Friday, February 24, 2006

"Lazarus, come out!"

The Gospel reading for Morning Prayer today (John 12:9-19) pulled me up short. The reading begins with the plot by the chief priests to put Jesus to death because he had raised Lazarus from the dead.

You would think they might have been grateful---or at least impressed. But the amazing deed had so caught people’s imaginations that they were turning their backs on the priests to follow this new holy man. And a group whose power is threatened can get ugly pretty fast.

That part I knew about.

The thing that surprised me was their plan to put Lazarus to death too.

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I have long felt as if I know Mary and Martha, the two sisters from Bethany who were friends and disciples of Jesus. They bicker like my sister and I did---Martha complaining that Mary doesn’t do her share of the housework, and Mary telling Martha "For God’s sake! There are more important things than cooking and cleaning!"

For the record, Jesus sided with Mary---a fact that Christian feminists everywhere cling to as a sign that he considered women to be equals.

But what about their brother, Lazarus?

The name "Lazarus" is iconic, of course. Almost anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Christianity knows the story of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead. For children who are forced to memorize scripture, this story is a favorite because it contains the shortest verse in the Bible---"Jesus wept." (John 11:35)

Lazarus doesn’t get a voice in this story. He’s already dead---and stinking up the place---when Jesus arrives. Jesus had known Lazarus was sick, and had waited before coming because he apparently understood that he was to resurrect his friend...but he still wept when he reached Lazarus’ tomb. Maybe in that brief moment, he doubted his abilities. Or maybe, confronted with what appeared to be the awful finality of death, he was reminded of his own impending fate and was overwhelmed by the stench of it. Or maybe there was some other, darker reason...

Once Jesus gets control of himself, he engages in a rather amusing conversation with God before he gets down to business:

John 11 (NRSV)
41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I 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."


I can almost see Jesus, his hand covering the side of his mouth, saying sotto voce "Hey Dad, I know you’re listening, but I have to put on a show for these people because they are as dumb as a box of hammers---couldn’t find their behinds with both hands and a lantern. So it’s time to show them what we can do."

And boy, does he.

43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" 44 The 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.


What I want to know is...what was going through Lazarus’ mind as they unwrapped him from his burial clothes?

And what price did he pay for being the miracle du jour?

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There is a wide variety of Christian belief about what happens when you die. Many Christians believe you go straight to a literal heaven or hell the minute you breathe your last. I suspect that most of them have images of heaven that mirror the movies---lots of clouds, angels...that sort of thing. (Very few, I imagine, see themselves as going to The Other Place.)

Others believe that everyone "sleeps" until the return of the Lord, and that only the righteous are resurrected---everyone else simply stays dead, which is a much kinder punishment for the wicked than being consigned to the flames of Hell forever. The resurrected are given perfect bodies that will never die and they inhabit the "new Earth" in a very literal way. There is no "heaven" in this vision---just a beautiful planet free of pain and violence.

Me, I have no idea what happens when you die. I take it on faith that there is something more than this life, and that it will be good. But I do wonder where Lazarus was for the four days he wasn’t breathing.

Did Jesus snatch him out of the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16:19-31)? And if so, was he upset or annoyed by the unexpected callback?

Or was he simply out like a light? When Jesus woke him up again, did Lazarus feel as if he was just coming off a bender? Did he wonder what the hell he had done while he was drunk---especially since he was wrapped up like a mummy?

The Bible doesn’t tell us the answers to those questions.

All it tells us is that Lazarus was dead and decaying, he walked out of his tomb on his own steam, and the chief priests decided he needed to go back to wherever it was from whence Jesus had called him.

Doesn’t seem quite fair, does it?...to get that second chance, only to discover that others are determined to take it away from you.

But I presume that Lazarus was destined to die again...one way or another. I haven’t heard anything that would make me believe he’s still walking around out there somewhere. And I wouldn’t be surprised if his second death was a violent one. Tradition (and some scripture) tells us that many of Jesus’ closest associates did not die in their beds of old age. They were tortured, beaten, stoned, crucified, and beheaded.

(As an aside, those folks could tell the current whiners in the American Religious Wrong a thing or two about being persecuted---and I don’t think Target’s refusal to wish them a "Merry Christmas" would count.)

But what did Lazarus do with his second life while he had it? Was he resurrected to the possibility of love? Did he see the world in a new way? Was he grateful for colors and music and the poetry of everyday life?

I hope so. I hope that he knew joy, laughter, and love before his time on Earth was finally through. That he was thankful for his second chance and took full advantage of it.

But I wonder...I wonder why Jesus wept when he knew he had the power to defeat death. Did he know that he was calling Lazarus back into the pain of life? Did he see Lazarus’ second end and cry guilty tears for his part in it?

Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem "Lazarus" chronicles that Lazarus---the one resurrected to the pain and the danger:

...For my part,
I am again with you, here among shadows
That will not always be so dark as this;
Though now I see there’s yet an evil in me
That made me let you be afraid of me.
No, I was not afraid—not even of life.
I thought I was…I must have time for this;
And all the time there is will not be long.
I cannot tell you what the Master saw
This morning in my eyes. I do not know.
I cannot yet say how far I have gone,
Or why it is that I am here again,
Or where the old road leads. I do not know.
I know that when I did come back, I saw
His eyes again among the trees and faces—
Only his eyes; and they looked into mine—
Long into mine—long, long, as if he knew.


We tend to think of resurrection as an unmitigated good. But we do not hear Lazarus’ voice in the biblical story. We know only that, for love of him, God himself broke down and wept, and that he entered into his second life with a price on his head.

I suppose that’s true for all of us. Most of us get second (and third, and fourth...) chances in life, thank God. Life would be very short and/or miserable if we did not.

But there is a price to be paid for those chances. There is risk, and pain, and loss in the living. It can be easier to bury ourselves in graves of our own choosing---easier to refuse to come out to the call of that life and to remain wrapped up in the bindings we think will keep us safe---than to open ourselves to the possibilities of pain...or joy.

If it is true that we have free will, I have to believe that Lazarus had the choice to respond to Jesus’ summons. He might have refused the call to life. He might have remained in whatever version of heaven he found himself in, or chosen to sleep the dreamless sleep of the dead---but he came back to life and out of the darkness of the cave. Came out to love, to pain, to danger---to life in all its messy glory. May God grant us the courage to do likewise.