Lazarus in John and Luke

Many people have the idea that the Church functions according to the principle: “That which is not forbidden is compulsory.” But this is not the case. The Church has relatively few dogmatic teachings, particularly when it comes to the interpretation of a biblical text. Almost never will the Church say “Verse X or story Y means this and this only.” Typically, the Church encourages biblical students to find as many applications of the biblical text to life as can be fruitful to our spiritual lives and our union with Christ. The sole boundaries for Scriptural interpretation are always, of course, reconciliation with the rest of Scripture, the Tradition of the Church and the magisterial judgments of the Church. This typically means that there are a few things we may not suppose certain texts to mean, since the mind of Christ has already made it clear through the conciliar or papal teaching of the Church that these passages do not mean that. So, for instance, a Catholic may not suppose that “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God alone” (Mark 10:18) is a statement intended by Christ to deny His deity, since the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, has already sifted the biblical evidence and been shown that Jesus is indeed God.

But apart within these few boundaries, speculation is encouraged, so long as speculation is distinguished from the solemn teaching of the Church and is no one tries to bind the conscience of another. Indeed, one of the legitimate tasks of a theologian is to speculate and float different ideas about biblical texts in the search for greater understanding of what riches may be hidden and yet unexplored in the Deposit of Faith. I say this because what follows is precisely an example of speculative theology. Such speculation is in no way binding on Catholics, but may provide some useful ideas for meditation and further study.

The raising of Lazarus is only mentioned in John’s Gospel. As we shall discuss below, however, there is a curious parallel between this story and the synoptic Gospel tradition, particularly with Luke 16:19-31.

The first of these parallels is the odd mention, before John has told the story himself (John 12), of Mary of Bethany as the woman “who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair.” This suggests that John’s audience is very familiar with Mary, Martha and Lazarus already, either from the synoptic Gospels (particularly Luke who mentions Mary and Martha) or from having known them personally. Certainly, the information John relates in his Gospel parallels the information in Luke. Martha is again seen as the “active” sister. She gets up and hurries to Jesus when He arrives. Mary’s questions to Jesus—her tormented “Why?”—reflects the mind of the contemplative we have already glimpsed in Luke 10:38-41.

It is particularly notable that this suffering has come to this family, whom John records as the special objects of Jesus’ love. Indeed, John makes the shocking remark “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (vv. 5-6). It is the strange word “so” at the beginning of the second sentence that baffles the modern reader. We could accept “yet” or “but,” but “so” means that Christ deliberately allowed this affliction and death as a sign of special favor to Lazarus. And so He did, as He often does, permit suffering to afflict those who are His special favorites. To them, as to Lazarus, a special work of healing will be done for the one He loves so much. The supreme paradigm of this is Christ Himself, who endures the most suffering, has been exalted higher than all.

Martha’s conversation with Jesus displays the curious way in which popular Jewish belief had seen a large portion of the revelation that was given fully in Christ. Ironically, Jesus’ bitterest enemies, the Pharisees, held theological beliefs that were often quite close to Christian ones. They believed, for instance, in the resurrection on the Last Day while other Jews such as Sadducees did not. This Pharisaic belief in the general resurrection (seen in, for instance, 2 Maccabees 7) is shared by Martha and Mary. But Jesus makes this comforting, far off, and remote belief in the ultimate resurrection on the Last Day shockingly present when He says, “I am the resurrection and life.” He is saying, in effect, “I am the Last Day. I am the Apocalypse. And I am here now.” Martha’s profession of faith at this point is therefore a remarkable act of faith in Him, given the enormity of what His words mean.

In seeming contrast to this faith is her sister, Mary, who approaches to ask Jesus the simple question “Why? Where were You? Why didn’t You come?” Some modern readers think this irreverent, but the reality is that Scripture is full of holy laments. Psalms plead “How long, O Lord?” (Psalm 13); and “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1). Indeed, entire books such as Lamentations and Job wrestle with the question of why God allows terrible things to happen. It could not be otherwise if God desires to be intimate with us and to share the deepest parts of our lives. And so, like the contemplative she appears to have been, Mary naturally speaks the anguish of her soul to Jesus and He receives it (v. 32).

Perhaps the most intriguing passage is in verse 33: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” The Greek here is much more forceful than the English rendering “troubled.” It really means something more like “profoundly angry.” Which naturally leads to the question, “Angry at what”?

Attempts to answer this vary and the following suggestion is just that: a suggestion. But consider: As we have already seen, John has made repeated connections with the synoptic tradition in this story, especially with Luke. Now the interesting thing is that Luke happens to contain a story which is absolutely unique in the collection of stories told by Jesus: the story of Lazarus and the rich man. It reads as follows:

There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead’ (Luke 16:19-31).

This is unlike all of Jesus’ other parables because it is the only one where a character is named. Yet it is also not “history” because it tells a tale which doesn’t take place on earth. But it is exceedingly odd that in this one story alone—the tale of a man who dies and who is the center of a debate on whether he should be allowed to be sent back from the dead to testify to the rich man’s brothers—the character has the name of the only close friend of Jesus who ever died and came back from the dead. Even more curious is the oddly Johannine ring of the conclusion of that story: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead.” This sounds startlingly like John 5:46-47: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” So it is at least plausible that Jesus, in Luke 16:19-31, may be reflecting on a set of real circumstances and drawing a spiritual lesson from them.

If that is the case, then it would explain a great deal about Jesus’ deeply angry reaction here. For if the manner of Lazarus’ death is reflected by the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, and then it may well be a description of the miserable circumstances of Lazarus’ actual death. If so, then Jesus’ dear friend died, not by accident or mere sickness, but of culpable and even criminal neglect by wealthy members of his community who had the power to help him and did nothing, but are now hypocritically mourning. In fact some of the early Church fathers argued that this was exactly the case and identify the rich man of the parable as Simon the Pharisee (cf. Luke 7).

One final and interesting parallel to the story in Luke is the curious way in which John ends the story of the raising of Lazarus. After the dramatic climax where Lazarus comes forth from the tomb at Jesus’ summons, we are not shown crowds of people falling to worship and adore Jesus for this unmistakable proof of his divine power. Rather we are shown that the miracle provokes an immediate plot to kill Jesus. This also links back to Jesus’ citation of Psalm 82 in John 10:34-35. The “gods” (judges) to whom the Word of God has come are indeed false shepherds using their God-given power to evil ends. Yet because the Word of God has given them the office they possess, they act as true prophets, even as they condemn themselves by their rejection of Christ. This is supremely visible in Caiaphas’ true prophecy:

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death (John 11:49-53).

The “god” who has received the word is judged by his rejection of the Word. The bad shepherd can think only of killing the Good Shepherd.


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