The raising of Lazarus in John 11 stands as hinge between Jesus’ public ministry and his private ministry to his disciples. It represents a climax to Jesus’ earlier actions (this is the ultimate sign, the last in a series of 7) and a foreshadowing of his own death and resurrection. It is also a moment of profound irony because the one who is the resurrection and the life, the light of the world, starts to walk the path of self-renunciation that will ultimately lead him through the narrow and dark alleys of death. But at the same time, Lazarus’ raising foreshadows Jesus’ own resurrection and glorification.
(Osvaldo Vena, “Commentary of John 11:1-45,” Working Preacher, April 2, 2017, accessed March 26, 2022, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-111-45-3)
This “hinge” to the Gospel of John is shaped around several key events and is provided with a brief introduction that establishes the chief characters and tells us of their location and condition. The Evangelist also provides a brief denouement in which the last and greatest signs of the Lord is manifest.
Introduction. “Master, the one you love is ill.”
The location of Jesus and the disciples was provided immediately before our lesson. For a second time, Jesus has been threatened with violence by the crowds and Jewish leaders in Jerusalem because of his teachings (10:31-39). Escaping the Holy City, Jesus and the disciples descend to the Jordan, cross it, and Jesus ministered to many who had followed him to the Transjordan. He was back in a familiar location, “the place where John had been baptizing earlier”(10:40). Now, new and remarkable information is provided to us. Lazarus (the name means “God saves” in Hebrew) was ill back up in Bethany where he lived with his two sisters, Martha and Mary. The sisters therefore sent a message to Jesus, “Master (kyrie), the one you love (phileis) is ill”(11:3). By way of a jog to memory, the Evangelist adds that “Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair”(11:2). But this event has not yet occurred as Jesus and his disciples encamp in the Transjordan and receive the sisters’ message. Rather, Mary and Martha, along with brother Lazarus now raised from the dead, will later give a dinner for Jesus at their home in Bethany, about two miles from Jerusalem (12:1-8). (Could it be that the Johannine community of believers already has this event in their living memory and on-going liturgy?) At any rate, we are introduced to the family by way of an event that follows the current story line! While reflecting on such things, it is also somewhat surprising that this is the first time we hear of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in the Fourth Gospel.
Section 1. “The light of this world” What follows is a sweeping statement by Jesus followed by two comments by the Narrator upon hearing the news of Lazarus’ illness:
“This illness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it”(11:4).
“Now Jesus loved (ēgapa) Martha and her sister and Lazarus”(5)
“So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was”(6).
It would be quite appropriate for the preacher to wonder with the congregation as to the oddity of Jesus’ decision to remain there by the Jordan for two more days. But recall that in first century Jewish belief, a soul may remain around the body of the deceased for up to three days. After that, however, there was no other outcome but death. One day’s travel down from Jerusalem and one back up adding the two extra days Jesus tarried at the Jordan. Lazarus was dead.
What now ensues is a dialogue between Jesus and the disciples. The first couplet remains firmly in the “worldly” order of things. Jesus announces, “Let us go back to Judea” and the disciples realistically answer, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” 1 Jesus’ response is somewhat of a Dominical non sequitur, a rhetorical device associated with the Johannine signs. “Are there not twelve hours in a day?” Jesus asks. What follows is a highly symbolic discussion of the activities of the day and the night. In the former, a person can walk and not stumble “because he sees the light of this world” (phōs tou kosmo). In the dark, a person stumbles because “the light is not in him.” Now follows a discussion between Jesus and the disciples in which double-meaning words are at the heart of the matter. Jesus announces, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to waken him.” The disciples protest “that if he is asleep, he will be all right.”2 “Master (kyrie), if he is asleep,” they reason, “he will be saved.” The term translated “saved” is sōthēsetai, meaning both “to save” and “to heal.” Since the Narrator clarifies that “they thought he meant ordinary sleep” while “Jesus was talking about his death,” perhaps “save” does not best translate the earthly understanding of the disciples. Finally Jesus clarifies the issue: “Lazarus has died.” Jesus adds that he is glad that he was not there with Lazarus “that you may believe.” “Let us go to him,” Jesus announces.
Section 2. “Resurrection and Life”
As John opens this section of the narrative, some further introductory remarks are needed as to context and location. First, Lazarus has been dead for four days. The math mentioned earlier across the Jordan does add up. Moreover, the location of Bethany is also clarified; it is only two miles from Jerusalem. Another piece of information as well: Martha went to meet Jesus “but Mary sat at home.” Then comes Martha’s lament and her somewhat ambiguous words of faith: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” How far toward the fulness of faith has Martha moved? Does she really have hope that faces down those four days in the tomb? We will discover the answers in a bit. Jesus tells her “Your brother will rise.” Possessing the belief of the Pharisees concerning eschatology, Martha asserts that her brother will rise “in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus’ response transcends that notion of future hope with a radical proclamation: “I am the resurrection and the life” (Ego eimi hē anastasis kai hē zōē).
Suffice it to say that at this point in the dialogue between Martha and Jesus, her focus is on the end time event of the resurrection from the dead. “Life” is not yet a part of her personal experience either of her brother or herself. Of course, this will have profound theological consequences which John will shortly lay out. For now, “She regards Jesus as an intermediary who is heard by God (22), but she does not understand that he is life itself.”3 However, the Lord responds to Martha’s prior knowledge with a more personal and immediate question: “Do you believe this?” Martha’s answer becomes a fuller expression of faith in the Word made flesh: “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ (Christos), the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Now Martha is coming close to the truth; in 20:31, the Narrator will proclaim the first two themes of Martha’s confession as being the purpose of the Gospel. On the other hand, Martha has still not come to the fullness of Jesus’ proclamation that he is resurrection and life. Paul Minear puts the issue as follows: “She is unable to say, ‘Lord, I believe that whoever lives and believes in you will never die.’….Like her, they (the Johannine community) were ready to join in confessing Jesus as the Messiah,…(but they) also did not fully believe that Jesus is himself resurrection and life.” 4 Karoline Lewis offers this insight:
But what might it mean that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That we are raised to life, not as future salvific existence, to life right now, right here, right now, with Jesus. For Lazarus, the Gospel does not describe his future with Jesus, but his present…(The raising of Lazarus) gives him new life with Jesus. This new life is leaning on the breast of Jesus (13:23), reclining at the table with him, sharing food and fellowship (13:28). New life in Jesus is this intimacy, this closeness, this dwelling, lying on the chest of Jesus. 5
Savvy preachers may reflect on the difference between “resurrection” (in its utterly future sense) and “resurrection and life” as a present tense abiding with Jesus!
Section 3. “And Jesus wept”
Now the scene shifts from the dialogue between Martha and Jesus, with Martha now exiting and Mary entering the conversation. This transition happens by way of a double “call.” Martha “called (ephonesen) her sister secretly, saying ‘The Teacher is here and is asking--“call” once more (phonei)—for you.” Upon hearing this Mary rose quickly and went to Jesus who “had not yet come into the village, but was still where Martha had met him.” With this clarification we are reminded that Jesus has now come within two miles of Jerusalem where there is a crowd still eager to stone him to death. This awareness of the danger to Jesus may be the reason Martha called to Mary “secretly” (lathra). However, the secrecy was immediately compromised. Those who were in the house comforting Mary saw her quickly get up and leave; “they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there.” Consequently, the crowd of mourners will become an audience to whatever Jesus and Mary do and say. As is the case in the two other scenes in the Gospels where Mary is with Jesus (Luke 10:39 and John 12:3), she comes to rest at Jesus feet. Then we hear exactly the same words spoken by Martha moments ago: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (Does John expect us to surmise that the two sisters have rehearsed these words as the awaited Jesus’ arrival, perhaps in conversations well into the nights?) Jesus sees Mary’s tears and gazes upon the mourners who also weep. Wes Howard-Brook describes the scene as “all mourning and impossible hope." 6
It is at this point that one of the most crucial issues for the interpretation of the New Testament occurs. The Narrator tells us that when Jesus saw all the weeping, he was profoundly disturbed by bodily feelings and emotions. A conventional phrase we have come to assign to Jesus’ inner state is that he was “deeply moved.” However, such a phrase really does not describe those deep emotions. The Greek term is enebrimēsato, a word that “has its root in the sound of a horse snorting and clearly expresses deep anger.”7 What is the cause of Jesus’ groaning and snorting with anger? It is not the authentic expression of grief by either Martha or Mary. Rather, it is the unbelief of all those gathered at this occasion. All of this is the core meaning of his being “deeply moved”!
Whatever falls within the range of enebrimēsato, Jesus being “perturbed” does not provide adequately for these deep meanings. We may become perturbed at the long line at the DMV or perturbed that the mail was delivered late,…again. But this word, “perturbed,” does not belong in verse 33. Interestingly, the recent New Living Translation of the Bible has it correct: “When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled.” The NLT shares “deeply troubled” with our NAB translation for the Greek etaraxen. The root word terraso literally means to agitate or shake to and fro. “Deeply troubled” serves well here.
“Where have you laid him,” Jesus asks (the pronoun is plural). Their response is “Sir, come and see.” At this point, “Jesus wept.” Howard-Brook points out the deeply ironic character of this exchange. In prior encounters in the Gospel, “it is a call to experience Jesus (1:39, 46; 4:29), but here it is a summons to experience a dead body.” 8 Even this simple and solemn act—weeping—is met with an intensification of the divisions his presence has evoked. On one hand, some of the mourners comment, “See how much he loved him (ephilei).” On the other hand, others said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” Their anger toward Jesus is so intense that they acknowledge that Jesus did heal the man born blind and could do something to prevent Lazarus’ death. Still, they deride him. The Narrator now leads us to the tomb where Jesus once more is filled with embrimōmenos (much more than “being “perturbed”). “It was a cave (spēlaion), and a stone lay across it.” Jesus states a brief command: “Take away the stone.” Martha speaks out, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” In response Jesus announces, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” They take the stone away and Jesus lifts his eyes upward.
What follows is a brief eucharistic prayer: “Father, I thank you (eucharistō) for hearing me…” The purpose of the prayer is “that they may believe that you sent me.” This brief prayer of thanksgiving resonates with some of the themes of the High Priestly Prayer of John 17. In both cases, the Son has shown forth the glory of the Father. The prayer completed, Jesus shouts , “Lazarus, come out!” The next such loud shouting (kraugazo) will be when the crowd shouts “Hosanna” on the Day of the Palms. In response to this command from the one who is the Word of God made flesh, “The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands.” Jesus then instructs the crowd, “Untie him (“lysete,” from luo, to loosen or release) and let him go.”
Homiletical Strategy for Preaching John 11:1-45
When considering a homily for this Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A, it is immediately clear that these forty-five verses of chapter eleven cannot all be included. In fact, we have multiple occasions to focus solely on one or two verses and leave matters there. On the other hand, this last and greatest of Jesus’ signs is one of the most complete and rich narratives in all of Scripture. To distill the story down to one thematic becomes problematic; so much riches here! Two strategies for narrative preaching may help us assemble a plot that can become our homily. These include:
Reach. With such extensive biblical narratives as John 11, we may briefly summarize the initial portion of the story and land well into the plot for the homily’s first move. Could we not shape an introduction that invites the assembly to quickly journey with Jesus from across the Jordan to the outskirts of Bethany? This introduction will need to be restrained to about five to seven sentences. What cannot occur here is the introduction of other “shiny objects” that we preachers are tempted to sprinkle within the opening of the homily from time to time. (The basketball game last night, the big storm the other night, the great success of the church supper, etc.) Set the stage for Jesus’ arrival at Bethany and the first move regarding the conversation with Martha.
Trim. This strategy for narrative preaching recognizes that we cannot attend to every sub-plot within such long stories as the Raising of Lazarus. For this occasion, we will need to trim away portions of the narrative that, on other occasions may be retrieved and considered in depth. Here on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A, some narrative material in John 11:1-45 will need to be trimmed away (again, for this homily at this time and place). Therefore, in our brief introduction, we may need to trim away the “day and night” discourse in vs. 9-16.
Move One. “Resurrection and Life” In our exegesis of the pericope, we have discerned one center of gravity related to the Lord’s ego eimi statement, “I am the resurrection and the life.” We then noted several stages to Martha’s belief, beginning with her conventional wisdom as to the resurrection at the last day. Then we saw her deepened faith in response to Jesus Dominical statement (the ego eimi). Finally, we teased out a further stage of faith that the Lord seeks for Martha and for us, an intimacy of relationship with our risen Lord. On this catechetical Sunday, we are given a wonderful opportunity to invite the Elect—and the whole assembly--to this deeper knowledge of and relationship with our risen Lord. One or more of the Intercessions from the Third Scrutiny may serve well here as a means to providing a concrete image of our “Resurrection and Life” move.
Move Two. “Anger Welling Up and Deeply Troubled. We have noted the inadequacy of the word “perturbed” with regard to translating the Greek text. Could we shape a move in which we allow Jesus to both erupt in tears and in anger at the world’s unbelief, at our unbelief, especially in the face of death? Once more with the catechetical context in mind, do we see an opportunity here to invite the Elect to weep with Jesus at the world’s darkness and disbelief? Can we even imagine including in this move some reference to the fierceness of Jesus love for us that even extends to anger at our own disbelief? (Might we even compose an additional intercession in this homily that prays for the Elect and for their tears with Jesus at the world’s injustice and disbelief?)
Move Three. “Lazarus, Come Out!” Jesus’ “loud voice” will need to resound through the move. One approach would be that of assembling a brief list of examples of those who are entombed within our culture and across the world. Such an example list will need to be short—perhaps limited to no more than four examples. We might name various addictions as one of our examples. Then, this example series will move on to focus on our own “entombment” and the call of our Lord to “come out!” Again, given the catechetical context of this homily, we could image our entire group of the Elect being called—by name—to come out one this last Sunday of the Scrutinies.
Conclusion. “Untie Him and Let Him Go.” Although it has been somewhat of a trope when preaching The Raising of Lazarus, there is much to be said for this final focus on our own role as followers of Christ to be about an untying and letting go on behalf of those still enshrouded. Important here, however, is a caution that our works of untying those coming out of their tombs not overshadow the glory and the grace of Christ’s work of giving new life to the dead. Still, as a conclusion to the homily, the preacher cannot go far wrong by ending with this call of our Lord to us.
1 Particularly regarding preaching the witness of the Four Gospel, we preachers will need to be extremely carful in speaking of the Ioudaioi, commonly translated as “the Jews.” As Wes Howard-Brook notes, “the term Ioudaioi in its original context did not refer exclusively to “the Jews” until after the failed Bar-Kochba revolt in 135 C.E.” (Wes Howard-Brook, Becoming Children of God: John’s Gospel and Radical Discipleship (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 41.) Since most of the references to “the Jews” in John relate to the political and religious leadership in Jerusalem and particularly the Temple, Howard-Brook prefers the term “the Judeans.” Also see: Pope Paul VI, Nostra Aetate, 4, October28, 1965.
2 Meda Stamper, “Commentary on John 11:1-45,” Working Preacher, April 10, 2011, accessed March 26, 2022, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-111-4.
3 Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Vol.1, The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1966), 433.
4 Paul S. Minear, “The Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John,” Novum Testamentum, 36, 119.
5 Karoline Lewis, “Commentary on John 11:1-45,” Working Preacher, March 9, 2008, accessed March 25, 2022, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-in-lent/commentary-on-john-111-45-2.
6 Howard-Brook, 261.