In the lectionary this past Sunday, John 11 was the gospel text. I did not realize that most of the gospel texts for this Lenten season came from the book of John, which was interesting, only because I have been reading the book of John over the last few weeks, not even realizing that some of the signs of Jesus in John’s gospel were the focus of Lent.
As I sat and listened to my pastor work through John 11, I looked again at it, thinking about the entire narrative that John was trying to tell, which culminated ultimately in the death and resurrection of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah or King.
Just before this chapter begins, Jesus has narrowly escaped arrest by the Judeans again in the city of Jerusalem. The Judeans were the power-holders of the time, from whom the Pharisees were a part. These were the people closest to the center of political, religious, and economic power in the capital, Jerusalem. They had wanted Jesus in chapter 10 to claim to be the Messiah, or the new king, which would warrant them to arrest him and report him to the Roman authorities who would then kill him for claiming to be King rather than Caesar. However, Jesus continues to challenge them, telling them that they should look at the work that he has been doing and make the decision themselves, based on their knowledge of the scriptures. He does this because he knows that they will not relinquish their power in order to name Jesus as the coming Messiah because it would endanger them as much as him. They want to stay close to Rome so that they do not lose the working relationship that they have currently with the Roman empire. Claimed-to-be messiahs and their rebellions have already been crushed previously by the Roman empire, so the Judeans are not going to let their power be taken from them.
After Jesus narrowly escapes arrest, he goes to the wilderness on other side of the Jordan river from Jerusalem, keeping himself under the radar for the meantime from the Judeans and Pharisees, who are still on the prowl. While he is out there, messengers from his cousins, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, come to meet him and ask him to come visit them because Lazarus is sick. Jesus’s cousins are from Bethany, a village just outside of the city of Jerusalem. When the disciples hear Jesus say that they’re going back to Bethany to see his family, Thomas speaks for everyone that they may as well go and die with him because last time that they went to Jerusalem, they were nearly killed as well for being Jesus’ followers.
When they arrive there, Lazarus has been dead four days already. At that time, common knowledge was that the spirit stayed with the body for 3 days after death, and then left. Lazarus is really, really dead now, having no chance of being resurrected. Jesus first meets Martha on his way to their house. In their meeting, she is not fully understanding what Jesus is telling her about raising her brother, but she does make a radical statement by claiming that Jesus is Israel’s messiah, promised from many years before. Good thing none of the Judeans had followed her out to meet Jesus; otherwise she would have been reprimanded for her false statements and lumped in with Jesus and his followers.
She leaves her meeting with Jesus to go tell Mary that Jesus has arrived. Mary gets up right away to go see Jesus with a group of Judeans just behind her. The tension is building here because Jesus knows that he is going to encounter Judeans in this part of the country, but what conflict and fear this meeting might bring is hard to tell. When they meet, Jesus is moved by the mourning of Mary and the Judeans who have come with her, and he joins with them weeping with them. The Judeans admire his transparency, but they are critical of his appearance because they have seen the signs he has done and wonder why he couldn’t have stopped Lazarus from dying.
Jesus then moves to the tomb and raises Lazarus from the dead, much to the amazement of everyone there, including some of the Judeans, who come to believe in him as the Messiah though they were the ones who wanted to kill him in the previous chapter. Others, who are still committed to arresting and killing him, report back to the Sanhedrin, which is the overseeing group of priests and religious leaders in Jerusalem. Seeing that Jesus is a mighty man of God, who may start to gain some undue attention from the Roman authorities, the Jewish leaders decide that only by killing him will the Jewish nation be saved from utter destruction by the Roman empire. Rome could not stand to have another King, especially one coming from an area of the empire that they had had trouble with before. That is why Caiaphas, the leading chief priest says that one man must be sacrificed to save the nation. What Caiaphas doesn’t realize is that he is ironically predicting his own defeat and the saving power of God coming into play in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus on Easter. Masterfully, God works good out of the evil intentions that the ruling authorities have toward the Messiah.