If you had the capacity to give life to someone, to enable them to live more fully, more vibrantly, more meaningfully – to discover what it means to be truly alive – would you do it, if you doing so would cost you your own life?
I’m reminded of a story by O. Henry that I heard long ago, of a young couple who were desperately poor but deeply in love. Both wanted to buy a Christmas gift for the other, but they had no money to do so. Finally, Della, the wife, went out and sold her beautiful long hair in order to buy her husband, Jim, a chain for his one treasure – a gold watch. When they exchanged gifts later that evening, Della discovered that Jim had sold his watch in order to buy a set of beautiful combs that Della had always wanted for her hair.
Perhaps some of the most easily quoted – but most difficult to apply – words of Christ are found in John 15:13: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends”. These were not just words for Jesus. As he received word that his friend Lazarus was sick to death, he must have realised that the time had come when he would be required to live these words, even though he was yet to share them with his disciples. Lazarus was dying, but, as the weight of the moment settled on Jesus, he could not yet go to him.
Many commentators suggest that, with the travelling times required for a messenger to get to Jesus, and for Jesus to get back to Bethany, Lazarus would have died anyway. He probably died shortly after the messenger left, and Jesus’ delay made no difference to the outcome of Lazarus’ sickness. Others see in the two sisters’ grief-stricken words to Jesus that they believed he could have arrived sooner, and it would have changed the outcome. “Lord, if only You had been here, my brother would not have died” John 11:21, 32 NLT).
The question that we struggle to answer is why Jesus delayed at all. If he somehow knew that Lazarus was dead, he was perhaps waiting until the people knew that the death was genuine and complete. Jewish custom had it that the soul would linger around the body for three days seeking to re-enter it, but once decomposition began on the fourth day, it would leave. So, perhaps Jesus simply wanted everyone to be sure that Lazarus really was dead.
Or, perhaps he was weighing the cost of what he was about to do. Perhaps this was a ‘little Gethsemane’ for Jesus – a time when he was faced with the choice. He could ignore the whole thing, grieve with the sisters and then go on his way, and know that he could probably escape the inevitable. Or, he could go to them, and give life back to Lazarus, knowing that it would be the very act that would seal his own death. In John’s Gospel it is clear that the raising of Lazarus was the moment that the religious leaders decided that Jesus had to die. Perhaps Jesus was searching his own heart to know whether he loved Lazarus enough to lay down his life for him. Perhaps his tears at the tomb, which caused bystanders to remark on how Jesus had loved Lazarus (11:35, 36) were not just for Mary and Martha, but for himself, and for what he was about to set in motion. Perhaps this was the moment he actually let go, and laid down his life.
For Martha, in a less dramatic way, a similar thing was happening. Jesus had not come, and her brother had died. She had likely lost everything – a woman without a man to protect her was vulnerable in those days and in that culture. In her grief she must have had a host of questions, of accusations, of doubts. If ever there was a legitimate reason for someone to turn their back on Jesus, this was it. Yet, Martha lays down her grief, her doubts and her anger, and even as she questions Jesus, she makes a new commitment to him. In verse 22, she affirms that she still believes God will give Jesus whatever he asks – although she clearly didn’t expect him to ask for what he ultimately did. Then, when he proclaims himself to be “the resurrection and the life”, Jesus pointedly asks Martha if she believes.
In the context of John’s Gospel, this is a powerful moment. Throughout the events that John has described up to this point there has been a recurring theme – will people believe in the miracles, or will they believe in the man? John contrasts the shallow and fickle, miracle-induced faith of the crowds, and even of Nicodemus at the start of his conversation with Jesus (John 3), with a genuine faith in the man who is being revealed as the Word made flesh. The story of the blind man (John 9) has strikingly shown how even a miracle does not necessarily lead people to believe, but how one who has been touched by Jesus can discover the truth of who he is and enter into true, life-giving faith.
But, now Martha has no miracle to draw on. Her brother is dead, and the one person who could have stopped it arrived too late. And now he asks her if she believes in him and the life he can bring. It’s a crisis moment for her. It’s a moment of choice, and of sacrifice. As she answers in the affirmative she lays down her anger at Jesus, she gives up her need for answers and guarantees, and she simply lets go – letting herself fall into a faith that offers no certainty and no promise of comfort. And in this moment, she gives up her need for life in order to encourage, to affirm and to give life to Jesus.
But, of course Lazarus is raised. In one sense this is not a resurrection at all – Lazarus will have to do it all again. He’ll have to grow old, perhaps. He’ll get sick again, perhaps. He will certainly die again. I’ve often wondered what this felt like for Lazarus. Was he pleased to have been raised? Or did he feel like the rest he had finally found was being interrupted. How did he live with knowing that because he had been given his life back Jesus had lost his? Did he even want his life back or would he have happily stayed in the tomb and let Jesus off the hook? To what extent was the taking up of his life again a sacrifice for Lazarus? How happy was he to have been the final sign which Jesus used to reveal God’s glory in himself?
Perhaps for Lazarus taking up his life was in some strange way also a laying of it down. Surely he could not have gone back to “business as usual” after this? Surely knowing he had been the cause of Jesus death, however unintentionally, placed a burden of responsibility on him that he could not easily have shaken? What little evidence history gives us indicates that Lazarus went on to become a bishop in the early church, so he certainly remained a man of faith and of calling.
Perhaps what we most learn from this story, at least in the light of the questions raised here, is that life always comes at a cost. To bring life to others costs us something of our own life. To trust another costs us something of our independence and our right to judge and accuse. To take life up and embrace it fully, costs us something of our freedom to spend it on frivolity and meaninglessness. The question is how willing we are to pay the price.
Ultimately every person will need to make a choice. Will we seek to avoid the cost of life, and give ourselves to shallow, cheap imitations? Or will we have the courage to take hold of life with all we have, paying the price to take it up and to give it to others wherever we can?