In the Gospels associated with the first two scrutinies of the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) process, the Catholic community heard the stories of the Samaritan Woman who found forgiveness in the words of Jesus and the man blind from birth, who not only gained eyesight from the touch of Jesus, but also received real vision. The third of John’s scrutiny Gospels is considered by many Jesus’ greatest miracle short of his own Resurrection. Some will indeed recall the great personal risk the Savior undertook to aid his friend Lazarus, and know that he would do the same for any who called him ‘friend.’
It was becoming a regular thing. Jesus would move freely through Judea, gathering more followers along the way, until he challenged the beliefs of the Pharisees, and more often than not, ended up fleeing before they stoned him or worse. Remember the crowd at Nazareth, where he had lived as a child, who wanted to throw him off a cliff? (Luke 4:29-30) Once again, Jesus had aroused the wrath of the Jews by speaking of his relationship to the Father, which they considered blasphemy. He had to flee for safety and left Judea altogether. Jesus returned to Galilee, to towns where he had lived, which had become central to the first believers.
Jesus was safe when word came that his friend Lazarus of Bethany was gravely ill. Jesus decided to wait two more days before returning to Judea. He explained his purpose by saying that the sickness Lazarus had would not be the final word, and that a proper time for others to see the miracle God would grant had not yet come. The apostles would have been okay with Jesus not going at all. They cautioned that death awaited him. When it became obvious that Jesus was going anyway, bold Thomas spoke up that they should all accompany the Lord, and if need be, die with him. As they left, he told them that Lazarus was dead.
The Bible gives us little information on Lazarus other than this Gospel story. He is not the same as the poor man of the same name in Luke’s Gospel, simply, because this Lazarus is not a beggar. He was, by many accounts, a land and home owner, not necessarily wealthy, but surely not poor, who was popular among his fellow Jews, as evidenced by the large number who gathered at his deathbed to mourn and to comfort his sisters Martha and Mary. Some scholars believe he was the man who Jesus told to sell all his possessions for the poor and follow him. (Matthew 19:21)
When he finally arrived in Bethany, his friend had been buried four days. Martha rushed out to meet Jesus’ entourage when she heard he was coming, and she berated Jesus for his tardiness. She quickly added that even though Lazarus wouldn’t have died if he had been there, she knew that God would give Jesus whatever he asked. When he told the woman that her brother would rise again, she told him she knew they would all see the resurrection on the last day. Jesus replied, “I AM the resurrection and the life.” He asked if she believed that those who believe in Christ even in death have eternal life, and the spirits of those who believe during their life will never die.
Satisfied in what the Lord taught her, Martha hurried home to send her sister to him, where he camped in the same place Martha met him. A large group followed Mary and was there when she berated him even more than Martha. She fell at Jesus’ feet and wept, reaffirming that Lazarus would not have died had his friend been there. Seeing her caused those who followed her to also begin weeping bitterly. Jesus was greatly saddened by their disbelief, and after asking to be taken to the tomb, began weeping himself. Some thought he was experiencing the loss, and they pointed out that Jesus loved his friend, but others scoffed that surely a man who could heal the blind could have brought relief to his sick friend.
Jesus was led to the tomb. He ordered the stone be rolled away from the entrance, to which Martha complained that decomposition had begun. Lazarus would be rotten and smelly. The Lord reminded her that he had said if she believed, she would see the glory of God. Then he began to pray. Jesus gave thanks and praise to the Father, who he knew heard his words, but he wanted to say them out loud that the people would come to know God indeed spoke to the Son.
Jesus called out, “Lazarus, come forth.”
When Lazarus walked out of the tomb, he had the same outward appearance as before. He was completely bound and covered in the custom of the day. Jesus told them to loosen his wrappings and set him free, an expression that, in itself, has been subject of several interpretations. Tradition has always been that the resurrected man appeared under the bandages as he had been prior to death, and the stench was lifted from him. None of the common Bible translations relay any such description. Lazarus may have said to Jesus, “I live. I believe,” because surely, he did.
Some of the Jews reported back to the priests what had happened, and the plot to arrest and kill Jesus was underway. For the rest of the time he had, Jesus stayed in hiding and out of reach, but Lazarus and his sisters were the last people he saw before riding into Jerusalem that last time. Lazarus was also a wanted man, because he was the evidence of Jesus’ miracle, and it was through him that many had come to believe and found life in the Lord.
Stories that surround what became of Lazarus include him traveling to France (Gaul) or Cyprus with one or both of his sisters and becoming a bishop and martyr in either location. The fact that he is only mentioned by name in John’s Gospel has been accredited to the possibility he was still alive and in danger when the earlier three Gospels were written.
As RCIA elect contemplate this Gospel story, they are asked to consider the frequent use of the words ‘friend’ and ‘love.’ Jesus is seen as both, and witnesses believed his true love for his friend…for all his friends. Another word often stated is life, and it is clear that Jesus is at the center. Perhaps more than any other Gospel story, the raising of his friend shows a human, compassionate, loving Jesus with real emotion, and it also delivers a truly Divine Jesus who would bring all the power of God to aid a friend, even one who had died in body or in spirit.
“I’m forgiven. I believe.”
“I see. I believe.”
“I live. I believe.”