Grasp the lesson in the tale of Lazarus

The Gospel reading this week tells about Jesus’ friendship with Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Despite some very complex theological discussion it is a very human tale. When one is in need, a genuine friend steps in to help. It is helpful to examine the circumstances of this story. First, Lazarus is seriously ill. Second, Martha and Mary realize the illness is so critical that Lazarus probably will die. Third, the sisters know that Jesus is the only one who will be able to cure Lazarus and they ask Jesus to come to their aid.

It is puzzling that Jesus delays two days before setting out for Bethany. It seems that a true friend would rush to Lazarus’ side. Jesus solves the puzzle by telling his disciples that, “This illness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” No one in the story understands until Lazarus finally comes from the tomb. It seems that no one actually heard or understood the words concerning the glory of God and glorification of God’s Son. The conversation with Martha manifests a common reaction to death. Lazarus is dead and there is nothing more to be done for him and after four days the body will have a stench. Mary, weeping profusely, is overwhelmed with grief at this finality.

When Jesus arrives at the tomb he first consoles Martha and later comforts Mary. Jesus’ concern falls upon those who have lost their brother. Jesus does not think of himself. He has put himself and his disciples in danger by returning to Judea. He is, once again, misunderstood, for the disciples thought Lazarus would recover when they learned that Lazarus is asleep. Even Martha reproaches Jesus for delaying the journey to their home in Bethany. The Jews who were consoling Mary see only a man sorrowing over the loss of a dear friend.

John’s presentation of the raising of Lazarus is a good lesson for us. Since we live in a culture that dotes on appearances and surface meanings, we too have trouble understanding the deeper meaning of those words about the glory of God and the glorification of God’s Son. One can grasp the implications of the saying only if one is willing to go beyond the appearances to the deep understanding of Jesus as the Son of God. Only then does his continued assurance that Lazarus will rise from the dead begin to make any sense. Only after the stone has been removed from the tomb and Jesus commands Lazarus to come forth do we fully grasp the words about glory and glorification. Jesus is in total control of the situation from the time they first hear of Lazarus’ death until he brings the man to life again.

Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.