I find the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead (in John 11) to be one of the most fascinating, exhilarating stories of the Gospels. Of course it is!
A beloved friend of Jesus is dead for four days, his body beginning to decompose, and Jesus calls him back to life. His friends remove his grave-clothes and he has another chance at life as a regenerated human being. This event foreshadows in Scripture the resurrection power that Jesus promises will call us back to him at the time the Father has appointed. Lazarus eventually died again but will rise again when Jesus returns. We will die once, and we who have trusted in Christ will rise with him when the trumpet sounds. These truths from the story are powerfully comforting and meaningful.
But there are other meanings to be applied from the story as well. One of these is found in the interactions of Jesus with the two sisters of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. They reveal much about the ministry of Jesus in both his divinity and his humanity. And they reveal much about how our minds and hearts respond when we encounter great loss.
When Jesus hears about Lazarus’ death two days earlier, he determines to go to Judea, but waits two more days. When the disciples remind him of the danger he faces from the Jews if he returns to Judea, Jesus talks to them about walking in the light. Walking in the light for him means carrying out his next mission—to raise his friend from the dead. The disciples are confused, but they journey on with him.
Jesus first encounters Martha, who rushes out alone to meet him on the road. She tells him, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus replies plainly, “Your brother will rise again.” This commences a dialog about resurrection. Martha in her grief attempts to wrap her mind around the only theology of death that she knows. She focuses on what she has learned and believed in her mind, that is, that there is a resurrection day, and her brother will rise on that day. Jesus tells her, “I am the resurrection and the life…and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” Jesus in his divinity responds to her theology with the gospel of the kingdom: he has come as God made flesh to bring resurrection life, today and forever. He reveals to her mind enough to help her make sense of things at her most painful moment.
This is the same Martha that we know from Luke’s gospel as a worker, a doer, a servant who can become distracted by her serving. She is a good woman who we might surmise functions predominantly from her head. She seeks understanding, and in his divinity, Jesus provides it. This is how he loves Martha.
Mary is a different story. Mary is still at the house, surrounded by Jews who had traveled to Bethany to console her. Mary, we know from Luke 10, is the one who chooses to sit at Jesus’ feet, gazing up adoringly at him, taking in every word. John tells us parenthetically that this is also the same Mary that will “waste” an entire flash of expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wipe them with her hair.
Mary is a deeply emotional person. She leads from her heart, and not her head. When Mary hears that Jesus is coming, she runs to him, followed by the other mourners. She falls at his feet and says exactly what Martha had said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Jesus responds quite differently to Mary. He is “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” He tells Mary to take him to the grave site. And then we come to the shortest sentence in the Bible—“Jesus wept.” Jesus does not engage in discussion with Mary. He doesn’t talk about resurrection. In his humanity, he simply joins with her in her grief. He empathizes, all the while knowing that soon all present will be amazed and rejoicing to see Lazarus alive again. This is how Jesus loves Mary, by weeping with her.
This story supports the view that there is no right or wrong way to grieve. All who have experienced deep grieving know that it can be a very messy process. Grief comes in waves, or according to Kubler-Ross, in stages. Sometimes we wrestle with our understanding, debating and bargaining with God in search of answers that we hope will bring comfort. Sometimes we are flooded in our emotions, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Sometimes we are Martha, and sometimes Mary. Jesus, because he is both God and man, knows how to love us perfectly in either case.
Isn’t it wonderful that Jesus ministers to us in our grief, in our heads and in our hearts? Being well acquainted with sorrow, he accompanies us through it all, bringing understanding and consolation if we will allow him.
How I love this Jesus, and the way he loves you and me!