An excerpt from “Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle” by Fr. James Martin, SJ, published this month by HarperOne
As the story of the Raising of Lazarus begins (Jn 11:1-44), Jesus and his disciples are staying in a locale (still unknown) across the Jordan River, having fled Jerusalem after a threat of a stoning by some angry opponents. The New Testament scholar Brendan Byrne, SJ, in an email to me noted the importance of geography here, and in the entire narrative:
When Jesus receives news of his friend’s illness, Jesus is for the time being in what for him is “safe country,” on the east side of the Jordan River. In the wider story of the Gospel, Judea and, above all, Jerusalem has become a place of mortal danger for him. Therefore, he is putting his own life at risk if he journeys to Judea to come to the assistance of Lazarus, his friend.
As elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus does not court death. At the end of his earthly life, he accepts crucifixion only when he sees it as his Father’s will. Even in Gethsemane, the night before his execution, he initially says, “Remove this cup from me.” In other words, “I don’t want to die.”
It’s not surprising, then, that before the story of Lazarus begins, we find Jesus across the Jordan, after leaving Jerusalem, where his opponents were about to kill him. The Greek is exēlthen ek tēs cheiros autōn: literally, “he went forth from the hand of them.”
Mary and Martha need to get word to Jesus that their brother is ill. In doing so, they use a striking expression, one of the most important in the entire story.
To recover the freshness of the narrative, it helps to consider what the people in these stories didn’t say or do. We may be so used to Gospel stories that describe the words and actions of Jesus and his followers that we think what they do and say are preordained. We forget that these were real-life people, who could have said or done anything. They’re not fictional characters in a novel, play or film, with scripted lines to declaim.
In this case, let’s look at how the sisters don’t describe their brother:
The sisters don’t say, “Lazarus, your disciple, is ill.”
They don’t say, “Lazarus, our brother, is ill.”
They don’t even say, “Lazarus of Bethany is ill.”
Instead, they say something unexpected, identifying their brother in a special way for Jesus. The Greek is hon phileis asthenei : “He whom you love is ill.”
What does “he whom you love” mean? And what does it mean for us?
“He Whom You Love”
At the simplest level, hon phileis means that Jesus loved Lazarus. More precisely, it means that Mary and Martha believed that Jesus loved their brother. Lazarus was an intimate friend of Jesus.
Nearly everyone knows that Jesus chose twelve apostles. Jesus also gathered around him a larger group of disciples (72, as they are numbered in one passage). More broadly, there were the still larger and more amorphous “crowds” and “followers” who were part of his ministry. But we often forget that Jesus had friends.
The German Catholic New Testament scholar Gerhard Lohfink notes, in his book “Jesus of Nazareth,” “Nowhere is it said that Lazarus belonged among Jesus’s disciples or followers.” Rather, Lazarus was Jesus’ friend.
Some have suggested that, based on their apparent celibacy (i.e., none is described as being married in the Gospels), Mary, Martha and Lazarus were members of the Essene community, an ascetical sect that flourished around the time of Jesus. (The Essenes are generally agreed to be the source of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a group of writings from that era that were discovered in a cave in Qumran, in the West Bank, in the 20th century.) But this is debatable.
What is not debatable is that Jesus spent time — perhaps a great deal of time — at the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus in Bethany. Most likely, he visited them during trips to Jerusalem, perhaps seeking a place where he could rest, apart from the demands of his public ministry and apart from his disciples, who, according to the Gospels, could feud and quarrel with one another, in addition to failing to understand Jesus. Lohfink calls their house a “support station.”
Notice too that in their message to Jesus, the two sisters don’t even need to ask him to come to Bethany. St. Augustine, in a homily on Lazarus, notes that the mere mention of the illness was sufficient. “It is enough that You know,” says Augustine, writing of Jesus’ love for Lazarus, “for You are not one that loves and forsakes.” Then in a beautiful phrase Augustine refers to the three as “the one sick, the others sad, all of them beloved.”
Like Augustine, Byrne also believes that the way the sisters communicate with Jesus shows his affection for his friend. Martha and Mary, he writes in “Come to the Light,” a book on John’s Gospel, do not ask Jesus specifically to come. They know it is dangerous for him. Instead they simply say, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” They allow the love that they know he has for Lazarus to put pressure on him to come. “This is the first of several indications in the story of Jesus’s love for Lazarus.”
In his book “You Are Never Alone,” the bestselling Christian spiritual writer Max Lucado offers this preceptive insight about the sisters: “They appealed to the love of Jesus and stated their problem. They did not tell him how to respond. No presumption. No overreaching or underreacting. They simply wrapped their concern in a sentence and left it with Jesus. A lesson for us perhaps?”
Jesus’s Desire for Friendship
Jesus was (and is) fully human and divine, as the Christian tradition proclaims, yet we often overlook the first of what theologians call his two “natures.” As a fully human person, Jesus would have needed, desired and sought friendship. And from the evidence of his visit to the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and the way that the sisters speak to him, they — in particular, Martha — seem to have been among his closest friends.
In Luke’s Gospel, when Martha feels that her sister is not pulling her weight in what Luke calls “service” or “ministry” (diakonia), she says to Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her then to help me!” (10:38-42)
It’s a small but telling sign of their intimacy. No one else but a close friend would have spoken to Jesus so bluntly. And in the story of the Raising of Lazarus, the sisters are equally blunt, both saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” These words are often interpreted as the sisters’ profession of faith in Jesus.
Yet they also reveal two sisters expressing disappointment in their friend. These feelings — faith and disappointment — may have been felt side by side. (The expressions on their faces in the Tintoretto found at the Jesuit retreat house in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, in 2000, and now at the Reading Public Museum show a certain relief as well.)
We tend to underestimate Jesus’s need for friends. Even when thinking about the twelve apostles, we tend to imagine Jesus calling them for the eminently practical reasons of assisting in his public ministry, and for the efficient running of the future church.
Gerhard Lohfink, in “Jesus of Nazareth” suggests that the calling of the Twelve was more symbolic in nature, mirroring the number of tribes of Israel. Selecting the Twelve, Lohfink believes, was less about setting up leadership roles in the early church than representing a kind of “gathering.” If the Twelve had been significant leaders in the early church, he argues, we would have heard much more about them in the Acts of the Apostles, and the Gospels would at least have agreed on their names. Certain ones — Peter and James among them — exercised leadership roles, but not all of them.
In addition to assisting Jesus and proclaiming his message, the Twelve may have had another role: Jesus needed people to rely on. His public ministry wasn’t always public. During private times, he and his disciples would have relaxed in one another’s company, told stories and laughed. (Yes, Jesus laughed. He was human after all.) He easily could have chosen a single “assistant,” say, Peter. But he didn’t: he called a group of disciples and among them were the Twelve. And when the burden of leading his disciples became too great, he may have sought comfort and solace and fun with friends like Mary and Martha and Lazarus.
Even before his public ministry began — during his years as a boy, an adolescent and a young adult in Nazareth — Jesus would have had friends: childhood friends with whom he played; adolescent friends with whom he discussed their Jewish beliefs and practices; and young adult friends, perhaps other builders and laborers, with whom he worked constructing and repairing houses.
How could Jesus not have had friends?
Fr. James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine, consultor to the Vatican’s Dicastery for Communication, and author of numerous books, including the New York Times bestsellers “Jesus: A Pilgrimage,” “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” and “My Life with the Saints,” which Publishers Weekly named one of the best books of 2006. Fr. Martin is a frequent commentator in the national and international media, having appeared on all the major networks, and in such diverse outlets as “The Colbert Report,” NPR’s “Fresh Air,” The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Before entering the Jesuits in 1988 he graduated from the Wharton School of Business.