Don't cave in...

         to the death people...

Week of Sunday April 6 – Lent 5
Gospel: John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But 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.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus [lit. he] 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.’8The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9Jesus 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. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus [lit. he] had already been in the tomb for four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles [lit. 15 stadia] away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She 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.’ 29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32When 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.’33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus 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 for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I 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.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The 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.’

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place* and our nation.’ 49But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! 50You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ 51He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53So from that day on they planned to put him to death.

54 Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples.

55 Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. 56They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?’ 57Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.

A Beginning

In the beginning we are innocent. Our three year old helped his mum bury two still born kittens, and then disappeared, to return with the surviving kitten for its burial. It doesn't last: I once heard a five year old proclaim, "But I won't die!"

She had begun the long journey in which we deny death.

Quoting Ernst Becker Richard Beck says

The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it… But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one's dreams and even the most sun-filled days--that's something else.”

In short, humans are the only animals on the earth that consciously know they are approaching their death.

How do we cope with this anxiety? We cope by creating cultural worldviews that allow us to approach death via activities that take on symbolic, transcendent, and religious significance. We approach death by investing in cultural activities that give life meaning. Once we imbue life with cultural "significance" we are able to calm (or repress) our existential fears.

When this "calming" stays at the level of denial, we deny ourselves the opportunity to find new life. Our things, and our doings, blind us to new opportunities of being human; indeed, they prevent us becoming truly human. They prevent us from finding that already present dimension of reality that the Gospel of John calls "eternal life."

A successful life grows from repression to some kind of acceptance that does not need to deny our dying. But death dogs us. In our present existence many of us gain some equanimity about our inevitable dying. But like the quiet, forgotten dog under the coffee table, the fear of death can erupt into our lives as a stranger passes the window, or we find blood in the toilet bowl.

I've met with a couple of folk who were hours from death and who knew it. Both of them were inordinately cheerful; not in denial, I think, but released from the need to repress, and very close to that already present being John called eternity. How wonderful if we could enter into that being earlier in life than our death bed!

The opposite of these two people might seem to be an acquaintance who nailed down the top of a chipboard coffin with impressive haste— and then found he had nailed the corner of his coat under the lid. He cut the corner of his coat off, rather than prise up the lid.

Yet there is a worse state in which to be, I think. Something beyond the stabs of fear which slice the calming of our cultural clothing from us. That role is played in this week's text by the "Judeans," the stereotype which means not Jewish people, but the people of any time and place who are blind to Jesus; that is, maybe, us. Where John says Jews, or Judeans, (or Pharisees,) we are meant to ask, "Is this me? Am I like this?"

The Judeans [in this story] are professional mourners who were hired to come in and do the job of mourning with the family.  These Judeans are "the death people," you might say. John Petty

Human culture brings some "calming" as we face the terror and dilemma of our ending. Will we use that temporary peace to seek "peace with God," or some other acceptance of our ending, or will we simply take the way of repression and distraction? If we take the path of avoidance and repression, instead of seeking some kind of answer to our dilemma, we become death people.

As death people, we commit ourselves, perhaps innocently, to an edifice built on death from the very beginning. Locked out of the Garden, we choose Cain as our father, rather than seeking to find the Key. This cultural edifice has been built on oppression and murder since then; morally innocent animal survival of the fittest has evolved (!?) into wilful exploitation of others. Will we become human, like Lazarus, and come out of the cave, or will we stay death people, and denying our binding graveclothes, refuse to come out?

Notes to interpret the story

Weeping: Klaio is the Greek word for ritual wailing. The Judeans' weeping is described using the word klaio. Klaio might be done for someone you didn't like. It was part of the communal way of dealing with death.

Jesus' weeping is described using the word edakrusen.Edakrusen is the weeping of deep personal grief and sorrow."This is the only occurrence of dakruo ("weep") in the NT."(Nuechterlein).

When a person died in Jesus' country there could be no laying out in the cold parlours of England or the refrigerated room of a funeral home. Burial needed to happen quickly. Much of the mourning happened afterward.

Martha and Mary were doing shiva, the ritual where after the burial, the family sat and mourned in their house, receiving visitors, for seven days.

The ritual mourners who are klaio weeping are a part of this. It is about catharsis and solidarity as the community tries to make sense of death, and ward off its existential anxiety.

Gil Bailie says

such ritual wailing is dangerous. The effect of such wailing is to exploit a natural death for its cathartic potential. That is to say: to extract from a natural death the kind of catharsis that would have ordinarily come from a sacrificial death.

Memorial services, catharsis and solidarity are not bad by definition, but we should heed his warning. I first met ritual wailing in a culture where the cultic life seemed to be based on fear and the maintenance of secrecy which was used to intimidate and control. I felt the fear, even though I had all the privileges and protections of the colonising culture!

I have learned from this experience to see the same exploitation in my own culture. ANZAC Day and the veneration of the suffering of service personnel in Afghanistan are used as tools of control in Australia to pull us together, to criticise those who question the status quo, and to bolster our "defense" against boat people. How did the Dawn Service turn into an all night vigil?

The constant flow of Facebook memes of this sort from some of my wider family is akin to ritual wailing. 


It is a casting about for an enemy to scapegoat and strengthen the tribe in a time of uncertainty and fear. We will feel better if we can denounce another traitor to the cause of Australia. This is no healthy catharsis of our death fears as the certainties and affluence of Australia fail.

But Jesus simply weeps. He does not enter the wailing house of the death people.

Anger: Neuchterlein says

These verses are among the most difficult to understand in the Gospel. From the earliest patristic interpreters of this text, commentators have struggled to interpret the words about Jesus' emotions in these verses. This difficulty has even influenced the way v. 33 is translated. The differences between the NIV and the NRSV translations are instructive in this regard. The NIV translates the verb enebrimesato as "deeply moved," the NRSV as "greatly disturbed." The NIV translates the verb etaraxen as "troubled," the NRSV as "deeply moved." The two translations suggest that the verbs are synonymous and that they have to do with the depths of Jesus' compassion (esp. "deeply moved").

Yet we see

embrimaomai [from] brimaomai (to snort with anger); to have indignation on, i.e. (transitively) to blame, (intransitively) to sigh with chagrin, (specially) to sternly enjoin:--straitly charge, groan, murmur against. GNT

We seem to want to avoid Jesus being angry at the tomb. "Most translations give us that Jesus was "troubled." No, he was angry." (Bailie) By making him 'nice' and tame, we may blind ourselves to what is happening.

Perhaps he is angry that Lazrus has died. Perhaps he is angry that even Martha has only a conventional faith, and does not really see who he is. She trusts him as Lord, but still sees resurrection and eternal life as end of time events rather than something for now. Bailie claims

he has come to Bethany to have the preliminary showdown with death, and death is winning. They are going through the ritual wailing. He is angry about the grip that death has on these people, even though he is standing right there.   

He draws our attention to the first ending of John in Chapter 20. There Mary is described as wailing = klaio.  The angels in the tomb ask her ask her why are you klaio? The risen Jesus asks her why are you klaio?

Why do the ritual mourning when there is no need for it? But Bailie goes further: Jesus is saying

'Why are you wailing? Don't you see? Don't do that! Not because it's unnecessary, but because it's dangerous.'

Ritualised Mourning: Jesus was hardly standing there thinking about the theories of Rene Girard, but it does not take many funerals to see a pattern. There are those which are simply empty, holding as much emotion as the formal signing over of property to the undertakers in the presence of witnesses. There are funerals which are violent. In our time the preacher lambasts the captive audience with an abusive pretence of evangelism, or perhaps there is a Phelpsian channelling of hate through the occasion. And there are funerals where we dakruo more than klaio; where the tears are personal grief, not posturing, and the ritual is healthy and healing.

Lazarus' wailing is being done by Judeans, the mindset who wish to stone Jesus, and who, shortly, will report him so that "from that day on they planned to put him to death." (John 11:53) Stoning means they see I AM (8:15) as a sinner, opposed to God! The ritual around Lazarus' death really is being done by the "death people."

The sickness: We hear nothing from Lazarus in this story. Even resuscitated he is still blind and bound. (John 11:44) Instead we hear about him. He is mentioned by name six times; some translations clarify he with Lazarus on a couple of occasions. Lazarus means God has helped.

Lazarus is repeatedly said to be ill, five times, and then referred to as sleeping and dead. Finally the dead man comes out of the cave. We are to see him not only as the women's brother, but as a type for us; and as everyone's brother. Beginning the story with "Now a certain man…" is like saying "Once upon a time…. " The story is saying we are sick unto death.

Lazarus is a type like the man blind from birth of whom verse 37 deliberately reminds us: ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ His sickness— our sickness—  is blindness. Our blindness, which is from birth, will kill us.

If he is a type for us, then who are we? Are we sick? Are we dead? Are we bound?

We are also Martha and Mary. We confess him Lord, and then, like Martha, our vision flickers, and we go back to calling him Teacher. (11:29) And then we worship and adore him. (12:1 ff)

It tells us twice that Jesus loved Lazarus, and that he loved Mary and Martha. He also calls Lazarus his friend. Because they are everyperson, it means he loves us. (3,5,7) (Brown pp 420 notes that the word for friend is the same root as the word phileo for love. Lazarus is a beloved friend.)

Binding: The binding is not the mummification of a Hollywood movie's walking mummy. It was to prevent the limbs and jaw moving from rigor mortis. In physical terms, Lazarus could not come out of the tomb with his hands and feet bound. This would be obvious to the reader of the time; binding means something beyond wrapping.

If you had been here: Both Mary and Martha say "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." Jesus was not there for John's community. "Brothers" were dying. We will see what happens when Jesus comes back to Mary and Martha— Lazarus is raised. What does it mean that the first person he "comes back to" is one of these sisters? (John 20:16) Even in the seventh sign of his own resurrection he tells Mary not to hang on to him. (17) It is not his physical presence which counts in the end. There is another presence, another reality.

Bethany: is "the house of affliction." "House of Figs" is an error.

The Delay: Bailie alerts us to this:

Brown says that a more accurate, though admittedly puzzling, translation would be: "Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, and so he delayed two days where he was when he heard that Lazarus was ill." (Brownpp 420 The Gospel According to John.)

Real love for the brothers and sisters at Bethany is to leave no doubt of what is about to happen. Four days is important.

Four Days: According to Rabbinic theology, the body began to decompose after the third day in order to expiate, or be punished for, the sins of the dead person. There was no doubt he was dead, and no prospect of resuscitation..

The Resurrection: I am the resurrection and the life.

The power of Jesus’s message is the certainty of eternal life here and now, not there and then. Martha spoke of the resurrection as future, as ‘on the last day.’ Jesus’s response shifts to the present tense. (Sea Raven)

As in Chapter 8:58, he says, I AM. I AM is "before Abraham was." Jesus is making a claim outside and beyond the culture of the Judeans, Although they will kill him, his authority is greater than that of the death people. And he will come back.

"Come and see": This is a quotation of John 1:39 where Jesus his the first disciples.

No longer is Jesus talking with one person, either Martha or Mary, but now, when Jesus asks where "you" (plural) have laid Lazarus, "they" say "come and see."  This is ironic.  The phrase "come and see" has been used to bring people to Jesus.  Now, it is used to bring Jesus to face death.  Confronting death, sorrow, and grief directly, Jesus weeps. (John Petty)

In this Gospel we have two invitations; the invitation of Jesus to life, and the invitation of the death people. Which will we accept?

Shouting: Stoffregen notes that

Jesus' shout (kraugizo) in v. 43 gives life. The same word is used of the crowds shouting for Jesus' death (18:40; 19:6, 12, 15). (Its only other instance in John is 12:13 where the Palm Sunday crowd shouts their Hosannas.) It is in response to Jesus' word that Lazarus finds life.

 A New Beginning

We are all Lazarus, born blind. We are born into the house of the afflicted, so bound that we are dead. We are dead four days; there is no hope for us, except if we are helped by God.

Paul says that we are now the body of Christ in the world. (1 Corinthians 12:27) Who will stand at the door of the tomb and call out to the human sisters and brothers who have died while Jesus is absent. It is us. We are called to take away the stone (39) for our brothers and sisters.  We are called to unbind them.

We are the living, commanded to call "Come and see!" loud over the calls of the death people, and to unbind those who come even though they are tied down and cannot walk.

The House of the Afflicted is a short walk from the city of Jerusalem which kills the prophets. It is the city of death. Our Jerusalems are the great Capital Cities of the nations, the cities where the markets of death and slavery have taken over the Holy Place. (John 2:13ff)

These are not simply fancy words. We live in a world that kills, maims, and enslaves to shore up the lives of others; to stave off their death anxiety.. We are all a part of it, all complicit.  The very rich buy cryogenics. The rest of us buy the latest iPad or the anaesthesia of Jim Beam.

The Australian mining magnate Twiggy Forest

… started researching the slave industry. He commanded a review of all his supply chains at Fortescue and required affidavits of all suppliers that they had reviewed their own supply chains, and to his disgust found that ''three or four had trouble signing that affidavit''.

He felt ''really awful''. It led him to resign as chief executive of Fortescue, taking a position as non-executive director, and now he spends most of his time on philanthropic causes.

''It all spins off that experience really - to live a useful life you've actually got to help others.'' ...

Forrest is also pushing corporations to clean their supply chains. ''You're up against defensive chief executive and chairmanship behaviour,'' he said. At a lunch of executives of major corporations chaired by Bill Clinton last year Forrest forced most of them to admit they had slavery in their supply chains. ''Then we had a really constructive conversation,'' Forrest said, after they realised their culpability and the risk to their public image. Sydney Morning Herald

When Lazarus is able to see; that is, when we say what we see in the world of death, it will earn us no friends. It will be better to have one person die … than to have the whole nation destroyed by the division they cause. (John 11:49) To silence the Judeans who leave the people of death and trust (believe) in Jesus (John 11:45) the shouting for a scapegoat will begin.  And if they come for us then there is only one word:

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

The symbol of the resurrection is true. Even though they came for him, and the voices of death prevailed, he came back. The vision persists. Girard might say the scapegoat has been seen and can never be unseen. Life is in a new place. Easter arguments about the physicality of Jesus' resurrection miss the point.  New life is now.


Two days before he died, the admitting doctor, who seemed about 16, interviewed my 90 year old father with compassion and aplomb. To my astonishment, she spoiled it all—she was 16 after all— by suddenly turning her back on him, and whispering to us, "You will have to tell us what to do if he needs resuscitation!"

I said, "Ask him! He can tell you what he wants!"

She turned and drew breath to raise her voice for the deaf old man.

Before she could speak he said, with a well pleased smile, "If it comes to that, do what you can, but don't bother with anything special."

I thought, "You sneaky old coot! Just how deaf are you, really?" He looked like the cat who'd gotten the cream, very pleased with himself to have heard what she whispered to me. He had long ago left the death people behind. And while the dog still bursts out from under the coffee table sometimes, I begin to understand that it is only a dog.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


 From an earlier post at One Man's Web:

We in the west have profited by the burning of oil beyond measure, the raping of the seas, the hollowing of other countries mining resources, the slave labour of prisoners in China... the list is long. Slavery funded a massive industrial growth which benefited a few. We have grown up in this world. Our schools, our churches, and our comfort has rested upon the losses of other people. It is we who have used resources too quickly, who have despised the old industries based on organic material we grew, and literally burned that which we cannot re-grow. We here, are reading the screens built by the lowly paid electronics workers of whom some will go blind. Our internet runs on the copper mined from the river-killing open cuts of Ok Tedi, and the oil based optical fibres, that have supported the corrupt regimes of the middle east.

I did not ask to do this. It was happening when I was born. It will happen when I am dead. I live decently and accordingly to the law. I wish no one harm. I do not steal. But I am complicit. I have benefited for all of my life, and the benefit has increased while others starve. If I would not have let my neighbour starve in the English villages from where my forbears came, I cannot do it now. (Back)



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