Read an Excerpt
John 11-21My Peace I Give You
By Kevin Perrotta
Loyola PressCopyright © 2004 Kevin Perrotta
All right reserved.
How to Use This Guide
You might compare the Bible to a national park. The park is so large that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. But a brief visit, if carefully planned, can be enjoyable and worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, listen to the wind blowing in the trees, get a feel for the place.
In this volume we’ll drive through a small portion of the Bible—the second half of John’s Gospel—making half a dozen stops along the way. At those points we’ll proceed on foot, taking a leisurely walk through the selected passages. The readings have been chosen to take us to the heart of John’s portrayal of Jesus. After each discussion we’ll get back in the car and take the highway to the next stop. “Between Discussions” pages summarize the portions of the Gospel that we will pass by.
This guide provides everything you need to begin exploring John, chapters 11 through 21, in six discussions—or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction on page 6 will prepare you to get the most out of your reading. The weekly sections feature key passages from the Gospel, with explanations that highlight what these words mean for us today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch you into fruitful discussion, helping you to both explore the Gospel for yourself and to learn from one another. If you’re using the volume by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
Guided ~ None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in and with the Church. So each week “A Guide to the Reading” supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp the message of John’s Gospel. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
Discovery ~ The purpose is for you to interact with John’s Gospel. “Questions for a Closer Look” is a tool to help you dig into the text and examine it carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you consider what John’s words mean for your life here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that helps you respond to God’s word. Supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present in order to show you what the Gospel of John has meant to others—so that you can consider what it might mean for you.
If you are using this volume for individual study, pay special attention to the questions provided for each week (Warm-Up Questions, Questions for a Closer Look, Questions for Application). One advantage of individual study is that you can take all the time you need to consider all the questions. You may also want to read the last 12 chapters of the Gospel of John in their entirety. You will find that the “Between Discussions” pages will help you understand the portions of this Gospel that are not covered in this guide. Take your time making your way through the Gospel of John and this accompanying volume: let your reading be an opportunity for this Gospel to become God’s words to you.
John 11—21: A Story Simple Yet Profound
Beginning to read the Gospel of John at chapter 11 is like watching the second part of a two-part movie first. You’ve missed half the story. Reading the first 10 chapters is obviously the preferred way to get to chapter 11. But John’s Gospel is not a murder mystery with a convoluted plot. With a little catching up, you can follow the second half without necessarily having read the first half. So here is a brief rundown on what has happened. (Another volume in the Six Weeks with the Bible for Catholic Teens series, John 1—10: I Am the Bread of Life, discusses the first 10 chapters of John’s Gospel.)
The story line of John’s Gospel is actually quite simple. God has come into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. To be precise, Jesus is God’s Word—he is one with God while being somehow distinct from God. John states this mysterious truth in the first 17 verses of his Gospel. If you don’t have time to read all of chapters 1 through 10, try to read 1:1–17. (Unless otherwise indicated, all biblical citations in this volume are from the Gospel of John.)
John skips over Jesus’ birth and early years, opening his account when Jesus is already a man. Jesus teaches and performs symbolic actions, such as clearing merchants out of the Jerusalem Temple. He also demonstrates a remarkable power over nature by changing water to wine and curing blindness. Jesus’ message is clear: “I am God’s unique, personal representative to the human race. I am fully authorized to act on God’s behalf because I am and have always been one with God.” Jesus calls God “my Father” and refers to himself as “the Son.”
In the other Gospels, Jesus offers teachings on how to live. In John’s Gospel Jesus proclaims his identity and calls people to believe in him. He summons people to recognize who he is and to enter a personal relationship with him so that they can receive the divine life that he offers.
Jesus is a Jew, as are the people he addresses. Through his preaching, symbolic acts, and miracles, Jesus announces that he is the climax of God’s dealings with the Jewish people. While many of his fellow Jews are inclined to welcome him, most of the leaders are not, and they grow increasingly hostile as he carries on his ministry. Jesus drops hints that he expects to meet a violent death. At the point where we pick up the story, in chapter 11, there has just been an attempt on his life in Jerusalem, and he has withdrawn from the city for safety.
Just as the story up through chapter 10 can be summarized simply, so can the remainder of John’s Gospel. Jesus will now provide the most impressive sign of his divine origin (our reading in Week 1) and will bring his public ministry to a close (Week 2). After giving his disciples final instructions (Weeks 3 and 4), he will accept an agonizing death and will rise from the dead (Weeks 5 and 6). Like the swing of a pendulum, the Gospel of John has two complementary movements: the Word of God enters the world as Jesus of Nazareth; then, for the sake of human beings, he leaves the world and returns to God.
Most of us are not very interested in discussing the meanings of words. ~ We all know the frustration of reaching the end of such discussions more confused than when we began. But one term in John’s Gospel is so central to his meaning, yet so complex and elusive, that it is worth taking a few minutes to investigate it. If we can get hold of this word, it will lead us to the heart of John’s understanding of Jesus. The word is glory.
Glory has a special meaning in John’s Gospel. Here are some verses in our target readings that speak of glory:
? “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (11:40)
? “His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written of him” (12:16).
? “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23).
? “Father, glorify your name. . . . I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again” (12:28).
? “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once” (13:31–32).As we all know, the English word glory has various meanings. It stands for “splendor” and “magnificence” (we speak of the glory of a beautiful sunset). It also stands for the social recognition given to what is splendid and magnificent (we speak of people doing things for their own personal glory rather than for the common good). To glorify is to bestow honor and praise on that which is splendid and magnificent.
With these ordinary meanings in mind, we can begin to grasp what Jesus means in the first verse above (11:40). He tells Martha, the sister of Lazarus, that she will “see the glory of God.” Jesus is about to raise her brother from the grave, and this will display God’s magnificent, life-giving power.
Once we know the context, we can also understand what John means when he writes of the time after Jesus was “glorified” (12:16). John is speaking about the period after Jesus’ Resurrection, when he has returned to the condition of heavenly splendor that was his as the Word of God from before all time.
But the rest of the verses quoted above are more difficult to figure out. What does it mean, for example, that God has been “glorified” in the Son (13:31)?
To understand these verses we need to look back to the Old Testament. ~ It is here that the people of Israel pondered on the God who had revealed himself to them. They realized that God is a splendid and magnificent creator, deserving praise and honor. God has glory and deserves glory. But the most glorious thing about God, it seemed to the Israelites, was the way he kept coming to their assistance and showing them his kindness in real-life situations. The Israelites’ experience of God taught them that God’s mercy is as great as his majesty. It became clear to them that God displays his grandeur not only through the splendor of creation but also through acts of justice and compassion.
So in the psalms God’s glory is linked to his “steadfast love” (Psalms 57:5,10; 63:2–3). The psalmists praised God for showing his glory by rescuing the downtrodden, doing “wondrous works” for the suffering, and saving people in distress (Psalms 72:18–19; 85:9–10; 96:3; 102:15–17; 108:5–6; 138:5–6). The Israelites spoke of God glorifying himself by saving people from evil and filling their lives with blessings.
These thoughts lie in the background of John’s Gospel. In the Gospel glory and glorify refer to God showing his love. When John writes that the Word of God has come into the world to glorify God, he means that the Word has come to express God’s love by rescuing us from the things that make us unhappy, leading us to love and praise God in return. Jesus directs his whole life toward the moment when he will glorify God completely by his death. “It is for this reason that I have come,” Jesus declares, and immediately prays, “Father, glorify your name” (12:27–28). Jesus’ death will be God’s supreme wondrous work. In his dying, Jesus will bring God’s love to bear in the most profound way to uproot the evils that afflict us. He will root out sin, death, and the Devil—the evils that destroy our personalities, our relationships, our very lives.
John’s use of glory and glorify brings us face-to-face with an apparent contradiction. ~ To identify the agony and shame of crucifixion with glory seems to stretch the word beyond the breaking point. Jesus’ crucifixion must have appeared to witnesses as an unspeakably degrading death, the exact opposite of glory. Yet Jesus sees—and wishes us to see—something splendid and magnificent in his death. What could that be?
There is no simple way to explain the glory of the cross, and we must each reflect on it for ourselves. But one line of thinking is this: God and Jesus were glorified at the cross because Jesus’ death was God’s supreme revelation of himself. At the cross God reveals himself as a loving Father who gives what is most precious—his own Son—to the world. He also reveals himself as a loving Son who, through suffering, gives his whole life back to the Father for the world. God is glorified at the cross because he shows forth the splendor and magnificence of his love. To the ordinary eye, Jesus hanging on the cross appears to be an image of shame and defeat. Yet if our eyes could see love as light, looking at the cross would be as blinding as staring at the sun. John uses the language of glory to open our eyes to this invisible radiance at Golgotha. He helps us to see what most of those present at the crucifixion could not see: the love of Father and Son for one another and for the human race.
God and Jesus are glorified, or revealed, at the cross, yet the cross is a dark glory, a hidden revelation. And this paradox continues in our lives today. Jesus has now risen from death to life, but his triumph is not shown publicly to the world. He shows himself to his disciples who believe in him, not to the world that does not believe (14:19). The power of evil is broken (12:31), yet not driven out, as every day’s news reports remind us. Jesus rose from death to give divine life here and now, the life that overcomes death. Yet each of us will die. We must still look forward to a final day when Jesus will raise us up into life, physically and spiritually, once and for all. John writes his Gospel to help us perceive and live in this paradox. The great mystery of the cross—the central fact of our faith—is captured in the paradoxical word glory. Keep this in mind as you read John’s Gospel.
John’s Gospel is also the great revelation of the Holy Spirit. ~ John helps us to understand how Jesus reveals God and to accept the gift of life that comes through his death and resurrection. If we are really to see and know and live, however, we need more than a book; we need God to show himself to us in a living, personal way. This is where the third divine person, the Holy Spirit, comes in. In a lengthy after-dinner talk on the eve of his death, Jesus assures his disciples that his departure will greatly benefit them because it will make possible the coming of the Spirit. Jesus characterizes the Spirit as “another Advocate”—that is, another person like himself, Jesus being the first Advocate. Jesus and the Father will live within the disciples through the coming of the Spirit. The Spirit makes it possible for us to have a personal relationship with Jesus. This relationship will not be merely an idea we read about in a book but a direct experience, even for us who live centuries after Jesus’ earthly life.
Knowing when, where, and for whom a book was written often helps us understand it. ~ Unfortunately, scholars are not sure about when John’s Gospel was written, who wrote it, and for whom it was written. Most scholars, however, tend to think that John’s Gospel was completed perhaps around a.d. 90 and was the last of the four Gospels to be written.
The question of who wrote the Gospel of John might seem to have an obvious answer: John wrote it. But then, who was John? In our target readings we meet an unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” (13:23; 19:26; 21:7). This disciple seems to have been the source of the tradition about Jesus that is presented in the Gospel. In the past this “beloved disciple” has been identified with the apostle John, one of the sons of Zebedee, mentioned in the other Gospels. But scholars are no longer sure about this identification or about the specific role that this “beloved disciple” played in the formation of the Gospel as we have it. Did he write it? Did he write parts of it? Did he pass on the tradition about Jesus that is reflected in the Gospel, while leaving the writing to others? All these views have their defenders.
We do not have to answer these questions, however, in order to benefit from the Gospel. Whoever the beloved disciple was, and whatever part he played in composing the Gospel, the finished product rests on his testimony. Thus the Gospel gives us the testimony of a companion of Jesus, shaped by many years of Spirit-guided prayer and reflection. By including this Gospel in the New Testament, the Church has recognized it as authentic testimony to Jesus. In this volume we will simply refer to the author as John, even though we acknowledge that there are questions about who wrote and edited the Gospel.
A further point concerning the disciple whom Jesus loved is worth noting. The fact that we do not know who he is makes it easy for us to put ourselves in his place as we read. The beloved disciple is a kind of blank slate onto which each of us can write our own name. When we read of this disciple sitting next to Jesus at the Last Supper, we can enter the event by picturing ourselves in his place. When we read of the beloved disciple standing at the cross, we can imagine that we are that disciple, watching Jesus as he dies and listening to what he says. This is no reader’s trick. Each of us is the disciple whom Jesus loves.
Advice for reading ~ John’s Gospel is not a suspense story. John wrote for Christians, who already knew how the story turned out. His Gospel is a drama, with striking contrasts, dizzying paradoxes, and tragic ironies. A suspense story is best the first time you read it. A good drama gets better with every reading, because each time we read it we discover new meanings.
John’s Gospel is not as simple as it appears. The author loads everyday words with plenty of meaning. A single gesture or phrase may allude to a passage in the Old Testament, thus connecting the narrative to a prophecy or prefigurement. Once you get a feel for the depth and complexity of John’s account, you start to look at every word and sentence carefully. You look for shades of meaning of which you may not have been aware at first.
We cannot absorb the whole message of John’s Gospel with one reading. His Gospel is not a glass of water to drink down but a sea to swim in. We can never entirely plumb its depths. But as we read and reread, we will grow in understanding. Along the way, we should feel free to stop at any point to ponder any word or statement that seems to have personal significance.
Before we begin, it’s helpful to discuss John’s references to the Jews. Almost everyone in the Gospel account is Jewish, but when John uses the term “the Jews,” he is referring to those Jews who did not accept Jesus, especially the Jewish leaders. Many of the Jewish people who heard and saw Jesus did not accept his claims about himself, and some Jewish leaders played a part in having him put to death. The historical background behind John’s practice of referring to these people as “the Jews” is too complicated to be unraveled here. What is important to note, however, is that John means for those Jews who rejected Jesus to stand as representatives of the whole of human society. They represent all of us to the extent that we do not fully grasp and wholeheartedly respond to Jesus. The Jews did not reject Jesus because they were Jews, but because their personal interests ran counter to God’s plan. For example, they might have had a desire for social acceptance, or they might have been unwilling to let go of their political and religious privileges. These, of course, may be our faults too.
It is a mistake, therefore, to read what John says about “the Jews” as an actual description of all Jews at the time of Jesus. It is an even bigger mistake to use his negative view of “the Jews” as the basis for any negative view of Jewish people past or present. Unfortunately, this mistake has often been made. To avoid this misunderstanding, some scholars have adopted the practice of putting quotation marks around the words “the Jews” in their discussions of John’s Gospel. The quotation marks serve as a reminder that John uses the term with a special meaning. The bishops of the Second Vatican Council, as well as Pope John Paul II, have condemned anti-Semitism in all its forms. Week 1Wake Up, My Friend
1 Have you ever called a friend and asked for help? What was the problem? What did your friend do?
2 How do you wake up in the morning?
Gradually, with coffee
Early—I like mornings.
I like to sleep as late as possible.
3 What is the worst stench you have ever smelled?Opening the Bible
An Urgent Message
11:1 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume . . . her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 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.” 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. . . .” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
A Scene of Grief
17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
28 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.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. . . . 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, . . . followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 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.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
A Life-Giving Command
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 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.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 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.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 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.”
Questions for a Closer Look
1 When Jesus heard of Lazarus’s illness, he waited two days before he left for Bethany. Why do you suppose he took his time?
2 Why does Jesus describe Lazarus as being “asleep” (11:11)?
3 What does Thomas’s statement in verse 16 mean?
4 From Jesus’ own words throughout this episode, what seems to be his chief concern?
5 Reread verses 25 through 27 and verse 39. Does Martha believe that Jesus is who he says he is?
6 Jesus prays aloud (11:41–42), apparently to keep the bystanders from reaching a wrong conclusion. What misunderstanding is he trying to avoid?
A Guide to the Reading
The sight of Lazarus emerging from the doorway of the tomb grips the imagination. But John wants us to understand its deeper meaning, so he devotes most of his narrative not to the act of bringing a man back to life but to the interaction between Jesus and the people around him. The dialogue highlights the issue of Jesus’ identity. The drama lies not only in the question “What will Jesus do for Lazarus?” but also in the questions “Who is Jesus?” and “Will anyone recognize him for who he is?”
Verses 5 and 6 are puzzling. Presumably Jesus knows that it is too late to reach Lazarus before he dies, yet he decides to stay for two more days before leaving, perhaps to make the raising a more stunning demonstration of his life-giving power (11:14–15).
Jesus seems to operate with a different agenda from the people around him. He does not share their preoccupation with Lazarus’s fate. While he loves Lazarus, he seems mainly concerned with people’s faith in him. Apparently, even after following Jesus for a couple of years, his disciples still have not attained complete faith in him (11:15).
Jesus says that the one who believes in him will go on living forever because the believer in him has already entered into everlasting life. For such a person, death is not the end of everything, but a door that leads to greater life. Jesus says that he is the Resurrection: he is the source of divine life here and now, as well as the agent of full resurrection in the future.
Martha works from a Jewish expectation that God will raise the dead at the end of time. She does not realize, however, that with Jesus’ arrival the last times have begun. He is the Resurrection in person. Martha comes close to the truth about Jesus (11:27). Yet she does not exactly affirm what Jesus declares of himself. Her reaction to the idea of opening the tomb (11:39) shows the limit of her faith.
The crowd fails to understand that Jesus not only could have saved Lazarus from death, he can restore him to life. Not even Martha’s sister Mary seems to fully believe.
Thus as Jesus approaches Lazarus’s tomb, he may experience not only sorrow but anger. The mourners are standing in the presence of the person who is Resurrection and life, yet they do not believe in him; nor do they have any hope for Lazarus. Jesus’ tears could very well be tears of frustration and disappointment; Jesus weeps not only for Lazarus but for those around him, none of whom understand who he is. We may even detect in his words to Martha a note of irritation—the kind of irritation a parent might feel who cannot find any way to overcome a child’s conviction that he or she is not loved.
By raising Lazarus, Jesus confirms his claim to be the Resurrection. He glorifies God; that is, he shows us God’s life-giving power. And raising Lazarus will glorify God in another way: it will provoke the religious leaders to decide to have Jesus killed, and by his death Jesus will glorify God by fully demonstrating God’s self-giving love. The cross will demonstrate that God is a Father of infinite mercy who gives what is most precious to him—his own Son—for the life of the world.
Jesus knows he will pay with his life for restoring Lazarus. At Bethany, then, Jesus decides to lay down his life for his friend. The riveting image of Lazarus recalled to life, standing in the doorway of his tomb, is a key for interpreting Jesus’ death: he will die in order to give life to his friends. He will die for us, the Lazaruses of the world.
Questions for Application
1 Jesus went to Bethany to help his friends. Give an example of something a friend did to help you and an example of something you did to help a friend.
2 Why does Jesus ask Martha if she believes that those who live and believe in him will never die? How would you have answered his question?
3 How does Jesus relate to his followers in this incident? What does that tell us about how he relates to us when our faith in him is weak and imperfect?
4 This is the only passage in John’s Gospel in which Jesus weeps. What do you think of his tears? Do you think that Jesus is saddened when bad things happen to you?
5 Jesus said that he is the Resurrection and the life, and that whoever believes in him will never die. How does grief affect a person’s faith in Jesus? How might this passage affect how you look at the deaths of those you love?
6 How should you respond when friends or relatives let you know that they need your help or presence as they go through difficult times?
Approach to PrayerListen as a member of the group reads aloud these thoughts of Saint Augustine. After a moment of silent reflection, pray together, “Lord, have mercy!” and conclude with the Our Father.A person who has become accustomed to sinning has not only died but is buried, pressed down by the massive weight of habit. How many of us are oppressed by a heavy mass of bad habits! If someone says, “Don’t do this. It will destroy you,” they answer, “We can’t get free of it.” How hard it is for one weighed down by bad habits to rise up. But nevertheless we do rise up, because we receive life by hidden, inner grace. Jesus shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” and immediately the dead man came forth. Thus every day we see people living well whose worst habits have been completely changed. It is written for every person weighed down by a bad habit that Jesus “came to the tomb.”
Supplement for Individual Reading
A Living Tradition
John Henry Newman was a 19th-century English cardinal and theologian. In his sermon, titled “Tears of Christ at the Grave of Lazarus,” he challenged his audience to think about why Jesus wept over his dead friend Lazarus. After all, it would just take a word from Jesus, and Lazarus would be alive. In fact, that is what Jesus had planned to do, so why did he weep?
Cardinal Newman suggests that Jesus wept out of sympathy with the grief of others. “When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her, He groaned in the spirit, and was troubled.” He saw Lazarus’ family and friends crying, and he felt compassion for them. Cardinal Newman points out that compassion means to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” But how can God show compassion, the cardinal asks, when we cannot see God’s sympathy? We have God’s compassionate words in Scripture and we know about his compassionate deeds, but sympathy must be seen in order to bring comfort to the sufferer.
The answer, Cardinal Newman said, was that when the Son of God “took flesh and appeared on earth, he showed us the Godhead in a new manifestation.” Jesus took on a new set of attributes, those of our flesh, with a human body and soul, so that he could have thoughts and feelings like us. He was then able to respond to our thoughts and feelings in a way that we could see and understand. In this way Jesus was able to make clear to us his tender mercy. So Cardinal Newman says that we should not think that, when Jesus wept from sympathy at Mary’s tears, he was weeping because he was overcome by natural feelings of human love. His weeping reflected “the love of God, the compassion of the Almighty and Eternal, condescending to show it as we are capable of receiving it, in the form of human nature.”
Cardinal Newman concludes that Jesus wept not only as a result of deep reflection on what Lazarus’ death meant but also from spontaneous feelings of tenderness. The tears in the eyes of everyone around him “touched him at once, as their miseries had brought him down from heaven. His ear was open to them, and the sound of weeping went at once to his heart.”
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus appear in John’s Gospel. The sisters, without Lazarus, also appear in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 10:38–42). The women display some of the same characteristics in both accounts: Martha does more of the talking and handles practical arrangements; Mary is more expressive of her devotion—sitting silently at Jesus’ feet while he teaches, prostrating herself, and anointing him with scented oil. We are told so little about Lazarus that it is impossible to get a sense of his personality.
Their village, Bethany, was on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, a couple of miles east of Jerusalem. The site is now an Arab neighborhood called el-Azariyeh, which is derived from the word “Lazarus.” The Franciscan fathers maintain a church there. Visitors are shown a tomb traditionally considered that of Lazarus, which does seem to date from the first century.
From all we can tell, Martha, Mary, and Lazarus were ordinary people. Their names were common ones that have been found in first-century burial inscriptions in the Jerusalem area. The family was not wealthy, for they did not have servants serving the meals. But they were not impoverished either: many people came from Jerusalem to mourn for Lazarus, the family could seat a dozen or so people in their dining area, and they had expensive perfume in the house.
The three also seem to have been ordinary inasmuch as harmony did not always reign in their household. On occasion they tried to drag Jesus, their honored guest, into their disagreements (Luke 10:40). This suggests that Jesus was not an unapproachable figure around whom everyone felt they must constantly display their best behavior. Martha and Mary seem to have related to him as one of the family, even while they treated him with great respect.Between Discussions Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are examples of another kind of disciple. They show us that Jesus had disciples who did not travel with him but who stayed home and offered him and his disciples hospitality when they came to town. It is clear that Jesus did not insist that all his disciples leave everything behind to follow him.
The family was friends not just of Jesus but of his disciples as well. Notice that Jesus speaks to his disciples of “our friend Lazarus” (11:11, emphasis added). While Luke 10 mentions only Jesus visiting Martha and Mary, John shows Jesus visiting the family with his traveling companions. The family might have hosted Jesus and his disciples whenever they were in the Jerusalem area for festivals.
The picture of Jesus and his companions sharing a meal in the home of nontraveling disciples would have struck a familiar note for the Christians for whom John was writing. In their day, Christians gathered in homes, for there were no church buildings. Community members with homes large enough to accommodate visitors hosted meetings and provided accommodations for traveling missionaries.
In Acts of the Apostles, we glimpse this pattern of life, which shows that the larger homes of believers were centers of life for the first Christian community in Jerusalem. Larger households were apparently centers for care for the needy, for the community seems to have helped poorer members not just by giving them money but also by sharing meals with them. People coming and going for social and business reasons in these homes would be exposed to the gospel as believers told of the impact Jesus had had on their lives.
The brief scene of Jesus with Martha and Mary in Luke’s Gospel has been remembered in Christian tradition as a reminder of the priority of listening to Jesus over serving him. Perhaps we should also treasure the picture of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus entertaining Jesus and his companions as an image of how nontraveling disciples of Jesus may use their homes in service to him.
Excerpted from John 11-21 by Kevin Perrotta Copyright © 2004 by Kevin Perrotta. Excerpted by permission.
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