This passage catches Jesus “mid-story,” so let’s catch up:
- There has been considerable plotting to kill Jesus. At one point, in the previous chapter, the Jewish Authorities even pick up stones to use; ready, aim, but no fire.
- Jesus is “hiding out” on the other side of the Jordan, where his cousin, “John the Baptist” began his ministry. Maybe, like us, Jesus feels safe when he remembers the “good times.”
- While Jesus is there, he gets word that Lazarus, “the one he loves,” is sick. Jesus waits a couple of days before he goes. Maybe he is considering the risk of going so close to the people who want to kill him (Bethany is less than two miles from Jerusalem); the authorities are sure to hear of his visit.
- Maybe he is pondering his relationship with the two women and their brother. His mother was a “ponderer.”
- Then, he gets word that Lazarus has died. Now, he’s got to go!
- When he finally arrives in Bethany – or at least near Bethany – Martha comes out to meet him.
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Bethany was a little less than two miles from Jerusalem. Many Jews had come to comfort Martha and Mary after their brother’s death. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him, while Mary remained in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask God, God will give you.” Jesus told her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha replied, “I know that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die. Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She replied, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, God’s Son, the one who is coming into the world.”
After Martha has her say with Jesus, she goes back home and tells Mary that Jesus wants to see her.
That is where we find Jesus in our assigned passage this morning. His friend is dead. One sister seems a bit angry with Jesus for not coming sooner. The other sister is distraught with grief. Of course, since he is Jesus, he has the power to change their circumstances by raising their brother from the dead. That’s exactly what he does so that those who believe will “see the glory of God.”
As we consider this scripture, I would like all of us to be “ponderers” for a minute. An excellent way to dive into scripture is to place yourself in the story – imagine that you are one of the characters. Let’s pretend that we are Martha and Mary.
The gospels tell us little about either sister. There is this story, from John, and that somewhat more famous story from Luke:
While Jesus and his disciples were traveling, Jesus entered a village where a woman named Martha welcomed him as a guest. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message. By contrast, Martha was preoccupied with getting everything ready for their meal. So Martha came to him and said, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to prepare the table all by myself? Tell her to help me.” The Lord answered, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the better part. It won’t be taken away from her.”
We could go into the virtues and values of “hard work” versus “sitting at Jesus’ feet,” but not today. For now, let’s just note that Martha and Mary have very different personalities.
Their discipleship is just like ours – we bring all our different personalities to Jesus. He receives and appreciates all of us. All of us have a place in his ministry. And . . . just like Mary and Martha, we are sometimes subject to petty rivalries and jealousy. Jesus is tolerant and patient of that, too.
When John introduces us to the two sisters, we find that they live with their brother, Lazarus. In that time, such a living arrangement would mean that Lazarus was the sole source of support for his sisters. Martha had no way of exercising her industrious sense of work in the outside world, dominated by men as it was. Mary was not appreciated for her depth and sense of beauty and relationship.
Lazarus may have been the only person in their world who knew and appreciated both women for who they really and truly were. Until they met Jesus. He knew them. He appreciated them.
When tragedy strikes, when Lazarus becomes ill, the two women’s world is falling apart. Their home, their safety, their food might soon be gone. If Lazarus dies, it would be a life of begging or prostitution – that’s all that was available for women without a husband. Not bright prospects. They turn to the man who was perhaps the only other person they knew who would help, Jesus.
When we are at the end of our rope, we do the same. We take our unique needs and our unique points of view and turn them toward Jesus. We truly find sisters in Mary and Martha and know that they react to grief according their personalities.
Martha approaches Jesus with her controlled, somewhat guilt-inducing, self: “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother wouldn’t be dead. Because I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” She discusses theology: “Yes, we all know he will rise on the last day, when everyone else does.” When Jesus states that he is the “resurrection and the life,” Martha calmly, and rationally agrees. Then, she returns to get Mary – and go about seeing to affairs of the estate.
When Mary arrives, she is surrounded by her fellow mourners. It was the custom for the women of the village to come and cry with the bereaved (a custom that I imagine Martha despised). Picture her arrival at the place where Jesus was – all tears and crying, moaning and weeping and sobbing. She throws herself at Jesus’ feet, and says – ironically – the very same thing her sister says: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
When Jesus saw her (Mary) crying and the Jews who had come with her crying also, he was deeply disturbed and troubled. He asked, “Where have you laid him?” They replied, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to cry. The Jews said, “See how much he loved him!” But some of them said, “He healed the eyes of the man born blind. Couldn’t he have kept Lazarus from dying?” Jesus was deeply disturbed again when he came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone covered the entrance. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, the smell will be awful! He’s been dead four days.” Jesus replied, “Didn’t I tell you that if you believe, you will see God’s glory?” So they removed the stone. Jesus looked up and said, “Father, thank you for hearing me. I know you always hear me. I say this for the benefit of the crowd standing here so that they will believe that you sent me.” Having said this, Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his feet bound and his hands tied, and his face covered with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.” Therefore, many of the Jews who came with Mary and saw what Jesus did believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.
Maybe, down deep, Mary and Martha are more alike than they are different. Maybe, down deep, so are we.
In the face of all this mourning and weeping, Jesus himself is moved. John writes two words that we know as the “shortest verse in the Bible.” They just might be the most moving. “Jesus wept.”
Jesus meets both sisters, his friends, right where they are. He accepts Martha’s business-like “bottom line” approach. He discusses things at the level that she can understand, perhaps until she is ready to go a little deeper. Maybe she never will be ready, some of us aren’t.
When Mary arrives, all tears and crying, make-up running down her face (if they had make-up back then), nose running, surrounded by women in the same state, Jesus warms up. He cries, too.
He gives them the gift that only the Son of God could give – new life.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve. There is no right or wrong way to come to Jesus. Jesus accepts us all – Marthas and Marys.
After such a profound gift, there is little, if any, change to the sisters’ basic personality. The day before his triumphant entry to Jerusalem, Jesus is back at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. What are the sisters doing? Business-like Martha was serving, and emotional Mary was pouring expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and drying them with her hair.
Not a word of criticism from Jesus for either one. Both of them expressing thanks in their own, unique way.
All of us come to Jesus with a “boat-load” of peculiarities and ways of expressing ourselves in grief and in joy. Jesus receives us all, loves us all, accepts us all. And – sometimes – in the middle of the chaos caused by such variety, he brings new life!