Translation and commentary on John’s Gospel
JOHN 11: 38
Then Jesus, roused to indignation again, came to the tomb. It was a cave and a stone lay against it.
Jesus said, “Lift the stone away!”
Martha, the dead man’s sister said to him, “Lord, he already stinks, for he’s been dead four days!”
Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you trust you will see God’s splendour?”
So they lifted the stone away.
Then Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the bystanders, that they may believe that you sent me.”
After he had spoken he cried out in a great voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
And the dead man came out, bound hand and foot with grave cloths and his face wrapped in a napkin. Jesus said to them,” Loose him, and let him go.”
I described the form of this story as a sacred drama, in which all the characters, Jesus, Martha Mary and the bystanders have their words and gestures. Here the set is described as tomb with a stone closing its entrance. The Christian reader recognises this set – it’s the same as for Jesus’ resurrection story. It’s fitting therefore that it’s Jesus who commands them to ‘lift away’ the stone. The same verb in the Greek is used for him “lifting up” his eyes to God. The author wants his readers to realise that even the direction of Jesus’ gaze is a rebellion against the one dimensional view of life as closed by death: lifting your attention to God is also a way of lifting the stone that signals an end to life.
Death is presented through its consequence, the decay of the mortal body. Most English words that substitute for “stink” are euphemisms – smell and odour are used in most modern translations. I have kept the KJV ‘stinks’ for its blunt reminder of unpleasantness.
The climax of this carefully worded story is briefly but powerfully rendered, first of all by Jesus shout of command. Here Jesus comes not just to meet Lazarus, but to meet me and all humanity in the grave that awaits us all, through the event of his murder on the execution stake. Although in the Gospel’s chronology this has not yet taken place, it is in his crucifixion that Jesus comes to rescue Lazarus. His crucifixion is for this author a great shout of life, because it is Jesus’ way to the father. Mark’s terrible shout of abandonment by God is transferred here to this encounter with death, in which Jesus is victorious.
Come out, Jesus tells me, stop hiding in the place where you accept the power of death to make nonsense of life; where your mortality excuses you taking the risks that true life demands; where your worldly wisdom excludes the possibility of radical change in your life and the life of society; where inevitable loss makes love a tragedy rather than a divine comedy; where your living self is dressed in the fashions of death-
-Yes, here I am, here are you, reader, here we all are, Lazarus, called from the darkness into light but still trammelled by unnecessary bonds of mortality. We respond to the great shout but we need the help of the believing community to achieve our liberation, to realise what St Paul calls, “the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
Something like that is what the passage says, but what do I say? Do I affirm its truth in my own experience?
I think I can.
So does Jesus appear to me?
Not in any magical way surely, but I have felt in my own compromises with powers that blight life, in the timidities of my faith and practice, in the memories of things ill done and done to others’ harm, in these I have felt the strong attraction of Jesus’ recklessness, his readiness to pull the gates of hell off their hinges and let the prisoners out. Of course this feeling comes from my knowledge of the Christian tradition and the shared life of the Christian community. In one sense it is of course a product of my imagination, but I feel it also as news from nowhere, as presence, as gospel; and I call it, Jesus.