Yesterday my son’s chorus sang for a local Episcopalian church, so I attended the Sunday morning service. Because of the chorus, I’ve often attended services at this church, and I like the regular minister a great deal — he’s got a pleasant speaking voice and his sermons are witty, warm and, often, wise. Yesterday, however, he was unavailable, so another minister gave the sermon. Because the reading was John 11, which is the raising of Lazarus, the minister used that passage as the lesson.
Having heard the reading of Lazarus, I think the minister got her subsequent lesson dead wrong. Since I’m not Biblically very well versed, though, I’d like to offer you her interpretation, as well as mine, and see what you all have to say. Let me begin with the chapter, and I’ll highlight the language I thought was significant and that she missed:
Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill.
So the sisters sent word to him, saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.”
When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?”
Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.
But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.”
So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.”
But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep.
So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died.
And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.”
So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.
Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away.
And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother.
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home.
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
(But) even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.”
Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.”
As soon as she heard this, she rose quickly and went to him.
For Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still where Martha had met him.
So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her saw Mary get up quickly and go out, they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell 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 had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled,
and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.”
And Jesus wept.
So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.”
But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”
So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it.
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.”
Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me.
I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.”
And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.
The minister focused entirely on two portions of the above passage: first, the part describing Lazarus as Jesus’ friend and, second, the passage in which Jesus wept. From these two points, she excerpted this lesson: Jesus was incredibly sad that his friend died, so sad that he cried. This should be considered un-Godlike — Gods do not weep, quoting from the Life of Pi
Here’s how I understood the story of the raising of Lazarus, and I’d like you please to tell me where I, a non-Christian, am erring: As of this point, Jesus’ closest followers, such as Martha and Mary, believed in him absolutely. Others, however, were either merely impressed by him or didn’t believe at all. After all, his previous miracles could just have been the Biblical equivalent of party tricks. Because his message was so important, Jesus needed a convincing manifestation of his divinity in order to snap people into awareness. This is why Jesus, when he heard about Lazarus’ illness said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it,” and why he delayed two fateful days before heading out, and why he confidently stated that “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him,” and, lastly, why he could assure a weeping Mary that “Your brother will rise.”
In other words, as I read the passage, Jesus knew with absolute assurance that he would see Lazarus again on this earth — and very soon too. This means that, when he wept, he could not have been weeping for his own loss and pain. And if that’s the case, the minister was completely wrong to read into this story a mini-version of the Passion, with Jesus’ suffering over the loss of his friend being the equivalent of his willingness to take on the pain of human kind. To me, that interpretation is close, but no cigar.
To my mind, the question is, if Jesus was not suffering over Lazarus’ death — knowing as he did that this death was merely a transitory matter that Jesus himself would reverse — why then was he weeping? As I see it, Jesus was weeping, not over his own grief, but over the grief of those he loved. He wept because Mary wept. Jesus is demonstrating pure empathy, a feeling that, is I believe, one of the hallmarks of the healthy human condition. Sociopaths and psychopaths are incapable of either true sympathy or empathy. Narcissists and others with mere personality disorders may experience sympathy, but they too are incapable of empathy. Only a fully realized human being can see another’s grief and feel it deep within himself as if it is his own. That, to me, is why Jesus weeps. He may be a divinity, capable of raising the dead, but he is also a man, who is deeply moved by the grief of others.
In other words, I understand this story to be more than just a preview of Jesus’ fundamental powers over life and death. It is also a lesson about humanity and our connection to others.
Critiques? Criticisms? Comments? Concerns? I’m very anxious to hear from you all because, frankly, I betting that your insight and understanding are stronger than this well-intentioned minister’s.