Translation and commentary on John’s Gospel
Now a man was ill, a certain Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, the man you love is ill.”
But when Jesus heard this, he said, “This illness will not lead to death but to the honour of God, so that God’s son may be honoured through it.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, so when he heard that Lazarus was ill he remained two days more in the place where he was. Then afterwards he said to the disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.”
The disciples said to him, “Master, the Judeans were just now trying to stone you and you’re going back there!”
Jesus answered, “There are twelve hours in the day, aren’t there? If you walk in the day you don’t stumble because you can see the light of this world. But if you walk in the night, you stumble because the light is not in you.”
After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep but I’m going to waken him up.”
The disciples said to him, “Lord if he has fallen asleep he will get better.”
In fact Jesus had spoken of his death but they thought he meant resting in sleep. Then Jesus told them bluntly, “Lazarus is dead; and I’m glad for your sake that I wasn’t there, so that you may trust me. But let’s go to him.”
At this Thomas called the Twin said to his fellow disciples, “Let’s go too, so that we can die with him!”
This first part of the story of Jesus’ raising Lazarus from death is meant to supply the reader with clues to the meaning of the story as a whole.
John assumes that Martha and Mary are known to the readers as part of the gospel tradition. In doing so he identifies the unnamed woman of Luke 7, the unnamed woman of Mark 14 who anointed Jesus in Bethany and the Mary whose sister is Martha as one and the same. Lazarus is tacked on as a brother of Martha and Mary who is otherwise unknown, although if indeed he was raised from death, he would have been the famous member of the family. This is perhaps a hint that this story is not to be read literally.
The emphasis on Jesus’ love for this family is also unusual. Is the reader meant to think he loves them more than his disciples? I think not, but that rather we should take the emphasis as an expression of Jesus’ love for “his own” for the people who are drawn to him in trust. Then comes a very strange phrase:
“so when Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill he remained two more days in the place where he was.”
His love leads him to delay? Notice the logic of the storyteller: it’s OK for Jesus to leave him to his death since God’s honour will be increased when Jesus raises him from death. This poor man has to go through death in order that God can be honoured – and then he can look forward to dying again sometime! It is difficult to make such a story seem positive or even credible – unless the narrator is presenting Jesus as God himself on earth. I think he is doing so, and in such a way that the particulars of the story model the whole story of God’s salvation in Jesus, namely that He comes to rescue a humanity subject to death. He does not prevent death but comes to the place of death to rescue those he loves. This greater story is the reason why the Lazarus story seems unrealistic in its own terms: the author is more concerned with the whole gospel than with making his human story convincing.
The words of Thomas remind the reader that in order to bring eternal life Jesus comes into a place of danger and death.