Jesus loves Lazarus, and he loves Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha. The evangelist John tells us this, and the sisters remind Jesus of this in their message to him. Jesus himself refers to Lazarus as “our friend” when telling his disciples about Lazarus’ demise. It is clearly a close set of relationships.
Real friendships invoke real responsibilities of caring about and for one another. The sisters, having sent Jesus an urgent message about Lazarus’ severe illness, expect an equally urgent response from him. They also share a confident certainty that Jesus would be able to keep Lazarus from dying if he came in time.
Jesus does care about them, but he has a greater concern that includes his care for them. Jesus is the light that has come into the world, and he wants his friends and disciples to learn to see by that light. The light of the world will illuminate the presence of God, working against despair and death.
The common belief was that after four days a body was properly dead, beyond hope of resuscitation. Jesus loves his friends and his disciples and so he waits until only God could bring Lazarus back to them. He has a greater healing in mind than they were expecting.
For all her bold confession of faith in who Jesus is, and that God would give whatever Jesus asks for, Martha hesitates at the prospect of actually opening the grave of someone long dead. Jesus is deeply moved by Mary’s tears, angered by the hold that death has on the hearts and minds of the mourners, how it limits their capacity to recognize the presence of resurrection and life in their very midst.
Lazarus would die to this world again after Jesus brought him back to life. I think the quality of Lazarus’ life after he was raised would have been different, though, as would that of his sisters and of Jesus’ disciples and of all those who saw and believed, their lives now infused with a sense of the glory of God present in the world.
Not everyone who saw the dead man walking responded well. Some felt threatened, with their lives now out of balance. The raising of Lazarus would lead inexorably to Jesus’ own death at the hands of those who could not accept what Jesus represented. This paradoxically would bring about Jesus’ final triumph over death itself. The Spirit of the God who raised Jesus from the dead now dwells in God’s people, revealing possibilities that could not be appreciated before.
The apostle Paul tells us that we need to be careful what we give attention to, what we set our minds on. The dry bones of hopeless isolation were all that the people of Israel thought they had left in their exile. They needed the inspired prophet Ezekiel to restore hope to them by showing them how God was opening the graves of possibility and breathing a new spirit into them. Ezekiel helped them to come to a different understanding of their lives in relation to God.
From a human perspective, there is much in our world that speaks of death, that leads us to disappointment and tempts us to despair, even to participating in the things that result in death, death of the spirit as well as bodily death. We must acknowledge these realities in the world and in ourselves, but not limit our consideration to them, not allow ourselves to be entirely absorbed by them.
Death is inevitably at work in our bodies while we are in this world, but we are more than just our bodies. Jesus showed quite viscerally how much God hates spiritual death and its effect on how we live our lives here and now. God wants life and peace for us and for all people. God’s Spirit is at work, teaching us the law of God which leads us to that life and peace. When we submit to the work of the Spirit in our lives, the outcome is more life and peace for all.
“Unbind him and let him go,” Jesus instructed those who witnessed Lazarus emerging from the tomb. What a strong image that is for us, of the need for us to help one another be free of whatever binds us, so that together we can enter more fully into the life and peace of God, in this world and the next.