Lazarus: Part I

February 25, 2009


Mary and Martha send word to their friend because they know their brother Lazarus will die if he does not come. “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”


Mary and Martha love Lazarus.  He delights them, spoils them, and makes them laugh.  He helps them forget that they never married and have no children.  They endure the shame.  Other men treat their women like property.  Women have no voice. Silent as the earth, they are tilled and bear fruit.  They bear sons to till and daughters to be tilled.  Mary and Martha are fallow, the same as worthless. Lazarus protects their dignity.

Fear and helplessness drive out other feelings and gum up the everyday machinery of their lives. With their brother bedridden, they remain paralyzed, unable to find pleasure in the work they enjoyed before.  Mary loved pressing her palms into the bread dough and licking the honey from her fingers.  Martha loved the brief interactions with the day laborers from the community.  She asked after their wives and children and gave them a little more money than they expected.  She took them water and, sometimes, figs. 

Now, they seek distraction. Worry brings cotton-mouth, making food difficult to swallow. Their faces roughen with the salt-grit of tears.  Mary and Martha know Jesus well enough to ask him to come, and they know him well enough to think he would want to come.  If Lazarus’s illness were not threatening to take him, they would not have sent for him.  He would know that.

Jesus is a great rabbi and healer, not the country doctor sort one inconveniences with an ordinary cold or fever.  Lazarus has a killer in his body.  Maybe he got it while giving alms to the beggars on the road, maybe he ate some bad meat, or maybe an orphaned evil spirit found a new home—no way to tell. The two sisters sense death slinking around their house and rolling into their brother’s room like a fog. 

The household is as quiet as after a rain.  Mary does not speak of despair’s pull inside their bones.

They do not want a temporary solution; they want to be done with this.  Life must return to normal.  They send a good man to bring back Jesus. It will be a simple enough matter for him, saying a few words.  He does not even have to come.  He can simply utter the prayer from wherever he is and heal Lazarus.  The sisters believe Jesus is able to do this.  Even if he comes to Bethany, his power requires only a glance or a few simple ingredients for a poultice-saliva and dirt, the faith of a mustard seed. Jesus likes to touch and talk.  Even when a laugh breezes across his face, underneath the surface his spirit is quiet and deep and holy.

Jesus sends back Mary and Martha’s man with an confusing message: “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.”  Martha cannot believe this head-in-the-clouds preacher, who helps and heals so many, will hold out on his friends when they need him the most.  This is not like him.  He must sense what Lazarus means to them.  The men in their synagogue come to seek his counsel.  His sisters depend upon him for their livelihood.  If he dies, how will they manage? How will they survive? Will they diminish to subsistence, gleaning from the stubble on the edges of the fields, broken-backed and gray-haired Ruths without any allure, without a Boaz, and without a dove to sacrifice?  Jesus wouldn’t see their lives reduced to rubble, would he?  Surely, he remembers how Mary saved money, purchased a jar of perfume, and anointed his feet.  Is the man’s spiritual chicanery the thanks she gets?

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