Jesus’ Best Friend
We have all been there. One of our loved ones is sick. Very sick. We are reminded of the fragility of our life and of our powerlessness. There is nothing we can do. We have to wait for the disease to run its course. Maybe it will not lead to death. But maybe it will. We don’t know. And we can’t do anything one way or the other.
In moments like that, prayers intensify. We pray more frequently. We pray more fervently. We pray more passionately. We know that God can help. But will he help us? Will he answer our prayers? He has helped others; we remember all the testimonies from people who have been helped by God. We can even think of some times in our own past when God has done something unusual and answered our prayers. But will he answer our prayers this time? Our pastor told us once that God always answers prayers. Sometimes he answers yes, sometimes wait, and sometimes no. That is good on paper, but it does not help me very much when one of my loved ones is suffering from a disease that may lead to death. A God who answers, but answers with a refusal to help when you really need him, what good is that? I can get that answer from anybody.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were three of Jesus’ closest friends. It is not unlikely that their home was the place where Jesus would stay whenever he was in Bethany. What is clear is that Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are among the very few individuals about whom we are explicitly told that Jesus loved them. When the sisters sent their message to Jesus, they simply told him: Lord, the one you love is sick. We also know that the New Testament tells us about only one instance when Jesus cried. It was when his friend Lazarus died.
Evidently, this family in Bethany was very close to Jesus. They can not be counted among the many characters in the gospels that only had a chance encounter with Jesus. People who had heard about him, and when they experienced a crisis in their life, they came running for him to help them, and then we never hear about them again. Sometimes what we do hear about them is that the first thing they did after they met Jesus was to disobey what he asked them to do. Several times we hear Jesus instruct people not to tell anyone about him, just to learn that all they seemed capable of doing was to disobey this rather modest request. One wonders why Jesus never got tired of helping these kinds of people, people that showed no interest in getting to know Jesus and spend time with him, but only wanted to be around him for the very limited time it took him to give them everything they wanted. But apparently, Jesus never got tired of doing good to undeserving people.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, however, they were not a part of this crowd. They were among Jesus’ friends, his close friends, friends that so far may very well have given more to Jesus than he could have given them in return. After all, they had been hosting him in their house, but Jesus did not even have his own house so that he could reciprocate. Mary’s commitment to Jesus would later be demonstrated when she took her costly perfume, worth the equivalent of a full year’s salary and squandered all of it on Jesus.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were among the genuine followers of Jesus. Martha was quick to make one of the clearest confessions we find in the entire New Testament: I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.
If Jesus had any favorites, who would be closer to that distinction than Mary, Martha, and Lazarus? It would not be unreasonable to expect then, that when they told him that Lazarus was sick, he would be concerned. It would not be unreasonable to expect that he would take time out of his busy schedule to visit his dying friend. It would also not be unreasonable to expect that he would show up and say, what good friends say when their loved ones are facing crises like this: “if there is anything I can do, please let me know.” “Yes, Jesus, it actually so happens that there might be something you could do. Didn’t you just heal this blind man, when you were in Jerusalem recently, the man that was so memorable that nobody seems to remember his name. When his story is told in John’s Gospel, he is simply referred to as the man who had been blind from birth. There might be something you could do, Jesus.”
But Mary and Martha are not among the obnoxious people that think if they only shout loudly enough, then Jesus will do what they ask of him. Mary and Martha simply send him the simple message: Lord, the one you love is sick.
The late Norwegian church leader Ole Hallesby wrote a book about prayer, a book that has been translated into many languages. In this book he offers a great definition of prayer: Prayer is to let Jesus into our need. Mary and Martha are great models in this respect. They simply tell Jesus what is going on. They are not trying to dictate solutions. They trust him. He knows what he will do. And what he does will be the best solution.
So, how does Jesus respond, when people treat him nicely for a change, when they treat him with respect, like a person, not like a broken vending machine that happens to deliver its goods for free?
Jesus does nothing. He hangs around, wherever it was that he was staying at the time, for two more days. Then he finally gets around to come and see Lazarus. But when he got there Lazarus was already dead.
When you read the Gospels sometimes you get the impression: the better Jesus likes people the worse he treats them. The Syro-Phoenician woman who came to Jesus and asked him to heal her daughter is a case in point. Clearly, Jesus liked her. He said that he had never seen greater faith than hers. And, yet, he was not treating her very well. Initially, he ignored her. Then he said he could not help her and compared her to a dog. In the end he gave her what she asked, but she did not get it the easy way, as so many others. Then we have the rich young man. The gospel of Mark tells us that “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” Sounds good. The next thing you know is that Jesus tells him: “One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21.) Jesus was never that tough on anybody else. Small wonder, then, that this is the last thing we hear about this young man.
Lazarus, evidently, was one of Jesus’ closest friends. Why couldn’t Jesus have been there for him? Martha and Mary are more than a little irritated, it seems, although they are trying to contain themselves. But they just can’t help it: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
Jesus could have helped. But he didn’t. This is the painful experience both Martha and Mary had to go through. Many Christians have had the same experience since then. And it is equally painful. Why is it that the almighty God, who has all the power in heaven and on earth, who is able to help me, who has helped so many others, why is it that he chooses not to help me? What is so painful is that he chooses not to. I know he can. I have given him a detailed description of the problem, more than once, and I know he can help. But he chooses not to. Is it that he doesn’t care?
The Jesus that Martha and Mary met in this story is something of a puzzling character. He appears to care and not to care at the same time. Martha and Mary were going through the worst time of their life. Their brother got sick and died. But Jesus did not seem to care. He did not bother to get off his behind and do anything about it. They had to go through the darkest days in their life alone, without Jesus. Four days after the funeral he finally shows up. But where was he when they needed him?
At the same time he clearly did care. No story in any of the gospels tells us about Jesus’ feelings as powerfully as this one. V. 33 tells us that “when Jesus saw [Mary] weeping.. he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” Or, as one translation renders it: “a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled” (NLT).
It is expressions like this one that tell us that Jesus did not come to earth like some detached super hero, visiting our planet while he was cruising through the universe. The pain of human suffering struck him so deeply that it penetrated his soul. Jesus is a human being through and through and he identifies with human suffering through and through. He is no stranger to whatever hardship it is that we are going through. He knows what it is like to lose his best friend. He knows what it is like to come to his own, only to experience that his own did not receive him. He knows what it is like to be lonely, to be misunderstood, and ultimately rejected. He knows what it feels like to be afraid, and he knows what it is like to cry. He knows what it is to suffer loss. He feels the pain of losing someone dear and is overwhelmed by the powers of darkness and the reality of human suffering. He feels every ounce of it.
As every story about Jesus in the New Testament, the story about Lazarus also has its divine element. But that element is not that Jesus is above suffering, that he is untouched by the trivialities of human pain. Jesus is touched. He is touched to the depths of his spirit. He is deeply troubled by the suffering of Lazarus.
The divine element in the story of Lazarus is that Jesus knew ahead of time that Lazarus was going to die. And he chose to let it happen. Because that was the better way. “This sickness will not end in death,” Jesus says at first. “No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (11:4). Later on he is more direct: “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him” (11:14-15).
Jesus did never actually say that what happened was what was better for Lazarus himself. He said that it would glorify God’s Son, and he said that it would help the disciples believe. That was why it was the better way. But we never hear Jesus say that it was going to be better for Lazarus to die. What we do hear is that Jesus was deeply troubled when it happened. And he wept.
It seems to me that Jesus’ special love for Lazarus was demonstrated in how Jesus allowed him to become a part of his glorious purposes in history. In the gospel of John, Lazarus becomes the final sign of Jesus’ glory. Through his death and return to life, Lazarus announces how Jesus himself is going to be glorified by dying on a cross and by being raised on the third day. Lazarus stands in the gospel of John as the preview of the great mission that Jesus himself came to fulfill, and he is allowed to bring glory to Jesus and to help his disciples believe in him.
Just as Jesus’ own ministry involved a great deal of suffering, so did it involve a great deal of suffering for Lazarus to participate in Jesus’ own purposes. He had to spend several days in the grave, so that there were no lingering doubts about his actual death. But in his suffering, Lazarus was enabled to do what he most of all wanted, to be Jesus’ friend, not only superficially, but a friend who shared in Jesus’ mission and purpose, not to be a freeloader, but a genuine contributor in their friendship.
I don’t know if Lazarus immediately understood how his suffering was going to serve to bring glory to Jesus, but I seriously doubt it. In all likelihood, Lazarus was unable to see anything glorious about his disease. I myself have never been seriously sick, but since I moved to Ethiopia, I have been sick more frequently than I used to. And I have to tell you the truth, I can think of a few choice words for what it is like to be sick. “Glorious” is not one of those words.
There was not much glory about Lazarus either. He had been in the grave for four days. “By this time there is a bad odor,” Martha kindly informs us. No glory. A bad odor.
But where human beings see nothing but despair, Jesus reveals his glory. The death of Lazarus would show the power of Jesus and help the disciples believe.
In this story Martha becomes the spokesperson for Jesus’ followers. When Jesus finally comes to Bethany she is the first one to meet him. And she is not happy. Why hadn’t Jesus come sooner?
When she comes to Jesus with her complaints he does not censure her. He does not rebuke her for her lack of faith and for her failure to understand God’s bigger purposes. All Jesus has for her is comfort. “Your brother will rise again,” he says (11:23). And Martha answers like someone who has gone to Sunday School all her life and paid attention. “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” She knows the pious answers, too. But there are times when the pious answers do not help. Lazarus is still in the grave, and there is no Hallmark card in the whole world that is going to get him back.
I think Martha believed very much in the same way as many Christians do today. We know that we and our loved ones will rise again in the resurrection on the last day. We know that we are going to heaven when we die, and then “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4). Jesus has bought us a ticket to heaven and when we get there everything is going to be OK. It would be nice if the transportation were a little better, if he could have bought us a ticket on first class instead of this lousy coach. But after all, we should not complain, what is important is that we are getting to the right destination – I mean, consider the alternative. As long as we know that we are going to heaven we’re good.
The hope I have just described is not directly wrong, but it is not totally biblical, either. The Christian hope is not the expectation that something magic is going to happen at the end of time. We are not waiting for Jesus to finally show up one day, wave his magic wand and make everything different. The Christian hope is much more radical than that.
In response to Martha’s pious expectation of the resurrection, Jesus says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (11:25-26).
I am the resurrection and the life. Now Jesus is playing tricks with grammar. The resurrection is not an event. The resurrection is not something that is going to happen on the last day. The resurrection is a person. The resurrection is Jesus himself.
And whoever believes in Jesus already has the resurrection. Lazarus was chosen by Jesus to demonstrate this fact. He was going to come back from the grave, after four days of decay. He was going to show that there is no limit to Jesus’ power. It extends beyond death and beyond the grave. But the point was not what Jesus could do. The point was who Jesus is. Jesus is the resurrection.
Jesus wanted Martha to change her focus. He wanted her to change her focus from the last day, to the present day, and, most importantly, he wanted her to change her focus from an event to a person. He wanted her to change her focus towards Jesus himself. For the resurrection is nothing else than Jesus himself. Without Jesus there is no resurrection. But with Jesus, the resurrection is already present.
Jesus wanted Martha to change her focus. Instead of focus on heaven, he wanted her to focus on him. For heaven is nothing other than Jesus himself. Without Jesus there is no heaven. All the obnoxious people that came to Jesus in the gospels and asked him for a miracle never got to experience heaven. For heaven is not a gift that Jesus could give them and then leave. Heaven is Jesus himself. Without Jesus there is no heaven. But with Jesus, heaven is already here.
With Jesus, even death has lost its power. Anyone who believes in him will therefore live, even though they die. Whoever lives by believing in him will never die.
In his great chapter on the resurrection, Paul says it like this: When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” (1 Cor 15:54-55).
© Sigurd Grindheim