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Lazarus raised from the dead – two curious details

April 6, 2014

John 11: 1-45                                        [Fifth Sunday of Lent, 6th April 2014]

I want to think about two curiously detailed facts that are recorded in today’s gospel:

(1) What did St Thomas mean when he then said privately to the other disciples, “Let’s go too, and die with him.”?


(2) Why did Jesus wait for 2 days before leaving Galilee to visit Bethany, near Jerusalem?


First, St Thomas’ strange comment: Jesus had become well known as an unconventional teacher and miracle worker, and the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem did not like what they saw. He was a threat to their authority. In fact, we know Jesus was staying up in Galilee because it was too dangerous for Him to be in down south in Judea, in Jerusalem, because the Temple authorities were “out to kill him.”[1]

So when Jesus says He’s going back to Judea to visit Lazarus’ home, St Thomas gets the wrong end of the stick. As is so often the case with young, idealistic men, he thinks that success for Jesus’ mission will come through violence and force; he thinks that by travelling back south Jesus will bring things to a head with the Temple authorities. And Thomas, as usual, is a bit pessimistic about the chances of success – he thinks they’ll all be killed, to become heroes of the Jewish people…. heroes, but dead heroes.

Thomas has got it completely wrong. The Apostles will indeed be put to death, but only after they have gone out to spend years peacefully converting the world to God’s peaceful ways; and their martyrdom, all in God’s time, will bring them life, not death – it will bring them everlasting life. The lesson for us: God’s ways are not our ways. God has plans for you, but they may not be what you think!

And so to the second question: why did Jesus delay his departure for two days?

It’s fascinating how the gospels record exact details, even private conversations, about the story of Jesus. The exact details would then have been written down as evidence to convince people that the gospels weren’t made up stories. So today we learn that Jesus’ good friend Lazarus had died while Jesus was up north in Galilee. Now, it takes about 17 hours to walk the 60 miles between Bethany and Galilee. So Jesus would have only heard of the death of His friend (at the very least) a day after it happened. And then it was only after waiting for two days that Jesus set off south. So the timings are right: when Jesus arrived, Lazarus would indeed have already been in the tomb for four days. Credible, believable information.

But why the delay?

Judaism recognized God as the one and only master of life and death. And Jewish people understood the process of dying through the symbolism of an ‘Angel of Death’,[2] sent by God to initiate death. The Angel was said to visit a dying person and leave a drop of gall, a poison, in their mouth;[3] it was commonly believed by the faithful Jews that this poison only began to take effect three days after the Angel of Death had visited. So for the three days after this visit, powerful prayer could save a good person from death.  That’s why we hear Martha, Lazarus’ sister, say to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” You see? Martha knew that the prayers made by Jesus were very powerful, Jesus could have saved Lazarus by prayer alone. But now there was absolutely no doubt, according to Jewish Tradition, that Lazarus was definitely dead and gone. No matter how powerful the prayers of Jesus, it was too late to do anything.

So in raising Lazarus to life once again, Jesus is showing His authority over the Angel of Death, indeed, Jesus shows He can destroy death.

In other words, Our Lord is revealing Himself to be God – God, the sole master with power over life and death.

No wonder people remembered exactly what happened and what was said.

Sometimes we pray to God, we call on God to come to us, but we don’t seem to get an answer. Has God not heard us? Is He too busy? Well, maybe it’s because we don’t like the answer we get, so we ignore it. Or we don’t realise that God has come to us as an answer to prayer. Sometimes, like St Thomas, we misunderstand what is happening in front of our very eyes – we put our own interpretation on events and get it completely wrong. Sometimes God is waiting for a particular purpose that only becomes clearer later. We humans can be impatient. God understands that, and that is why He has given us the Sacrament of the Eucharist as a sign that He is always with us as we try to make sense of our frustrating, complicated lives

As we move towards hearing once again the astonishing events of Holy Week and Easter, let the Holy Spirit fill us with confidence and the reliable and trustworthy written word of God bolster our faith – that God, through the sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ, has conquered for all time the power that death once held over humanity. The message for us today is to trust in God, to prayerfully contemplate what is happening in our lives, and to recognise, through the life-giving power of the Eucharist, that God is indeed present with us, in us, as we do His work in the world – even if we don’t always understand or recognise what is happening to us.

[1] John 7: 1

[2] Exodus 12:23; 1 Chronicles 21:15-16

[3] Eisenberg, Ronald L. (2004) Jewish Traditions, Jewish Publication Society, page 77

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