The raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45)–a story that reeks of anger, grief and death–is a long and puzzling one. Not least is it puzzling because it seems out of place in the Lenten lectionary cycle. Easter is the Sunday to celebrate resurrection from the dead. But Easter is still two weeks away. Why, this Sunday, still deep in Lent, do we have an Easter story before Easter?
Four verbs are prominent in the story, and they also raise puzzling questions.
11:6 – “Remain.” Jesus “remained” out in the countryside four days before proceeding to the bedside of his sick friend Lazarus. Perhaps a better translation would be “dawdled,” because by the time Jesus gets to Lazarus’s house, his beloved friend has died. Why doesn’t Jesus “rush” when he gets the news? Why does he “dawdle?”
11:36 – “Weep.” Here is the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept.” Why? Because he is moved to tears by his friend’s death? Because of his empathy for Mary and Martha, who are also grieving? Because of the lack of faith in God’s power Jesus sees in the people around him? Because of his identification with weak, suffering humanity? And does Jesus’s weeping imply that Almighty God also weeps?
11:43 – “Come out.” Why does Jesus bring life to the dead Lazarus by means of a command, rather than, say, by touching him, or by snapping his fingers like a magician might do? It seems as if Jesus is expecting Lazarus to play a part in his own rising. Is Jesus also commanding us to “come out” of something, in order to experience his aid?
11:44—“Unbind.” Jesus also issues a command to the bystanders: “Unbind him, let him go.” Why doesn’t Jesus himself finish the raising that he began with his command by also stripping off the grave clothes? Why does he ask others to complete his job? Is Jesus also asking us, his followers, to unbind, release, set free other people? If so, what are the “graveclothes” that bind people up in death?
Many questions about this strange story. But perhaps the most important ones for us are: “How am I Lazarus? How is God wanting me to experience Easter before Easter?”