The biblical account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is a prominent source of teaching regarding faith and hope in Christianity. Christians believe this miracle happened, as did Jesus rising from the dead (the resurrection). As the centuries pass, there is a reductionist tendency to focus on Christ’s moral teachings rather than the miracles performed.
From my point of view, there are two legitimate reasons for this tendency, including pragmaticism and utility. There is also grave danger.
When it comes to miracles, the theological debate on early Christian writings and the origins and style of the writers often have conflictual interpretations regarding if an account was a “literal” representation of history or a “figurative” used as a literary device for teaching.
The figurative camp would probably do a deep dive into what we know about Death today through science. The biblical story accounts for concerns regarding the “stench” of Death as Lazarus had already been dead four days when Jesus commanded the stone be removed from the cave that held Lazarus’s body. We know scientifically today that Lazurus’s body would already have experienced rigor mortis through Autolysis and entered into the bloating stage caused by the gases that would have caused the Stench that Martha mentioned in this gospel. We do not get any information on this from the biblical account other than Lazurs rose and Jesus commanded people to unbind him from the stips of cloth that covered his face and body.
The literal camp would discount this objection pointing to lack of detail. The original authors did not see the importance of going into Christ’s ability to restore Lazarus whole and undue the damage done by the natural process of a human body decaying.
Religious leaders and scholars have come to recognize that the mysteries in the bible and the theological debates and interpretations required do not neatly fit into 45-minute sermons on Sunday. Pragmatically speaking, it is just easier to preach what Christ wanted us to learn from this account.
Hopefully, Scripture and religion teach humanity to live holy lives aligned with God’s intentions. For Christianity, that teaching includes for all Christians to try to imitate the life of Christ in all they do. This biblical Scripture does not encourage me to try to imitate Christ and go out and raise the dead. I have not meant anyone who can raise the dead – irreversible cessation of all brain functions, no heartbeat, no bodily functions, and in the ground for four days. There have to be other valuable teachings coming from this Scripture for it to be included in Scripture and hold such a prominent place.
In my experience, this is a significant flaw in most organized religions. There is an over-reliance on the institutions of religion and “recipe” spirituality. When this happens, churches risk becoming mausoleums of dead faith and hypocrisy.
There is a danger to using Pragtamism and Utility unless the audience understands pragmaticism and utilitarianism implied in the teachings. The audience is expected to be aware of the more profound theological mysticism and unknowns underlying the teaching. Any Sunday teachings are a starting point for contemplation, evaluation, discernment, and action.
If you have ever messed up putting together an Ikea purchase by intuition rather than by reading the instruction manual, you know what I mean. Almost all manuals start with verifying you have everything you need to start the project. How many of us start building anyway, assuming all the parts are included? And some manuals are just mystifying!
We have greater individual accountability to the God of our understanding and to each other individually than we do to our chosen church. The same applies to our political affiliations as well. We have to be intellectually and spiritually mature to be of any use during times of great suffering and misery. That requires tools, experience, wisdom, and knowledge. All too often we enter into a crisis without all the tools needed to be part of the solution.
Believers leaving the sermons with a bit of knowledge and a genuine religious fervor ignited by well-meaning priests can be set up for a great fall from grace. Pause, breathe, think, discern…before you speak or act.
Returning to Lazarus:
Is Jesus Christ teaching me here about dealing with Death now while I am alive or teaching about life after Death? You can ask this question of almost any teaching in the Christian bible and come up with different answers each time. It is like the vase optical illusion; do you see a vase of two faces?
It depends on where you are and what you are looking for in the picture! Today, I am looking at Death and destruction in Ukraine. Tomorrow I may be facing Death closer to my home or my eternal dirt bed.
Ukraine and Russia:
Roughly 200 have died and over 1000 wounded in the bloody conflict between Ukraine and Russia. I believe this must be an undercount. The story of Lazurus teaches me a few things about Death, suffering, and supporting those experiencing it:
- Sorrowful: Jesus did not rush in and fix things. He took time to weep with the family on arrival. He experienced loss as they experienced loss (35: Jesus began to weep). The passages describe Jesus as greatly disturbed. He was sorrowful with them. Jesus had what they did not have, a divine understanding of something greater than our human lives, but he was able to put himself in the griever’s shoes and knew such confidence was not possible for Mary, Martha, and other grievers. He was with them in real-time. He also set a message for eternal time here that Death has been conquered in him. Through Lazarus’s raising and his eventual resurrection, he gives us hope that Death is not the final chapter. We do not have the power to give this promise with certainty to freshly grieving someone. In time, we may give hope in eternal life, but right now, we are in real-time dealing with pain, suffering, and Death. I am sorrowful for the people in harm’s way in Ukraine today. These foreign people may not share my faith and belief. Even if they did – the reality of war may evoke a spiritual crisis. Now is the time for healing and support, not evangelization.
- Hope: Both Mary and Martha attacked Jesus for not coming sooner. He understood their anger and frustration. Lacking Jesus’ ability to raise the dead, I must understand and help when I can, burden the weight of rage and anger caused by great misery and suffering. If we were Jesus, we would be looking for the opportunity to bring peace and healing, hope and consolation. We may or may not have any responsibility for the war in Ukraine. Hope is a Christian virtue. We hope and pray for better outcomes in Ukraine. We must also act as well to make that a reality. Shy of raising the dead as Jesus did, what can I do from the other side of the world? I can pray, write, and give financial support. This hope is here and now, present day.
- Faith: My faith nourishes me to make sense of the impossible, to have hope in the future, and to serve others. I have only a few resources and glimpses of certainty in my God that propels me to live a holier life. This humbleness protects me from the grave dangers I mentioned above while still nudging me forward to try and be a beacon of light and hope for others.
Today, I pray with great sorrows in my heart for the people of Ukraine and Russia living through war and loss of life. I pray for and support relief and hope now for a greater future for all those that survive and for eternal life for those whose lives have been prematurely ended.
I know my prayers and financial contribution are but a whisper in the sounds of eternal time. I might whisper countless others to alter the course of history toward a more peaceful and harmonious planet. Shy of miraculous and heroic capabilities I am left to pragmatic and utilitarian actions! The mystery of eternity and after-life can wait another day for me or many, many days if it is God’s will.
Charity of the day: Catholic Relief Services
Remember Ukraine in your prayers today.