church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

It is a wonderful thing to know the Scriptures well, but there is a drawback:  since we know how all the stories end, we can miss the drama inherent in the narrative.  For example, In Luke 7:11f we can read about the grief of the widow of Nain, but since we know that her son’s death will end in his resurrection before he can be buried, we can skip too quickly from her sorrow to the happy ending and miss how terrible that grief must have been for her. 

       It is the same with the story of Lazarus.  Lazarus was the long time (and possibly boyhood) friend of Jesus, and He had been close to him and his two sisters Martha and Mary for many years.  Jesus’ life had been in danger down in Judea, where they tried to stone Him for what they perceived to be blasphemously claiming divinity, and so He made a strategic withdrawal to comparative safety beyond the Jordan River.  Lazarus and his sisters, however, lived in Bethany in Judea, well within the danger zone Jesus had just fled.

       As the Passover drew near, Lazarus grew sick—so sick, in fact, that his death seemed imminent.  His sisters therefore sent word to Jesus to come and heal him.  When the request reached Jesus He saw in Lazarus’ plight and its timing the hand of the Father:  raising Lazarus from the dead so close to Passover would surely provide everyone in Jerusalem with irrefutable proof of His Messiahship and would glorify the Father.  That was why, not despite His love for the family but because of His love for the family, He did not immediately go to them in Bethany.  Rather, when He heard that Lazarus’ death seemed imminent, He stayed two days longer in the place where He was and only after that began the journey to Bethany.

       When He finally arrived, Lazarus had been dead and buried for four days, since in that climate burial occurred on the day of death.  In other words, Lazarus had begun to rot and decompose, with the usual accompanying stench.  When He arrived and met the sisters, each had the same message for Him:  “If You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32).  It was the first thing they said to Him—not “Hello”, or “How are You?” or “How was your trip across the Jordan?”  No:  “If You had been here, my brother would not have died”.  It was not so much an observation as an accusation, and it came from hearts seething with suppressed anger.  How could He have treated them like this?  How could He have let them down in their hour of need?  Lazarus was not just another anonymous person like the multitudes of others He healed—he was His friend, “he whom You love” (John 11:3).  Jesus’ behaviour was inexplicable.  Under their hot grief, a cold anger lingered—unexpressed, but desperate and real nonetheless.

       We know, of course, how the story ends—with the joy of a resurrection and restoration that eclipsed any joy of timely healing.  Lazarus was given the gift of being the instrument for the glory of God and of His Messiah.  The timing of the miracle—not just a restoration of life after death, but the working backward of the physical processes of decomposition, a foretaste of the final resurrection—would set Jerusalem aflame in the days to come and provide a tumultuous and triumphant welcome for Jesus there. 

But all this was in the future.  Martha and Mary knew none of what was to come.  All they knew was disappointment and despair.  Jesus had let them down, proving all their love for Him displaced.  They could not foresee the stone rolled back, the cry of command, the restoration of Lazarus’ flesh and his exit from the tomb.  All they could do was trust in Jesus’ love in the absence of all evidence.

       Eventually everyone comes to sojourn in Bethany, as we stand with broken heart beside Martha and Mary, wondering wordlessly how God could have let us down.  We look around a universe swept clean of His presence, and think that all His promises have proved false and hollow.  Like Martha and Mary in that terrible hour, all we can do is trust.

       That is how we win our crowns.  It is no use saying we will trust God when have proof before us of His kindness and love.   That is not trust, but mere observation.  Trust is only possible—and praiseworthy—when offered in the absence of proof and in the teeth of evidence to the contrary.  In the end—either in this life or the next—God will prove Himself abundantly, wiping away all tears, answering all questions, and bestowing rewards for all who continued to trust Him in the dark.  For now, He calls us to trust Him.  As the family in Bethany discovered to their surprise and joy, grief endured for the sake of God ends with a shout of triumph, an unexpected feast, and an empty tomb.



Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.