What Does the Story of Lazarus Really Mean?

We are traveling two miles east of Jerusalem with Jesus and his disciples.  They are hot and fatigued.  They have just been run out of the Temple surroundings and are breathlessly aware that the collusion between the Jewish priestly hierarchy and the Roman leaders is closing in on Jesus.  They are nervous and worried.  As they wonder where to go and what to do next, a messenger, sent by Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, brings a message to Jesus: “…the one you love is sick.”  Jesus loved Martha, Mary, and Lazarus and would stay at their home occasionally during his travels.  They grew close and he felt welcomed.  The mystery is that Jesus chooses to stay two more days before going into Bethany where he will raise Lazarus from the dead.  He stays while Lazarus is dying, calculating, as some theologians think to allow Lazarus to enter Sheol, the afterlife which can only occur four days after death.  Jesus knows Lazarus will be dead if he, Jesus, waits the four days. 

This miracle is the last one Jesus ministers in his life, according to John, the gospel writer who tells the story.  James Martin, S.J., calls it “…the supreme miracle” appearing at the end of Jesus’s ministry and, possibly the most powerful story of all.  Jesus’s ministry begins with a miracle-the wedding at Cana—and ends with this one.  Yes, there have been other stories of the raising of the dead, but in this one, Jesus is emotionally and personally part of the dead person’s life and that of the family.  He weeps as he walks toward the tomb leading onlookers to observe aloud that he loves this person while others say, “If he cured the blind man, could he not have done something to keep this man from dying?”  As in all crowds, there are questioners and doubters.  But Jesus presses on and the disciples walk timidly with him.

Despite the ever-practical Martha’s protestations about a possible stench, Jesus orders the rock at the opening of the grave to be pulled aside.  He prays briefly and then in a loud voice commands Lazarus to come forth.  Imagine the astonishment of the crowd.  “Untie him and let him go!”  So ends the narrative.  Notice that earlier in the story, it is Martha who makes a profound and courageous statement of faith: “Yes Lord, I am convinced that you are God’s Anointed One, the Son of God…” and adds, “even yet I know that God will give you whatever you ask.”  In most, if not all of Jesus’s miracles, a statement of faith is made by either the petitioner for the miracle or a witness.  The statements are never solicited by Jesus, but they follow a kind of formula that looks like: Request for miracle + Statement of faith + Action of Jesus = Miracle!  At the end, Martha and Mary are most likely the ones untying their brother.  Others join in; it is a crowd mixed with eagerness and frightened wonderment.

It is interesting that Lazarus is never mentioned as a disciple or follower of Christ’s.  He is only a friend.  He is never quoted nor described. We do not know how he earned his living.  But he is now key to John’s portentous vision of the events about to happen to Jesus.  Like Lazarus, Jesus will rise but on the third day, not the fourth.  Is there symbolism here?  Jesus will die an ignominious death, not a glorious one.  Lazarus died a lonely one without his friend at his side.  The simple, unknown man of Bethany died as unknown as he had lived.  On Easter, Mary will come to Jesus’s grave and maybe Martha as well just as they had gone to their brother’s tomb.  Was their experience with their brother’s miracle a preparation for the belief they would summon as they once again trembled in the place of tombs but the place where Jesus had been laid? 


This story is rife with more questions and theories than any other story in the Gospels.  Why didn’t the other evangelists tell this story as well?  Why is Thomas mentioned as a spokesperson; it appears Peter is not there. The respected, late Scottish theologian, William Barclay, listed several theories in his discussion of John’s gospel but he concludes with a major insight in the context of what followed the miracle.  Almost immediately the Jewish authorities set about a “plan to kill him,” Barclay points out.  “In other words,” he says, “the raising of Lazarus was the direct cause of the Cross.”

Most theologians and spiritual writers contend that the very mystery of this story, with all its twists and turns is still full of meaning for believers.  We have not witnessed the raising of Lazarus, but we do have the words of Martha and Jesus as teachable moments before his trial and death.  The miracle is almost anti-climactic.  What is really important is the testimony of Martha: “Yes, Lord.  I am convinced that You are God’s Anointed One, the Son of God…”  Add to this the words of Jesus: “I am the resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in me will live even if he has died; everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

This is the true meaning of the raising of Lazarus.  Unless we believe what Jesus is teaching here, we will atrophy in our spiritual lives.  We will experience inertia and live a vague, joyless, mere shadow of real life.  We will give entrance to misjudgment of others, to ridicule.  We will cause pain to ourselves and to others.  The stone in our lives will not have been rolled away. We will be bound in the wrappings that keep us from being free.

This week, reflect on this story before you hear it in your church services.  Ask yourself how you can best live a flourishing spiritual life and resolve in the remaining days of Lent to pray for openness to the belief in eternal life.

All Biblical quotes from New American Bible.  Quotes from Barclay, The Gospel of John, pp. 90-103.

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