by Peter Lockhart
So what can we get from this passage, which flops about like a fish out of water, with all its questions, to help us live the faith.
During the week as I contemplated the story, with all its questions, through the lens of light of living the faith, I was struck by the notion that faith is not about certainty it is about journey.
Faith and doubt are not opposites but companions; in our relationship with God truth and understanding are like slippery eels we grasp after, as Paul says for now we only see through a dark glass, it is only later we will see God face to face.
With this in my mind I want to explore three of the characters within the story that we heard and hopefully by looking at their journeys find something to help us in living the faith.
The passage that we read today is part of a longer story beginning in chapter 11 and it revolves around the person of Lazarus. At the beginning of our passage from chapter 12 we are told ‘Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him... and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.’
In this sense the focus character of the 2 chapters appears to be Lazarus, but what do we know about his journey? The answer is very little. Despite being raised from the dead we actually hear nothing from Lazarus lips. Lazarus has journeyed into death and the story sets him tantilisingly in front of the audience but leaves us with our questions.
How did he die? Did he know he was dead? What did it feel like when he woke from being dead? How does he feel now? What did he experience? Has dying changed his view of living?
None of our questions are answered. Lazarus journey remains more than a bit of a mystery.
Yet Lazarus sits as a guest at the meal; he is a sign and symbol that death can be defeated and is no longer the last word.
Lazarus' journey into death and life again is a precursor to the journey of death and resurrection that Jesus himself will take. It reminds us that God, in Jesus, willing accompanies us through all of the experiences we will face.
There is a sense in which Lazarus' resurrection also reminds us that Jesus' resurrection, as important as it is, is not necessarily the most unique aspect of his journey, rather there is more to Jesus than saying he rose from the dead.
When we look at this central figure of Lazarus I suspect he had far more difficulty in making sense of his experience than we do and had just as many questions, but that Jesus' journey mirrors Lazarus is a matter of faith and hope for us all.
We are left questions, but Lazarus' journey and more importantly Jesus' journey alongside him are a source of hope: faith is not about certainty it is about journey, a journey from death into new life.
Whilst Lazarus may appear to be the focal character of the event, having been raised from the dead, Mary is a central character from the outset. In anticipation of the story we heard today, at the beginning of chapter 11, the context of Lazarus is given; he is the brother of Mary, who anointed Jesus feet.
Already, John is trying to get his listeners to consider Mary’s role through the Lazarus story.
As the broader story unfolds when Jesus comes to Bethany he is first greeted by Martha, Lazarus other sister, who then goes to fetch Mary from home.
When Mary comes out and sees Jesus she falls at his feet but not with perfume and love, she falls at his feet in grief and accusation, saying, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’
There is faith in this statement that Jesus could have acted but there is also a sense of judgement, a questioning of why? It is a question that many of us will ask through our lives. Why did you let this happen Lord? Why me?
Here again we find more questions than answers, there is uncertainty about suffering and death and the grief it causes.
Jesus response is to share Mary’s journey. According to John’s story, Jesus already knew he was going to raise Lazarus from the dead but now in the moment of Mary’s grief Jesus too is filled with compassion. John tells us, ‘Jesus wept.’
Contrary to the famous last words of St Francis, 'Welcome sister death’, we see the depth of God’s love and concern for us in the journey of death and mourning. God weeps when he sees the pain that we experience when someone dies.
Yes, Lazarus rising gives us a new hope. Yes, Jesus own resurrection declares that death is not the final word. Yet, God still weeps in the face of the mystery of the loss and sadness death brings. In Jesus, God knows our pain.
The scene moves from Mary with her tears and accusation to the tomb where Lazarus is raised, then transitions through the plotting of the Jewish leaders and into the celebration dinner where Mary appears again at Jesus’ feet. Here there is an echo of the scene before.
It feels like the culmination of the story which began in chapter 11 which foreshadowed this action of Mary. But now her actions express generosity and love, and thanksgiving and tenderness. The unbinding of Mary’s hair is an incredibly intimate and would have been thought inappropriate as she wiped away the excess oil with her own hair.
There are a range of interpretations of Mary’s action by scholars at this point. Was she aware of Jesus impending death? Was she anointing him for the burial to come? Was she anointing him as a king? Was it simply an overblown foot washing, welcome Jesus into her home? Is it preparing us for Jesus own action of washing the disciples feet? Is Mary’s intimacy too much, too sensual?
Which of these it may have been remains unclear to me but Jesus interprets her actions into his own impending death. The smell of the perfume accompanying the celebration contrasts the stench of death, mentioned earlier in chapter 11 as the came to Lazarus tomb. The perfume suggests the fragrance of life and hope surpasses the odour of the tomb.
Jesus’ accepts her gift and shares openly her generous act just as he had shared her grief earlier on. It appears Jesus willingly accepts the journey she is on with the range of emotions and whilst questions may remain his love for her is evident. Her faith is not about certainty it is about journey, Jesus journey with her through the range of emotions she experiences.
Finally, we turn to the complex character of Judas. In this scene we hear from Judas what seems to be quite a reasonable question. “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
Of course John lets us into the secret motivations of Judas setting him out as the villain of the story, but is he really?
The journey of Judas is one of the most difficult to deal with in the gospels. Chosen by Jesus to follow, it seems he is destined from the outset to hand Jesus over to the authorities.
In John’s gospel when this occurs the word used for the so called betrayal is associated less with betrayal and more with the handing over of a temple sacrifice. He has a part to play, an unsavoury part no doubt, but if the death of Jesus is inevitable can Judas be held accountable?
Is Judas any guiltier of turning away than Peter in his threefold denial? Or Caiaphas, described as a prophet in chapter 11, in his pursuit of Jesus to become a sacrifice on behalf of the nation? Is he guiltier than Pilate who washed his hands? Or the soldiers who scourged Jesus and nailed him to a cross? Is he guiltier than Thomas in his doubt?
Judas has a solitary and sad journey and whilst John paints him here as villainous in his motivations it appears that his journey is one journey among many others heading away from God and that in his unfaithfulness to Jesus, he will play his part in the grand scheme of salvation.
(Image Daniel Hartmann Creative Commons)