Oh What of Lazarus?

One of the enduring lessons of law is not really about law at all. Rather it’s about psychology, which finds voice in some instructions to juries as they begin their deliberations, especially in criminal cases.

The instruction relates to the fact that eye-witness testimony is to be treated with great care. The human being, in the excitement of the moment, often misses important facts, and often, unbeknownst to them, mentally “fill in the blanks.” In other words, we often “see” what experience tells us we should see, rather than what is actually there.

Numerous testing of this proposition are well known. Students, sitting passively in a class are suddenly subjected to a masked person who bursts into the room and then quickly leaves. When questioned separately, a variety of “differences” between the observers always occurs.  A famous one of  a person in a gorilla suit wandering through a basketball game illustrates that people don’t always see what is there, when it is not something they “expect” to see.

I think about this sometimes when I read the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. John masterfully tells the story in great detail, weaving in and out the expectations of his disciples, the fullness of faith exampled in Martha, and the limitations of Mary’s faith.

Then, seeing all this distress, Jesus performs the miracle of miracles, he calls Lazarus from the tomb where he has lain dead for four days. Not only his disciples and Martha and Mary witness this, but also many “Jews”  who have come from Jerusalem to “sit Shiva” with the sisters.

And yet, the reading leaves off with this:

Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees to tell them what Jesus had done. (Jn 11:45 emphasis added)

Many? Isn’t this amazing? I ask you, if you witnessed such a thing, would you not believe? Yet, some did not, or at least went to the leaders in their religious community to relate what they had seen and get their opinion.

What could they have witnessed that left them in doubt? Were they confused? Were they troubled that perhaps as had been charged against Jesus before, that he was the disciple of Satan? of Beelzebub?

We cannot know of course, and if we proceed further into the discussion by the Pharisees we see that is may not have been so much about “by whose power” he did what he did, but rather the consequences of there being such a power within the community. How would Rome respond to such a one as Jesus whose power rivaled theirs?

I guess the point is, that we need to approach scripture carefully. We need to turn it upside down and inside out occasionally, if only to be careful that we  are simply reading into it what our experiences tell us “should” be there in terms of meaning and direction.

This is perhaps where biblical scholarship comes in most handy. It allows us to “see” the text through the eyes of those who were it’s first hearers. And we are forced to ask ourselves new questions.

John’s gospel was written in the 90’s of the first century, perhaps as late as 100. His gospel is quite openly anti-Jewish. Earlier gospel accounts are not nearly so. We learn that John’s community was under a lot of pressure from other Jesus’ related groups, especially those who still maintained a strong ties to the Jewish Temple.

Members of John’s community may have included elements of Samaritans, traditionally enemies of the Jews of Jerusalem. Other Jewish Christians were trying to maintain their life within the synagogue. The situation at Ephesus, where this gospel was likely written, was roiling with hostility and distrust.

Understanding this, we can look upon John’s story of the almost intentional disregard for the powers of Jesus in a very different light. I suspect very few if any of the “witnesses” to the resurrection of Lazarus failed to believe in what they had seen with their own eyes. I suspect that no one ran to “tell”.

What the authorities within the synagogue and later in the Temple thought of all these rumors of miracle resurrections is another story, one John perhaps does not know. He does however craft a story to give his people, his community, fortitude to deal with the pressures they are facing from an increasingly hostile Jewish leadership.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tim
    Apr 10, 2011 @ 17:22:44

    Oh my goodness, Sherry–it’s as if you looked over my shoulder while I battled with an (ultimately) abandoned first draft of my Lazarus post! The Gospel of John’s origins are so vital to grasping what the writer’s saying to us and I got so caught up in the history, comparisons to the synoptics, etc., I’d written way too much to make sense of it all. And here you are, making the very point I struggled with in vain. This makes me so happy!

    Understanding the political and theological influences imbedded in John is so vital to really gathering what the writer wants to show us. And it almost always comes down to your thoughts here: even when it’s incontrovertibly before our eyes, not everyone will get it; not everyone will believe; not everyone will approve. It’s the murkiness of faith that John makes abundantly clear.

    How can we possibly explain the Word made flesh, the renewal of life, the boundless compassion of a God Who sees through what we see and promises to accept everyone who comes to God? We can’t. But our inability to explain it opens the door to faith that enables us to know these things are true.

    Granted, John’s writer works overtime to mold the narrative to resonate with a community ejected from the synagogue and viewed suspiciously by many fellow believers. But oh what glorious shape the Jesus story takes in his/her strong hands!

    I’ll quit now and catch my breath. Once again, I’m astounded to open these pages and read the very same thoughts that have occupied my mind recently. That’s another mystery, isn’t it–the way God’s Spirit speaks to many of us in similar ways through God’s Word.

    Blessings, dear friend,


    • Sherry
      Apr 11, 2011 @ 13:37:03

      Oh Tim, I just love John’s gospel the most. I think it reflects in some ways a more mature understanding that any of the others. And yes, understanding the where and under what conditions it was written sheds light on what John was getting at. I am always astounded at passages that show clear cut miracles and yet people are unconvinced? lol I suspect the story has been a bit manufactured to make a point. The point is always relevant.

      I too am amazed with joy that we think along the same lines so much on these issues. We seem often to inform each other without even knowing it. It is easy to assume the Spirit is guiding us both.

      A wonderful week to come! Blessings


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