What role do miracles play in our faith? And who said death was a bad thing? These are but a couple of the questions that came up this week when Faith in Real Life read and discussed the story of Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead and whether the real miracle was the dead man walking or what he represents.
1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be alright.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
If you want to make sense of a dead man walking, this blog will not help you but if you want to be open to the possibilities of wonder, keep reading.
The bible is filled with miracles and the Raising of Lazarus is a big one. As with all miracles, the rational and reasonable questions of ‘Did it happen?’ or ‘How did it happen?’ are unanswerable. That creates a problem for many many people. Belief seems to require the suspension of rational thought—blind faith. We are supposed to believe or at least not question too closely because we have faith. But, paradoxically, miracles are used to justify faith. That is a closed circle that leads to dizziness.
So we began Faith in Real Life this week with the questions, ‘What is a miracle, and what part do miracles play in your faith formation?’ When asked, the discussion turned toward ‘things are possible that we can’t explain’ and ‘the essence of faith is that there is always something we do not know—faith in what we do not see’. Implicit in this point of view is that our knowledge is always limited and that the relevant truth of any miracle is how it serves to change our lives. Last week, we made the same point. No wonder (or miracle) can lead to belief but belief can lead to wonder. A rationalist can explain all wonders. If all else fails the theory of large numbers says that no matter how infinitesimal the chance, if we wait long enough, if there are enough chances, it actually becomes probable that the improbable will occur. The occurrence of the unlikely does not ‘prove’ anything about God.
The past three weeks we have looked at different examples of how our certainties about the world lead to diminished life, fragmentation and death. The Samaritan woman’s life was diminished by the social prejudices surrounding her gender, marital status and ethnicity. The blind man’s life was diminished by religious moralism and the definitions of sin. Jesus challenges human understanding of ‘who is worthy’ and ‘who is good. ’ Jesus rejects human categories and sees children of God. If our human categories do not lead to love, they will not hold up to Jesus’ scrutiny. Now in this passage, Jesus challenges the very meaning of life and death.
What seems obvious about what is good and evil, more likely reflects our deeply embedded assumptions about the world and what seems best for us. We make value judgments—both positive and negative. And when it come to death, most of us, unless in some intractable pain, do not want to die. We do not want our loved ones to die. Death is bad. It is the end of what we know.
The biblical narrative itself reflects the raw emotion of grief. In grief almost all of us have looked to God and said what Mary and Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Our idea of life is a beating heart and a sentient brain. But that is not how Jesus thinks and teaches. In verse 4, Jesus says Lazarus’ illness does not lead to death’— though in verse 14, he states plainly, Lazarus is dead. There is a contradiction here. One possibility, of course, is that Jesus was having a bad day and did not want to be bothered. Another possibility is that he was introducing new ways of thinking about life and death.
There is a big difference between dead and almost dead. In Jesus’ time, it was believed that it took three days for the soul to leave the body. So when the scripture says Lazarus had been in the grave for four days, he was really and unarguably dead. He had begun to rot. In the narrative, it is important that Lazarus was dead in every human sense of the word.
But the human sense of word was not the most important to Jesus. We are all bound in the shrouds of death. This will sound absolutely crazy but who decided death was bad? Death is necessary for the species to continue. We would have long since exhausted the earth’s resources if we all lived forever. But of course if we are talking about my death, that would be bad. Therein lies the problem. From the macro point of view, death is part of life. But from the micro point of view, death is the end of what we hold dear. We judge death to be ‘bad’ because we do not want to die nor do we want to face the death of those we love. We are limited to the life we know and we hold fiercely to it. But death and life have very different meanings for Jesus.
Our lives are perishable. We think of life as our beating heart but for Jesus, life means union with God. It allowed him to go to a cross. Our lives matter and our accomplishments matter but both come second to union with God. For Jesus, death is not the measuring stick of life. For Jesus, the measure of life is how well we’ve loved God and neighbor. That is where eternal life is found.
There is a Taoist story of an old farmer who had worked his crops for many years. One day his horse ran away. Upon hearing the news, his neighbors came to visit. “Such bad luck,” they said sympathetically. “Maybe,” the farmer replied. The next morning the horse returned, bringing with it three other wild horses. “How wonderful,” the neighbors exclaimed. “Maybe,” replied the old man. The following day, his son tried to ride one of the untamed horses, was thrown, and broke his leg. The neighbors again came to offer their sympathy on his misfortune. “Maybe,” answered the farmer. The day after, military officials came to the village to draft young men into the army. Seeing that the son’s leg was broken, they passed him by. The neighbors congratulated the farmer on how well things had turned out. “Maybe,” said the farmer.
At each point in the story the events were ‘obviously’ good or bad. But in real life we can never have that knowledge. And the minute we claim that knowledge, we close the door to God. In retrospect we have all had the experience of the farmer. Jesus came to correct our self-serving need for the knowledge of good and evil. Jesus came to restore the creation as God intended it. Our categories lead to self-righteousness, to the diminishing of people and finally to death—when we insist on our own way, we separate ourselves from God.
This understanding of life and death is difficult and way too abstract as real people grieve. But it does become the window to hope and the means to persevere.
The miracle is not a dead man walking. Though that is pretty impressive, it is so exceptional, it doesn’t sustain us very much in real life. The miracle is the promise that there is no condition that God cannot redeem. Anyone who has gotten to the other side of grief knows that. The pain of death does not fully recede, but life can and does go on. Death is not the end. Love goes on.
Gracie Allen said this best in a note she left for her husband to read after she died. It read: “Never put a period where God has put a comma.” I hope it comforted him. There is no desolation, no grief, no death where Jesus is not present to us. What so desperately seems like the end is but a comma in God’s story with and for us. We do not know and we cannot know how this miracle occurs but it is Jesus’ promise and a hope for all of us. Prejudice is not the end, moral judgments are not the end, suffering and death are not the end. We are freed from the bounds of death. How we live and love is what gives our lives meaning—and how we live and love allows us to participate in the eternal. That is wondrous.
Giver of life, grant that we are not bound by the shrouds of human understanding of ‘good and evil.’ Release us into a life beyond our imagining. Call us to love. Let it be so.