Ever since I was a little kid, I have loved stories from antiquity. The Iliad and the Odyssey, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, stories of Romulus and Remus, Thor and Loki and the frost giants, Athens and Sparta – they were my favs. I think one of the reasons I loved those tales was, they didn’t pull any punches. Helen and Paris were portrayed as flesh and blood lovers, Menelaus was a raging cuckolded husband, Odysseus was a crafty and cunning warrior. To my young mind they were real.
Contrast that with the flannel board Bible stories I heard in Sunday School. Noah and the ark were made of felt. David might have slain Goliath, but I don’t remember any blood being spilled. Adam and Eve were always strategically placed to cover their unmentionables. In short, those magnificent tales from the ancient Middle East were reduced to two-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, devoid of passion, emotion, danger or suspense. No wonder it was more fun to read about the 300 Spartans than the 12 Disciples.
Perhaps that is one reason I enjoyed Sister of Lazarus: Beauty Unveiled so much. Author Paula K. Parker took the familiar Biblical characters of Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead, along with his two sisters Mary and Martha, off the flannel board and dressed them in flesh and bone. She set them in a real world of sweat and dust and political unrest and religious zeal. And she didn’t try to preach. Instead, she simply told a story of what might have been.
Even though Lazarus and his sisters are among the most prominent New Testament characters after Jesus and his disciples, there really isn’t that much detail about their lives recorded in scripture. And even though I have a bachelor’s degree in Bible, I can’t say I’m all that familiar with everyday life in Judea during the time of the Caesars. That’s where Ms. Parker’s narrative really shines. She talks about the marketplace, the daily routine, the customs and fashions and local gossip of the day as if she actually experienced it. And the family dynamics of this First Century Jewish family are as real and intricate as any modern family.
Martha is a natural manager but she is nothing to look at, and she knows it. Mary is a natural beauty, but she can’t boil water without burning it, and she knows it. Sparks fly between the two more often than not, and poor Lazarus is stuck in the middle with the job of peacemaker, and he knows it. They are a functional, if somewhat dysfunctional, family – just like most modern families – that pull together during the hard times, rejoice together doing the good times and fuss and feud the rest of the time.
Contemporary sermons tend to focus on the event of Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet while Martha served, getting her nose bent out of shape in the process. Those sermons typically end with the question: “Are you a Mary, or a Martha?” with the obvious indication that being Martha is bad while being Mary is good. Ms. Parker’s tale sets that notion on its head, although I won’t spoil the scene for you. It’s too much fun to read for yourself.
Bottom line: Sisters of Lazarus: Beauty Unveiled is classic Biblical fiction, right up there with The Robe, Quo Vadis, Two From Galilee and Ben-Hur.