The eleventh chapter of John opens with Jesus across the Jordan, away from Judea, laying low after having escaped being stoned to death at the Temple. It is here that he receives word from Bethany—from Mary and Martha, Lazarus’s sisters—to hurry and aid his friend who is sick. But he doesn’t budge from the spot. He delays, and we wonder why. There is something in this story—something about the behavior of Jesus that irritates me and always makes me pause.
Lazarus, he informs his disciples, “has fallen asleep; but I am going to wake him up.” But he stays where he is for two more days, and, when finally he does set out for Bethany, perhaps a couple miles from Jerusalem, he takes another two days to arrive—but it is too late. “On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.”
Jesus could have travelled there sooner. He could have been there within hours. But he did not move. The sisters know it— and, as the story goes on, so does everyone else.
Mary doesn’t leave the house; she does not step out to greet him. Martha—the brash, demanding one—plunges ahead and confronts Jesus, blurting out the accusation that everyone else is thinking: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” There is a crackling tension in those words. If you had been here, if, if, if . . . my brother would not have died. The accusation hangs in the air between them.
Then, perhaps with a deep breath of resignation, she backs up a little bit, tries to soften things: “But I know, even now,” she says, “God will give you whatever you ask.”
But the exchange remains testy. Jesus: “Your brother will rise again.” Martha: “I know he’ll rise in the resurrection on the last day.” (Unspoken: “A lot of good that will do this day.”)
We know the end of the story, of course. Jesus goes to the tomb of Lazarus, commands the stone be rolled away, cries out for Lazarus, and Lazarus stumbles out still bound.
But still, for me, this has never been satisfying. Why didn’t he arrive sooner? “For your sake,” Jesus explained to his disciples earlier, “I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.”
All that grief, loss, weeping, ache, and he’s glad, so we may believe?
The Gospel of St. John is organized around seven great signs preformed by Jesus. John never calls them miracles—others in the story do that; even the opponents of Jesus (11:47) concede they are “miraculous signs.”
Depending on how one counts them, the raising of Lazarus is either the sixth or the seventh sign. Walking on water is usually regarded as one of them, but some commentators resist including it. Excluding it would mean that raising Lazarus from his four-day death is the sixth and the crucifixion the seventh.
I stick with the traditional rendering: Lazarus was the seventh sign. The first sign is at the wedding in Cana, water changed into wine. Lazarus is the last. After this the Temple authorities and Jewish leadership grimly undertake the process of putting Jesus to death.
The disciples know that Jesus is putting himself at risk even in traveling to Bethany, and they are reluctant to go along. Thomas braces them: “Let us also go, that we may die with him,” an odd thing for a supposed doubter to say.
Though people are seeking Jesus’s death even before he raises Lazarus, the sign deepens their determination. This is not only the last sign—it is the last straw. Bringing dead Lazarus from a tomb comes at the expense of Jesus’s life. This final sign is the warrant that seals his execution.
I return to Martha’s accusation, one I have voiced often enough myself: Why isn’t he here? Where is he? But there is little in this story that answers the accusation lurking at the heart of creation’s misery.
I find him crucified. He dies with us in the throes of our own human fragility, shattered, praying for a better cup.
The crucifixion of Christ finally says God enters our trouble and takes it up for his own. Amid the human debris of life God shoulders the burden of desolation for his own, in Christ. It says that, or it says nothing at all.
The crucifixion speaks, saying that Jesus—God incarnate, God for us—is the resurrection. If his death assumes our suffering, only then can his life become our hope.
Russell E. Saltzman is a former Lutheran pastor transitioning to the Roman Catholic Church. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and his previous First Things contributions are here.