March 26, 2023
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.
Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 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.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 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.’
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. ***
Edna was distressed when she sat down in my office the day after Easter. Dabbing emerging tears with a neatly folded tissues, she began to tell me how sad and lonely she had been in the six weeks since her husband died. “For the first time in my life I cried during the Easter service yesterday and I feel terribly guilty about it. I mean, I find great comfort in the resurrection of Jesus and I know his death and resurrection opens the way to new life for us. I know my husband is with Jesus. But I’m still so sad. Is it wrong for me to feel this way?”
Grief and resurrection are partners in this life. The resurrection and belief that life comes out of the grave is not a magic salve to eliminate sadness and grief. Edna’s tears that day confirmed this reality.
Crying is a natural response to grief over the death of someone, whether it be a significant person in our lives or someone we didn’t know at all.
This story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead raises many questions. Why did Jesus dawdle when he first receives word of Lazarus’s illness? Why did Jesus sidestep Martha’s accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
But one dimension of this story that doesn’t raise a question is why “Jesus wept.” Jesus was grieving the loss of his friend Lazarus. Grief takes hold of Jesus. It overcomes his strength and faith. Standing at the grave of his friend, Jesus weeps and we fully understand.
I appreciate Jesus’s tears almost more than the miracle that follows them.
When Jesus weeps, he legitimizes our human grief. His brokenness in the face of Mary and Martha’s sorrow negates all forms of misguided religious belief that leaves no room for tears. Of course, resurrection is around the corner, but in this story, the promise of joy doesn’t cancel out the reality of grief. When Jesus cries, he assures Mary and Martha of the worth of their tears over the loss of their brother. In doing so, Jesus lifts up the holy calling of empathy.
When Jesus weeps, he acknowledges the complexity of sorrow and joy, the pain of death and the glory of resurrection. The conversation with Edna on that Easter Monday reminded me of how important this is to embrace.
When Jesus weeps after he sees Mary and Mary in grief, he respects the necessity of silence, the holiness of the wordless and the unsayable. We should pay careful attention when the Word himself refuses to speak. Sometimes there is nothing to be said in the face of loss; sometimes tears are our best and most honorable language. We often rush to words, feeling an urgent need to wrap other people’s pain in platitudes, Bible verses, condolences, promises. Through his wordless tears, Jesus cautions us to pause. He shows us that silence, too, is faithful. Sometimes, silent presence is love.
When Jesus weeps, he honors the nuances of faith. He recognizes that all expressions of belief and trust come with a cadre of emotion. Martha verbalizes resentment and anger at Jesus’s delay in reaching Lazarus when he was gravely ill. Yet, in the next breath she voices her trust in his power. Mary blames Jesus for Lazarus’s death, but she does so on her knees, in a posture of belief and submission. Likewise, Jesus’s face is wet with tears when he prays to God and resurrects his friend. This is what real faith looks like; it embraces rather than denies the full spectrum of human emotion in response to death.
When Jesus weeps, he acknowledges his own mortality. The raising of Lazarus is the catalyst which leads to Jesus’s own arrest and crucifixion. When word spreads about the miracle in Bethany, the authorities decide that enough is enough; Jesus must be stopped. Essentially, Jesus trades his life for his friend’s.
I wonder if Jesus’s tears are an expression of grief over his own pending death. He knows that the end is imminent, he knows that his time with his friends is almost over, he knows that it’s nearly time to say goodbye to the lakes, sunsets and stars he loves. In crying, he asserts that it is okay to yearn for life. It’s okay to cling to the beauty of this world. It’s okay to feel a sense of wrongness and injustice in the face of death — the act of departing from the right, normal, or usual course. Death is the enemy, often times the thief. It is okay to mourn the loss of love, companionship, natural order and longevity even in the light of the resurrection.
And finally, when Jesus weeps, he shows us that sorrow is a powerful catalyst for change. In the story of Lazarus, it is shared lament that leads to transformation. It’s because Jesus experiences the devastation of death that he recognizes the immediate need to restore life. It is his breaking heart that leads to resurrection. Perhaps Jesus’s tears can provoke us in similar ways. What breaks our hearts? What enrages us to the point of action for the sake of transforming those places in our realm and this world that so desperately need changing, even just a glimmer of hope and relief?
As Holy Week nears, we prepare for Jesus’s own death and resurrection. How might Jesus’s tears keep us tender, open, humble, generous, and brave? How will his honest expression of sorrow give us the permission, the company, and the impetus we need, not only to do the work of grief and healing, but to move with powerful compassion into a world that sorely needs our empathy and love?
Yes, we are in death right now, but we serve a God who calls us to life. Our journey is not to the grave, but through it. The Lord who weeps is also the Lord who resurrects. So we mourn in hope.