Dispatch Fifty-Six

Posted: January 18, 2014 in Fourteenth Bundle
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JOHN 11:1-44

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Near the beginning of the Fourth Gospel, the author refers to Jesus’ miracle of changing water to wine as “the first of his signs” – thus tipping us off at the start that the miraculous deeds related in his Gospel are intended for the reader’s interpretation rather than astonishment. As examples of hagiography – stories told of a hero, saint, or savior by his or her disciples and followers – the New Testament Gospels are not concerned with reporting facts, so much as they are with representing what they understand as the “essence of Jesus” and persuading our belief in what he means.

We need to careful, then, not to diminish the Gospels – and the entire Bible for that matter – by reducing them to mere factual reports or even eye-witness accounts. We are dealing here with mythic literature, which means that much more is going on than what might be described on the page, miracle or not. Even a so-called miracle is merely a surface event intended by the storyteller not just to impress us but to open a view into deeper truth and, we might say, more reality.

Throughout the narrative of this Gospel, the author describes seven such “signs” that we are supposed to look through to grasp his meaning of Jesus. These seven signs are arranged in a very deliberate order, not according to their linear sequence but upon a narrative structure known as “chiastic” (often shaped like an ‘X’, the Greek letter Chi). In this case, the first sign makes a pair with the seventh sign, the second sign with the sixth one, and so on until the center is reached, which is where the “main point” of the structure is located.

The raising of Lazarus from the dead lines up with the sign where Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding party. In that miracle, Jesus orders six very large empty jars, the kind used to hold water for the rinsing and ritual washing of guests’ hands and feet upon entering a house, to be filled with water. He then tells the steward to ladle a cup of the water and bring it to the party host, by which time it has changed into wine. The opposition playing out here is between water and wine, social convention and spiritual transformation, ritual washing and internal change – what we might today name “religion” and “spirituality.” The Gospel writer’s message is that Jesus has freed us from conformity and obligation, bringing us joy and new life instead.

In the acrostic structure of the larger narrative, the raising of Lazarus stands as “complementary opposite” to this water-to-wine miracle. Again we have an outer-to-inner dynamic going on, as the dead body of Lazarus is filled with life again. The “bound” once-dead man is liberated from his bandages and given back his life.

As signs, these stories are pointing to the essence of Jesus (according to this author), which is his power to give joy, life, hope and new meaning to those who are empty and dead inside.

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