Mary, Martha, and Lazarus of Bethany

Psalm 36:5–10

Ruth 2:5–12

Romans 12:9–13

John 11:1–7, 17–44

John 11:1–7, 17–44 (NRSV:) Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt 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 came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Sometimes I wonder if we don’t look at Mary, Martha, and Lazarus too doggone piously. What seems clear is that Jesus had a relationship with them that was more like…well…buddies. BFF’s. His peeps. Mates, had he been Australian. One gets the distinct feeling that when Jesus hung out with them, he could just “take his collar off,” so to speak, and just be Jesus. He didn’t have to bother with his professional role as Son of God. He could burp loudly at the dinner table, scratch his butt, and fart, and they’d laugh and harass him good-naturedly. I’m sure it was a little tricky at times. It was probably one of those things that psychologists and sociologists call “dual relationships”–something many professional folk have to work through in small towns or close-knit communities. The boundaries are there, but they’re a little hard to see at times. When we know a professional in a non-professional setting, we sometimes forget who that person really is in the eyes of others. When we’re the professional, we long for people in our lives that treat us like regular folk, but we still have to be careful to preserve certain boundaries and limits. We mess it up more than we’d like to admit.

It’s irritating that some of the people who write commentaries dump on Martha in this story, sometimes inferring that Martha was behaving sinfully or self-servedly. I think she was just deeply in shock and grief, and recognized she didn’t need Jesus their buddy, she needed Jesus the Son of God. But she was used to talking to Jesus her buddy. I suspect when Jesus was having dinner at Martha’s house, she told him things like “Get up, so I can clean under that chair. Stop bothering me while I’m fixing dinner. Go sit down and read the Torah and get out of my hair. I know you’re hungry–but this stuff doesn’t cook itself. If you wanted to be a real help, why don’t you take this stuff and turn it into dinner like you turned water into wine at Cana! What good are ya, anyway?” She probably bossed him around a bit in her house. After all, it was HER house.

More than likely, she was just hurting and it came out sideways, much the same way we accidentally come off mean or hurtful to those closest to us. We tend to launch on the ones we love the most–after all, they’re supposed to be able to read our minds and understand intuitively, right?

Add to the mix that Jesus has also seemingly lost one of his best friends to the reality of death. He wept over Lazarus’ passing. I suspect this was not a brave sniffle or two but real heavy-duty wailing and waterworks, because it got the attention of the looky-loos that tagged along. One can just imagine them going, “Hey, he’s really crying about this!”

It’s a story that most of us can find ourselves endeared to everyone in the story, if we choose to hear it from the point of every character in it. Martha? Wounded and grieving to the core and angry? Been there, done that. Jesus? Losing one of the few people in this world who probably really understands us, not a spouse yet an intimate friend, but surrounded by people who expect him to behave like “the professional Jesus?” Yep, we can go there too…and Lazarus? Dead to what’s going on around us and bound and waking up without a clue? Oh yeah!

It’s a great story to remind us of the power of love in the middle of the messiness of love–and whatever boundaries separate us in our common life toghether, God has a way to work with them.

Our culture rewards love–but only to a point. We tend to think of love only in terms of romance, marriage, partnership–“that special someone”–and the extensions of it via our progeny. I’ve always thought it a shame that we use one word for where the Greeks used three–filios, eros, and agape–love like we have for siblings, romantic/sexual love, and the kind of love that is just plain awe for things bigger than us. We act like eros has the trump card–but in reality all three are equally powerful and help us understand the kind of love God has for us. What we see in the Lazarus story is the power of filios and agape. We sell our ability to love short when we ignore these two at the expense of eros.

What happens in our lives when we admit the depth of the love we have for our friends? What changes for us when we love despite the boundaries that confuse it? How does admitting the power of filios and agape change us in our life journey as followers of Jesus?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid

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