Historical Cultural Context
Eyes of Faith
A recent flight across the Atlantic was enlivened by reading an article in the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians. A physician and his theologian wife argued that from a medical perspective, Jesus did not die and rise from the dead. He merely collapsed and was resuscitated. Though these authors did not extend their hypothesis further, others have said the same about Lazarus.
The often helpful insights of modern medical science forget that the story of the raising of Lazarus is a “sign” in John’s Gospel and not the medical notes of a coroner. In John’s Gospel, there are seven “signs” that are primarily intended to stir faith in Jesus (Jn 2:11). Sometimes they do the very opposite (Jn 11:47-48).
Life At Two Levels
According to the story, Lazarus has died. Martha and others believe that had he arrived on time, Jesus might have prevented Lazarus’ death or raised him up immediately. As John writes this story for his community, Martha represents that grieving community in asking the perennial question: “If Jesus gave us eternal life, why are believers still dying?” John’s story offers a challenging response.
Like other New Testament communities, that of John experienced a great crisis of faith when any believer died. If Jesus gave us eternal life, why must we still die? The evangelist therefore has added symbolic interpretations to this story of the death of Lazarus, the faithful disciple whom Jesus loved. (Jn 11:5,36)
Martha represents the community with its real but inadequate faith: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” If only Jesus had not left at his ascension, he would still be with the community and believers wouldn’t die. After all, whatever Jesus asks of the Father will be given, won’t it? (Jn 11:22)
John’s Jesus must correct this misunderstanding. He is indeed “the resurrection and the life.” (Jn 11:24) But resurrection does not mean the restoration of life to a corpse, it entails rather a transformation of life.
Moreover, the eternal life that Jesus gives his followers does not abolish death but rather transcends it. To continue to believe this firmly is the challenge posed to the survivors by each believer’s death.
Through Martha, Jesus addresses believers of all times: “Do you believe this?” Her perfect answer ought to echo through the ages: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Faith in the risen Jesus is not fully developed until it enables a believer to face physical death with the firm confidence that the present possession of eternal life is not simply a pledge of resurrection on the last day but is rather a present and continuing participation in the life of the ever-living Jesus now, at this moment. Those who believe in Jesus never truly die.
What scientifically minded Western believers must recognize in the story of Lazarus is that Martha pronounces her confession of faith as a response to Jesus who reveals himself as the resurrection and the life. Her faith does not depend upon or flow from seeing her brother raised from the dead. Proof begets knowledge; faith does not rest on proof.
The insights of our prescientific Mediterranean ancestors in the faith are like Hamlet’s humbling comment: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy [or science].” (Hamlet, act 1, scene 5, line 167)
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University