Two remarkable women…
We know that Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, were faithful disciples of Jesus. They are generally assumed to be the same Martha and Mary who turn up in Luke 10, each serving the Lord in her own way, and each slightly resentful of the other.
They are both remarkable women. In the story from Luke, Mary sits at the feet of the Lord, listening to him speak. In first century Palestine, this is a typically male role – the more so since she does it while Martha is running around "burdened with much serving". We might imagine that, as well as incurring her sister's anger, she experienced a certain amount of resentment from men who were uncomfortable with her intrusion into what was normally the men-only club of those who discuss the Law.
And the Martha in this story is equally remarkable; she is the same Martha who poured out ointment worth a year's wages for many onto the feet of Jesus.
This story hints at at least part of the reason for their relative freedom to defy convention and public opinion. They live with their brother Lazarus, which strongly suggests that they are both unmarried.
But now the risk involved in that path is frighteningly clear to Mary and Martha. Their brother Lazarus is dying. Without a man in the household, the women will be vulnerable to poverty and exploitation. Lazarus is not only a beloved brother, but is also the closest thing to Centrelink that Mary and Martha have, and he is dying.
Out of the depths I call to you…
Out of the depths they called to Jesus. It's no coincidence that the Psalm which will accompany this gospel on Sunday is Psalm 130 – "Out of the depths I call to you, Lord!" They called on Jesus as one who loves Lazarus, and who loves them.
But Jesus doesn't come. He doesn't come to be with his beloved friend as he lies dying; he doesn't come to honour his friend by being present at his funeral; he doesn't come to console or support Martha and Mary. He doesn't come for days.
When they get word that Jesus is finally on his way, Martha impetuously and angrily runs to meet him – conduct that would have been scandalous, even dangerous, for a lone woman. She comes running to Jesus in her grief and anger. "Why the hell weren't you here?", is basically what she says. "You could have saved him!"
If nothing else, her story tells us that being faithful to Jesus is no guarantee against pain and tragedy. There is no one on earth whose righteousness, wisdom, hard work, or good planning will protect Martha from what she now suffers. Good people become widows and orphans. It's a fact, and no less of a fact for Jesus' coming.
But there is something else in this encounter. We can cry to God from the depths. There is no depth, no loss, no tragedy, no disease or death, nothing in heaven or on earth that can place the world or anyone in it beyond God's redemption. Good people become widows and orphans, but God defends the widow and the orphan, and will not leave those He loves bereft.
There's anger in this story. Not just the suppressed anger of Martha and, a few minutes later, of Mary when she, too, speaks to Jesus, and makes the same reproach. Jesus is angry too; the gospel tells us that "Jesus wept", but the Greek word here indicates angry tears, not sad tears. We're not told explicitly what he was angry about, but he deals with his anger by insisting on being brought to the tomb, where he raises Lazarus. It's not unreasonable to think that what angers him is the painful, pointless reality of death and of grief.
God's response to our grief and anger and pain and loss is real…
It's an earthy story; as well as the grief and the pain and the anger, there are lots of physical details; the heaviness of the stone sealing the tomb is emphasised, as is the stench of four-day old corpses in a warm climate. The point is that God's response to our grief and anger and pain and loss is real. It may not always be an immediate physical resurrection, as in the case of Lazarus; in fact, we know it isn't, and so did the original audience for the Gospel of John. But the "life to the full" which Jesus wants us to have is not some ethereal, long-postponed, in-the-next-world fantasy; it is supposed to be here and now and forever. The story of the raising of Lazarus revolves around the central claim of Jesus in verses 25 and 26; "I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in me, even though that person dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die." And the raising of Lazarus which follows is a sign which points, not to an end to pain and grief and loss, but to the reality of the life that Jesus promises.
When we cry out from the depths, God hears. When Jesus seems slow in coming, he is still coming. And if we worry that it is too late, Jesus shows that it is never too late. After we are convinced that all is lost, when we are ready to give up and accept death and are seeking only to contain the damage or bury it, Jesus shows that no person, and no situation, is beyond God's redemption, beyond the reach of infinite love and abundant life.
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