by Jim Dinn
The account of the raising of Lazarus offers little interest for twentieth century non-believers. Such readers are curious about the death experience and hunger for details about what, if anything, lies beyond death. They are fascinated by stories of near-death experiences. They wonder about what Lazarus sees and remembers. They want to hear in his words how it all felt.
The author of the fourth gospel has a different agenda. The raising from the tomb is narrated in three brief sentences with few details and no revelations from another world. The text offers no gasp of amazement from the onlookers, no cry of recognition from the sisters, no embrace of the revived brother, no word of gratitude to Jesus. From Lazarus there is not a single syllable. Scarcely a best-seller treatment.
The central figure is not Lazarus but Jesus. And the central issue is belief. The dialogues preceding the event speak seven times about believing. Jesus stresses belief in what he says to the disciples, to Martha and to God. The Gospel selection concludes with a reference to those brought to belief by the incident. The account is designed to make the believing reader think of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We are reminded of his anointing for burial, the danger to his life, and the potential of spies from Jerusalem. The focus on the stone at the tomb and the burial cloths invites comparison with the account of Jesus’ resurrection.
This incident reflects the focus of John’s whole gospel. The prologue says that the Baptist came “so that all might believe through him;” it makes the further point that belief is a divine gift to those “born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a human’s decision but of God” (1:6-13). The author’s reasons for including the events he did is: “that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name” (20:31).
This focus of the fourth Gospel is expressed in the words of Jesus: “For this is the will of God, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day” (6:40). Belief in Jesus gives assurance of life and resurrection. In the dialogue with Martha in today’s reading, Jesus expresses this same point and concludes with a direct faith question to Martha and to each of us: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this? What follows at the tomb is an illustration, not a proof, of this teaching. Its larger application is in how believers look upon the death of fellow believers, and how they view their own death.
The Lazarus account challenges us to explore our faith. How deeply do we believe? What is our attitude toward death? How much do we entrust ourselves to Jesus? The narrative encourages us to put ourselves in the position of Lazarus. As Jesus’ disciples we are now the ones whom he loves, the ones he addresses as his friends. And we are the ones who now stake our lives and our deaths on our faith in him. We, too, will die and wait for his call.
For the community of faith in which this Gospel is developed, the raising of Lazarus was a precious sign of who Jesus was, what he asked of his followers, and what he promised them. It reminded them and reminds us that confidence in the face of death does not depend on communications from beyond the grave or on details about what might await us. Our confidence is in a person, Jesus. We attempt to live as he taught us. And dying means surrendering control, putting ourselves definitively in his hands and trusting his love and power. We pray that as individuals and as church we learn to surrender control to Jesus through lesser dyings. May we not cling individually or collectively to those attitudes or structures which need to die and be buried so Jesus may call forth new life.
This reflection was written by Jim Dinn in the Lenten reflection booklet, Crossroads to Easter: Lenten Reflections 1999, published by Pax Christi USA.