by Greg Krehbiel on 18 March 2013
At mass yesterday they read parts of John 11, which is the story of the raising of Lazarus. (We weren’t on the typical reading cycle, BTW.)
I have often heard evangelists recommend the Gospel of John as a good place for people who are new to the Bible. I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. I find the Gospel of John to be incredibly odd, and yesterday’s reading highlights some of the reasons.
Lazarus gets sick and the sisters send word to Jesus, who says, “This sickness is not to end in death.” The reader probably knows the story and knows that Jesus didn’t mean “he won’t die from this sickness” but that “this sickness isn’t the end of the Lazarus story.” The disciples don’t know that.
Two days later Jesus says, “Let’s go to Judea,” and the disciples feel they have to remind Jesus of something you’d think he knew quite well, i.e., that “they were just trying to stone you there.”
You get the impression of the well-meaning secretary trying to steer the brilliant but goofy professor away from walking into the closet.
Then Jesus says, “Lazarus has fallen asleep,” by which he means that he has died. We know that, but the disciples think he means regular sleep. “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”
Do they think Jesus didn’t know that?
Try to think of this from the disciples’ point of view. Jesus says “Lazarus is asleep.” They had to figure Jesus might have been speaking figuratively, but just two days before he said the sickness wasn’t going to end in death. They’re very confused. If “sleep” doesn’t mean “death,” then … what’s the problem? He’ll wake up, won’t he?
From the disciples’ perspective, it’s as if Jesus says, “We all need to go for a long walk so we can wake up Lazarus.” The reader knows what’s going on, but the impression you get of the disciples is that they thought Jesus was the mad scientist who needed practical people to remind him of normal stuff like waking and sleeping.
Then Jesus says Lazarus is dead, which he said — or at least seemed to say — wasn’t going to happen.
The point here is clearly not that Jesus is lying, or that he doesn’t know what’s going on. Rather, the point is that it must have been very hard to know what he meant by what he was saying.
The impression I get from these interactions is that the disciples reacted to Jesus the way you might react to a mad man — either to someone who is always speaking in riddles, or to someone who is saying strange, unhinged stuff — like the crazy aunt in the attic, who also happens to be a genius and a magician.
I’m not being disrespectful to Jesus or implying that he was crazy. That’s completely not the point of the Gospel, which shows him as knowing exactly what’s going on. But it seems that the Gospel of John portrays a Jesus that his friends just couldn’t understand — one who says strange things, and whose words always seem to have some mysterious, hidden meaning to them.
I find that to be very strange.
-- 2013-03-18 » Greg Krehbiel