh. 11.32). Yet it is one particular family that always comes to mind when we journey to Bethany – the family of Mary, Martha and Lazarus who appear into two traditions: Lucan and Johannine. In the Lucan tradition we have Martha fussing about in the kitchen trying to prepare the meal for the family and Jesus and perhaps the disciples. Her sister, Mary, has absorbed herself in the presence of Jesus since He has arrived, listening carefully to Him, not to miss a syllable of His wonderful, enlightening teaching. Why worry about food for the body when there was food for the soul? However Martha did not see it like that; not that she did not want to listen to Jesus, but other things had to be done also, including this present meal.
She would never have Mary tear herself away from the Master so she approached Jesus. Don’t you care if my sister leaves me to do all this kitchen work by myself? Compassionately Jesus embraces her saying, “Martha, Martha, you do fuss over many things, but really only a few things are necessary in life.” Indeed “only one” really is. Mary knows that “only one”, so do not take that away from her (Lk.10.39 – 42). What did Martha think about that? We are not given any indication.
Mary loved to sit at the feet of Jesus. Just being with her Lord she grew in her sensitivity towards Him, so much that when He came to visit their home “six days before the Passover” as the family were having their meal, their last together, Mary left the couch to anoint Jesus’ feet.
In her hand a bottle of perfume
The best nard possible
Not with a drop or two.
A whole bottle she poured - Lavishly.
Her hands gently and lovingly massaged
perfumed nard into your dusty feet.
Feet that dustier would come
along the via Dolorossa.
Mary’s long-flowing hair
wiped your perfumed feet.
The lavish scent lingered
during the evening meal .
In those hours of torture close by
Mary’s kind caresses lingered
soothing away Your tiredness
with her lavishness and love.
Mary loved you deeply.
Anointing you for burial
With a love only she could give
to farewell her Lord.
In between these two events in the Bethany home we have this Sunday’s reading – the raising of Lazarus, the last of the signs in John’s Gospel.
This is the last of the great readings during Lent for catechumens to hear and to ponder on.
This reading is the culmination of Jesus’ ministry in the first part of the Johannine gospel. It is also a progression in the life of a Christian. The Samaritan woman exemplified the beginning of faith for a Christian; the man who received his sight manifested his enlightened faith about who Jesus is by confrontation and now in this account we are going to see how faith is deepened in the face of death, that last enemy to be overcome as Paul tells us.
In the Johannine tradition this is our introduction to this family. Although Martha obviously believed that Jesus is the Son of God and even though she confesses to Jesus that she believed in the resurrection of the body, she had not understood what Jesus had taught about eternal life – death does not terminate it. It took this miracle by Jesus for her to grow in that understanding.
Again as we read take notice of the two level of meanings. e.g when Jesus spoke of Lazarus being asleep. He means Lazarus is dead, whereas the disciples thought he was literally asleep and would soon awake.
Please note too it is the raising of Lazarus that determined the mind of the Sanhedrin that Jesus must die.
Raising of the dead has also occurred in the Synoptic tradition, notably the raising of the son of the widow of Nain in Luke’s gospel (Lk. 7. 11 – 17), and the raising of Jarius’ daughter in Mark (5. 22 – 43). So this raising is not unique.
Let’s read the passage Ch. 11. 1 – 44.
Act I -Scene I – Jesus discovers from Martha and Mary that Lazarus is dead.
It is set between the winter feast of Dedication (10. 22) and the Passover (11.55). It would seem that when news reached Jesus he was in the Transjordan (10.40) before travelling to Bethany. Afterwards he would return to the desert.
The news reaches Jesus from Martha and Mary that their brother is dead. Immediately Jesus’ reaction is to see this as another opportunity to for the glorification of God “as this sickness is not to end in death.” It will be a means of giving life. Yet Jesus purposely lingered two days before setting out for Bethany. When Jesus told the disciples He was returning into Judea they were staggered. How could he do such a silly thing they thought? After all, the authorities had just tried to stone Him (10.31). So as Thomas spelt it out, “Let us go with him, so we can die with him.” Did Thomas really have any idea of what he was saying?
Jesus replied once again in light and darkness terms. In the hours of daylight one can see perfectly and therefore one does not stumble but try to do this at night one will stumble. There is a similarity in the urgency of this message with that of Jeremiah, “Give glory to the Lord your God before it grows dark, before your feet stumble on the darkening mountain” (Jer. 13. 16). Afterwards Jesus informs the disciples why He must travel into Judea. Lazarus is asleep and I am going to wake him up. This is another example of Jesus talking on one level of understanding and the disciples on another. So Jesus had to tell them plainly that Lazarus is dead. Yet this is not bad news at all for you as it will strengthen your faith. Did Jesus have in mind His own death when He said this? And the hope that his raising Lazarus might give the disciples?
Scene I – Bethany – Martha’s profession of believeth
On full stage are the Jews who have come to comfort the two sisters.
Scene II – Martha and probably Mary meet Jesus a little way from their home. Martha blurts out, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” However she shows sufficient faith in Jesus to know that anything He asks, God will grant. Yet when Jesus informs her, that her brother “will rise again”, her reply illustrates that she misunderstands. Her profession of the resurrection on the last day was already a belief shared by Pharisees and others at this time.
Our Lord’s reply that He is the resurrection means eternal life even though one may die. (Even Lazarus will die again). What it actually means in the Johannine theology is that whoever receives the gift of life through belief in Jesus will never die spiritually.
When Martha responds to this, notice how similar this is to the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus will do for her what He did for the Samaritan woman convince her of that statement by raising Lazarus just as His time with the Samaritans in their village brought the woman and other villagers to a conviction.
(in scripture passage this is followed by almost a duplicate with Mary).
Act III – The raising of Lazarus
Scene I – the foreplay
Where is he? Jesus asks? Notice we have those two verbs that run through this gospel “Come and see” but the reverse this time – not to see Jesus as such but what will lead to the greatest of the signs in order to believe – the raising of Lazarus.
At the thought of seeing his friend dead, we have a very tender side of our Lord revealed, simply expressed, “Jesus wept.” Obviously the Jews who had come to comfort had remained, and seeing the love Jesus had, remembered what He had done for the blind man. Couldn’t He have done the same for Lazarus? Once again we see how closely linked is light – life –love in this gospel.
Scene II – the burial site
As the stone is removed, Martha again shows her practical side again – Lord, by now my brother would stink. Just as /he did with the woman at the well Jesus ignored the periphery and went to the heart of the situation. If you believe you will see “the glory of God”.
Before the sisters and the Jews, Jesus lifts up his hands in prayer to the Father to thank Him that He always hears the Son and therefore He is seeking the power to raise Lazarus from the dead. Notice this is typical approach for a Jew praying. By praying to the Father it recalls the Johannine belief that Jesus never does anything by Himself, He always works hand in hand with His Father. It is indeed a prayer of rejoicing for He knows that His Father will do this.
As the Father’s will must be done, Jesus shouts, “Come out Lazarus!”
Lazarus comes out, still bound with his grave clothing. He has to be untied. Note the difference we have here with Jesus when He will rise – the grave clothes are left behind in the tomb. Lazarus has only been raised to earthly life – he must die again. Indeed immortality cannot come until Jesus is risen.
It was this raising of Lazarus that led many Jews to believe in Jesus and for that reason the authorities wanted to arrest Jesus. For Martha and Mary they truly know that Jesus is the Christ and they understand the meaning of life eternal that lives on after the grave.
OUR JOURNEY TO BETHANY
What do we focus on as we arrive in our journey to Bethany and to the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus? Perhaps we may feel a little envious of the amount of time they shared with our Lord. Yet from Mary’s example we know we can share as much time as we want by simply sitting at his feet. As we approach Holy Week to sit and be silent and to soak in the Lord’s presence will help us to undergo something of that last week of our Lord’s life.
The Jews who came to comfort Martha and Mary help us to realise how sensitive we must be to the needs of our neighbours and more particularly the elderly and sick in our parish who may live far from us.
Yet on this journey this episode challenges us to see what stage of faith we are at? Like Lazarus we will die too but will we confidently believe that Jesus has risen and therefore we shall too, or will there be doubts? Is it really true? What if there is not anything at all - just a black hole after death? As Paul puts it, “if Christ has not risen, then we of all people are the most miserable.”
Death is the one event in life each one must enter and through alone. We began Lent with those words, “Thou art dust, and to dust shall thou return” Perhaps during this Lent we have not thought too much about death – our death and preparation for it. Now is a good the time to do that as we hang onto those words of Jesus, “I am life!” Yet more importantly we believe there is a place where there is no more weeping and no more tears. We shall reap in joy!
SIX DAYS BEFORE THE PASSOVER
Jesus loved His friends,
in Bethany they lived.
A last visit I must to
Mary, Martha and Lazarus.
A little while ago
Lazarus had died.
You were in Jerusalem
Only if You had been here!
At last you come!
What good news to Martha’s ears.
Your brother will rise!
“I am the resurrection and the life.”
Now sharing this last meal
Lovingly prepared by Martha.
Mary’s mind as always
Focused on holier concerns.
She loved her Lord dearly
Not bothered with food
She knelt at His feet
Something she had done so often.
(Didn’t her sister scold her so!)