Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Lazarus you might not know

I have fallen in love with Jean Vanier’s view of the story of the death of Lazarus from the eleventh chapter of John's Gospel (I've borrowed from The Message and the Good News Translation for the version below). When we come to the gospel reading on the fifth Sunday of Lent, I like to close my eyes and see it this way…
A man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. This was the same Mary who massaged the Lord’s feet with aromatic oils and then wiped them with her hair. It was her brother Lazarus who was sick. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Master, the one you love so very much is sick.” 
We don’t know much at all about Lazarus, other than that he was Mary and Martha’s brother. It is unusual that the two women seem to be the heads of the household and that Lazarus doesn't seem to bear any responsibility for looking out for his unmarried sisters in the patriarchal society of Jesus’ day. There are also no recorded conversations between Lazarus and Jesus, while we know about his conversations with Martha and Mary. For Jean Vanier, founder of the international L'Arche communities for people with and without disabilities, these things could indicate that Lazarus might have been a person with a developmental disability who lived in the care of his sisters.

It's an interesting idea, and one that makes perfect sense to me because of my experiences with family members and friends who have developmental disabilities. They have a knack for gathering special people around them simply by their desire to have friends and by their unconditional love and welcome for everyone they meet. They are unapologetic about needing help, unlike those of us who are able to care for ourselves.

So it’s not hard for me to imagine Lazarus seeing Jesus somewhere in his travels, taking a liking to him, asking him for help to do up his sandal, then inviting him to supper. This vision of Lazarus reminds me of my friend Harry*, who invited a solitary Japanese tourist at a campground to join his L'Arche vacation group for supper (Hiro was so moved by Harry’s openness and hospitality that later he returned to Canada to join our L’Arche community on a permanent basis, and Harry and Hiro are friends to this day).

I imagine that because of Lazarus, Jesus meets Mary and Martha, their brother’s caregivers, who are used to Lazarus bringing home stray dogs and new friends. They all welcome Jesus as if he was an expected dinner guest, and a deep friendship begins -- one that I'm guessing is full of fun, laughter and unconditional love. That’s why, when Lazarus becomes ill, his sisters send word to Jesus. They know that Jesus loves Lazarus, and they trust that their healer friend will help.

But Jesus is held up for a few days because his disciples want him to lay low, afraid after an encounter with some Jews who are accusing him of blasphemy and who might still be carrying stones in their pockets in case they meet Jesus again. So he appeases his disciples, saying that
“This sickness is not fatal. It will become an occasion to show God’s glory by glorifying God’s Son.”
Clearly, Jesus knows things that the disciples, Martha and Mary don’t…
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had been buried four days before. Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Judeans had come to see Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother's death. 
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died! But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask him for. 
“Your brother will rise to life,” Jesus told her. Martha replied, “I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.
Jesus gives Martha a triple-whammy of good news. 1) Lazarus will rise, 2) knowing Jesus himself is life itself, and therefore 3) Martha and anyone who believes in Jesus will also have eternal life! He says:
“You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this?”
“Yes, Lord!” she answered. “I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” After saying this, she went to her sister Mary and whispered in her ear, “The Teacher is here and is asking for you.”  
The moment Mary heard it, she jumped up and ran out to him. Jesus had not yet entered the town but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The people who were in the house with Mary comforting her followed her when they saw her get up and hurry out. They thought that she was going to the grave to weep there. 
Mary arrived where Jesus was, and as soon as she saw him, she fell at his feet. “Lord,” she said, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died!” 
Mary is completely at home with Jesus. Her grief at losing Lazarus knocks her to the ground, and she doesn't care if Jesus sees it. She knows that he feels it too. If you've ever lost someone dear to you, you know what it can be like when a friend comes to be with you in your grief...
Jesus saw her weeping, and he saw how the people with her were weeping also; his heart was touched, and he was deeply moved.  
Jesus wept.
I love that these two words are the shortest verse in the Bible. If Jesus weeps, we all have permission to weep, and more than that, we all need to allow ourselves to grieve. He’s showing us that our human emotions are gifts, too. And if Jesus can weep, in public, every person can do the same no matter their gender, never mind the idea that "Men don't cry."
“See how much he loved him!” the people said. Others among them said, “Well, if he loved him so much, why didn’t he do something to keep him from dying? After all, he opened the eyes of a blind man.” 
In my mind, these are also people who loved Lazarus deeply. Lazarus probably united all the neighbours in Bethany – everyone knew him, and everyone looked out for him – and he looked out for everyone too (like my friend Thomas* does), greeted them all by name every day, smiled at them even when they didn’t smile back, and doled out plenty of hugs. So of course they’re a little miffed that Jesus would heal a blind man and not their beloved friend. And Jesus hears their murmurings and feels the same way about Lazarus as they do.
Deeply moved once more, Jesus went to the tomb, which was a cave with a stone placed at the entrance. Martha, the dead man's sister, said, “There will be a bad smell, Lord. He has been buried four days!” Jesus said to her, “Didn't I tell you that you would see God's glory if you believed?” 
Martha’s heart leaps. Of course she believes in Jesus, who loves her brother so deeply. Anything is possible with that kind of love.
They took the stone away. Jesus looked up and said, “I thank you, Father, that you listen to me.I know that you always listen to me, but I say this for the sake of the people here, so that they will believe that you sent me.” After he had said this, he called out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  
He came out, his hands and feet wrapped in grave cloths, and with a cloth around his face. “Unbind him,” Jesus told them, “and let him go.” 
And there stands Lazarus, fumbling with the cloths with one hand, his other hand reaching out for his friends, the hugest smile on his face, probably even laughing with delight, as if to say, “I’m so glad you came! This calls for a celebration!”

Jesus healed many people in his short ministry, and could have raised many more people from the dead, but according to John's gospel, Lazarus is the only one. If, as Jean Vanier suggests, Lazarus was a man with a developmental disability, Jesus' attentiveness and love for him tells us a lot about God's special love for people with disabilities of any kind.

And if God loves them so much, it seems we need to allow them more room to bind us together as community, to pay attention to how their weakness calls forth our love, and how their love helps us to admit and accept our own weaknesses. Relationships with persons with disabilities help us to become people who celebrate -- not money, fame, or power, but rather -- every person because all of us have our own abilities and disabilities. Let's face it, none of us are perfect.

John's gospel tells this amazing story about life and death and life again before we hear about Jesus' death and resurrection. Maybe we've heard this story so many times that it's ceased to be amazing for us. But Jean Vanier's version has helped me to view it in a way that makes all its characters more real to me. My reflection for today is to imagine the celebrations that ensued for Lazarus, the man who called forth so much compassion and joy in Bethany. What an incredible party!

And when we all walk out of our graves to endless life with our loved ones, it will be even moreso!

*I use pseudonyms for my L'Arche friends.


  1. That's an interesting take on the story of Lazarus.

    1. I like it when there's a new slant on a story I've heard many times. A friend attended Jean Vanier's retreat on the Gospel of John and told me about his understanding of Lazarus, and it works for me...


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