“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). That’s the question posed by people who had gathered to mourn with Martha and Mary, in the days after their brother had died.
It’s a question that, with some slight rephrasing, may well be posed in the days ahead of us, as we begin to experience the savage impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Restrictions on movement, imposition of social isolation, spreading unemployment, rising numbers of infections being reported, and the early stages of what threatens to be a huge death rate, all from this powerful, invasive, invisible virus.
Frustration, anxiety, fear, and anger are within us, suppressed; and around us, beginning to be expressed. These times will be turbulent, confronting, disturbing. We draw deep into our emotional reserves in anticipation of what lies ahead.
I A message from Bethany
“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” Lazarus was dead, lying in the tomb (and had been there for four days, 11:17), so the reality of his death had surely been registered. But why did this have to be so? The level of grief being felt by his sisters, their household, and their friends from the village, was obviously intense.
Jesus had been reticent to travel from Galilee, back into Judea, where opposition to him had been steadily increasing (6:41; 7:1; 10:39). He initially paused, wanting not to go back to the place where, twice, threatening stones had been raised against him (8:59 and 10:31).
Jesus had been to Judea a number of times previously; in the book of signs, he is found there at 2:13, 5:1, 7:10, and 10:22—unlike the Synoptics, where his only visit as an adult is at the end of his earthly life (Mark 11:11). Jesus was reluctant to return there yet again. It was dangerous territory. He was in touch with his own deep emotions, as he considered his next move. Jesus demonstrates basic, raw humanity.
II Debating with the disciples
So Jesus delayed his travel for two days (11:6). Was he procrastinating? weighing up his options? looking to hide? making a strategic plan? The Greek word used here (meno) refers to staying still with purpose, resting, abiding. It is the word that appears quite a number of times in the “farewell discourse” as Jesus spends time with his disciples, before his arrest in Jerusalem (John 13-16).
This word occurs ten times in twelve verses in John 15, where Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches, and exhorts his followers to “remain” or “abide” (meno) in him, as he “remains” or “abides” in them. This is a deliberate, carefully thought out, plan, to hold back from travelling too quickly. Jesus had a plan in mind (as he indicates, first at 11:4, again at 11:15).
Then, when Jesus finally committed to a plan of action—“Let us go to Judea again”—we are told that Thomas the Twin expressed the great fear of his fellow disciples by saying, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (11:16). Down south (in Judea) was dangerous territory for the radical prophet from the north (in Galilee), fuelled both by the traditional antagonism between the regions, and by the plotting against Jesus that was underway amongst the leadership in Judea (5:18; 9:16: 10:39).
I tend to think that, had I been there alongside Thomas and Jesus and the rest, my words would have been more like, “What? Are you crazy? Go back to Jerusalem? And risk being stoned to death? No way. Just no way at all!!” But I wasn’t there. And this, according to the story told in the book of signs, is how Thomas responded: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Wow!
III Meeting Martha by the tomb
Then, when Jesus arrived, he was met immediately with a very strong kickback from Martha, who went out to meet the group beside the tomb, before they arrived in the house. Martha was clear and direct; she said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:22).
I would think that she was angry. We can assume that she would have known the reputation of Jesus, she would have known he was able to perform miracles (signs, as they are regularly described in the book of signs). With this knowledge, Martha would have despaired that Jesus chose not to come and perform such a sign in her village, for her family. She lashed out at Jesus. Understandably. Perhaps with good reason.
Being forced into an uncomfortable place, being railroaded into disturbing emotions and unsettling experiences, means that any human being is likely, at some point, to kick back, lash out, with unrestrained raw emotion. We need to take care of ourselves lest we offend or damage people of property in such a state.
IV Mary and others join
As the story continues, Jesus begins to mollify Martha, and then invites her sister, Mary to join with her (11:28). Jesus and his group have still not arrived at the village; they are still where Lazarus lies in the tomb. Mary brings with her a group of friends and family (11:31). As the group of mourners arrive, the tension in the air would have been palpable.
When Mary came to the tomb, where Jesus was, and saw him, she knelt at his feet. She appears to be expressing due respect and reverence, perhaps. “Lord, I am so glad you are here”, we might expect her to have said.
But no—the first words out of her mouth are the same as what her sister had said, a little earlier: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:32). She, too, was angry. Human emotions easily dominate. How clearly these sisters reflect the way we human beings operate!
V Jesus responds with raw human emotion
Hearing these words for a second time—“look what has happened, you could have stopped this from happening”—penetrates right to the core of Jesus. The author of the books of signs uses a number of colourful words in describing how Jesus responded. My sense is that Jesus had been stirred up, to the very depths of his being. He was profoundly moved—not with compassion, but with anger.
First (according to the NRSV), we learn that Jesus was “greatly disturbed in spirit” (11:33). The word chosen in Greek signifies the uttering of a sound from deep in the belly; a full-blooded reaction, a sound that shocks and shatters the eardrums. The most literal way of translating this would be to say that Jesus “snorted like a horse”—that deep, guttural warning that horses utter when they are distressed, cornered, angry. The basic word used here (as in a couple of other places in stories about Jesus—Mark 1:43 and Matt 9:30; Mark 14:5) signifies deep, burning anger. Jesus was thoroughly angry.
Then, we read that Jesus was “deeply moved” (11:33, NRSV) or “troubled” (NIV). This word comes from the root word which means “to shudder”. Jesus’s reaction was so strong, so extensive, that his whole body shook and shuddered. There was a clear physical manifestation of the inner emotional turmoil raging in Jesus. He was, as we say, shaking with anger. One commentator writes, “the word implies deep disturbance”; another, that it means “an expression of rage; to become indignant, be furious”; yet another simply says, that “Jesus is angry”.
After this, as he presumably draws closer to the tomb and sees where Lazarus has been laid, we are told, “Jesus began to weep” (11:35). The Greek word used here is significant. The weeping of Mary and her companions, described just a moment earlier (11:33), is weeping that a band of mourners would do. It was the weeping and wailing, the anguished crying of those deep in grief, which was the socially-expected, customary grieving form of weeping. An expression of deep human emotions, to be sure; but channelled in the appropriate and customary manner by this group of grieving family and friends.
The weeping of Jesus is described with a different word—a word that is used only once, at this exact place, in the whole of the New Testament. The word (dakruo) has its primary reference point in the tears shed by Jesus. As we read this passage in English, where the same word is used, it looks like Mary and Jesus are both weeping in the mourning customs of the day. In Greek, where completely different words are used, the weeping is different. Mary and her friends are grieving the loss of Lazarus. Jesus is thoroughly rattled, completely shattered, by what he has experienced. And he is angry. Utterly angry. Jesus weeps tears of anger.
There have been various explorations as to why Jesus was feeling such anger. Was he angry at the lack of faith he had encountered in Mary and Martha? I think that seems reasonable, given some other comments he makes in this narrative.
Other suggestions have been made. Was he angry because he was under pressure to perform yet another miracle? (a miracle far greater than any others he had performed thus far). Was he angry that sin held such a hold on his friends? Was he angry because he was realising that his own time on earth was soon to come to an end, that he would soon be grappling with the devil in the final battle? (The latter exotic suggestion was made by John Chrysostom in the fourth century.)
I am not so much interested in WHY Jesus was angry. I am more taken by the fact THAT Jesus was angry. He was human. Fully human. He had had enough. He was at breaking point. He had a plan, a carefully thought-out intention, and he was determined to carry it through. The emotional turmoil surrounding him was distracting, getting in the way. Jesus held to his purpose with a steely resolution.
I can identify with the grieving sisters, with the crowd that met Jesus. They had been thrown into confusion. Grief does that to you. A global pandemic will do that to you, too. There are restrictions that now limit how we live our lives, our news becomes more alarming, we are becoming hard pressed. Emotions surge within us. We are at risk of lashing out. We might want to play the blame game. We are losing any sense of hope.
It is exactly at this point, according to the narrative we have in the book of signs, that some of those around Jesus respond to his intense, visceral expressions of anger, with their own angry, accusing words: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:37). Tit for tat. Accusation and counter-accusation. Throwing it back, with interest. The scene has become ugly.
The story continues, fraught with emotion. Jesus is still “greatly disturbed” (11:38)—that is to say, still uttering that deep-seated, raw emotional outburst of anger, “snorting like a horse”. Yet, in the midst of this emotional upheaval, Jesus is able to act calmly, and speak with purpose and clarity.
VI Removing the stone, unbinding the dead man
“Take away the stone”, he commands (11:39). “Did I not tell you …”, he says to the crowd (11:40), offering a clear explanation of his intent. “Father, I thank you …”, he prays (11:41), withdrawing, gathering himself together, drawing on his inner resources. Clear, measured, purposeful.
Then, he shouts, “Lazarus, come out”, crying in a loud voice (11:43)—the verb used here has a sense of a raucous outburst. Jesus becomes, once more, highly emotional at this critical point. Yet this is a more positive emotion. A sense that things are now being set right. This is what he came to Bethany, to do. There is a purpose, amidst all the upheaval and turmoil.
And, finally, the clear instruction, “Unbind him, and let him go” (11:44). The deed is done, the man emerges from the tomb, walking, no longer lying dead. There are signs of hope, right at this point: Lazarus is alive, a new reality is in place, the freedom of life restored is evident. Jesus has achieved what he had intended from the start. “This illness … is for Hod’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (11:4).
VII In a global pandemic
Where do you find yourself in this story? We might really want to be at that moment at the end, where hope bursts forth. But we are not there. Not now. Not for a while. Not, most likely, for a long time. So where do you see yourself in this story?
With Thomas, fearful of what the future will bring, and yet resolute about stepping forth with confidence? With Martha, pushing back, crying out in despair at the situation we are in? With Mary, piling on with more angst, fuelled by uncertainty, angry at what has happened?
With the grieving crowd, rushing from one thing to the next, gripped by a host of competing emotions? With the astonished crowd, watching the miracle of a man once dead, now alive?
Or with Jesus, determined to hold a steady course through the upheavals he experiences? He was clear about what he intends to achieve, steadfast in working his way through the obstacles, to the place of fruition. (If we want to emulate him, we need to be careful that we do not say “God is working through the pandemic”, or “God sent this pandemic to us for a purpose”.) Holding to a steadfast goal in the current context is a daunting challenge.
This story, set in this Sunday’s lectionary, invites us to consider who we are, as human beings; how we respond, when under pressure; what it is, that we hope for, in challenging times; how our faith guides us, in the midst of fear, anxiety, and despair.
I have been greatly assisted in writing this blog by the research of my wife, the Rev. Elizabeth Raine, who has a great eye for detail when it comes to matters of translation. I have also drawn on published work by Gail R O’Day, in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary vol. IX p. 690; and the wonderful commentary by Raymond Brown, The Gospel according to John, vol. I pp. 425-426.
See also my other blogs on the Book of Signs: