Of the 21 chapters in John’s Gospel, chapter 11 has been for decades the least interesting to me. It was its scattered quality that put me off: too many characters, most of them contributing only snippets; vignettes that seemed to go nowhere; dialogue that just didn’t connect or flow; inexplicable actions and reactions. Where was the throughline? I asked myself: the coherent theme that took shape with each succeeding verse.
As a narrative, this chapter seemed more like a script out of Theater of the Absurd, a movement that began in the late 1950s that took its cue from Existentialism, and featured works that showed the breakdown of communication and its replacement with irrational and illogical speech. It turns out, this impression was not so far from the truth: chapter 11 is about the breakdown of communication that occurs when people work exclusively from their own presumptions and complacent certainties. Unlike the works by the existentialists and the absurdists, however, this chapter not only illustrates the problem but shows the way out of it. Far from being a jumble of discord, this chapter has a tightly organized structure that showcases the dysfunction arising from human presumption; the presupposing nature that Jesus identifies with the epithet “the sickness unto death (4).”
Introduction of Theme and Characters
No time is wasted in setting up the forces at play in this narrative and the personae that represent those forces. The chapter begins:
Now a certain man was sick, named Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. (It was that Mary which anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick.) Therefore his sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick (Jn. 11:1-3).
As readers of gospel narratives may have come to expect, Jesus sets out a succinct description of the situation and its end, its telos, which is not death but is instead, the glory of God:
This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby (4).
In these opening verses, we’re told all is not well; there’s sickness in the household: that is to say, there’s sickness in the place where one dwells, and Jesus is sent for, because he is known to heal that which is not well in the place where one dwells: that is to say, Jesus heals the soul.
Mary and Martha are in close relationship with the sick one (just like the self is in close relationship with the soul!); and as such, we will see later in the chapter how each of these different “selves” responds to the Lord. (We are given some foreshadowing when we’re told early on that Mary attends to the Lord [anoints him and wipes his feet with her hair] but find no mention made of Martha.) These sisters – each in her own way – will represent a particular response to the Lord: one spiritual and the other spiritless. Interpreted, the chapter’s first few verses tell us that a soul can be sick, and Jesus called upon; yet not every manner of being will reach to and engage him.
Illustrating the Problem
We will pick up this theme of the manner of being that does – or does not – reach to Jesus after first taking a detour to examine the sickness that Jesus is called upon to heal. We’re given to see its nature: the natural human tendency to presume to know what is right and true, when, in fact, one doesn’t.
This segment starts with verse 5 and runs through 17. In these 13 verses, there are several examples of what at first glance – and perhaps at second or third glance! – appears to be confusion and absurdity. I’ll briefly list these examples, as their significance lies not so much in each one separately but in their assembly into a unit, a few of the many varied expressions of the “sickness unto death.” Look for absurdity, confusion, and presumption in these verses.
Here we go:
- Verses 5 and 6: Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When he had heard therefore that he was sick, he abode two days still in the same place where he was.
Jesus’s abiding two days in the same place after hearing Lazarus was sick seems to make no sense: Wouldn’t he want to get to Lazarus as quickly as possible? is our presumption. Look how we are implicated in presumption right from the start! A little reasoning goes a long way—too far in fact, as we’ll see confirmed later in the text.
- Verses 7-10: Then after that saith he to his disciples, Let us go into Judaea again. His disciples say unto him, Master, the Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest thou thither again? Jesus answered, Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world. But if a man walk in the night he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.
The disciples presume Jesus should consider the danger of entering Judaea. Jesus’s answer (Are there not twelve hours in the day?) seems to absurdly miss the point.
- Verses 11b- 15: Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep. Then said his disciples, Lord, if he sleep, he shall do well. Howbeit Jesus spake of his death: but they thought that he had spoken of taking of rest in sleep. Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe; nevertheless let us go unto him.
The disciples presume Lazarus sleeps, as Jesus has said so. Jesus seems to contradict himself, creating confusion.
- Verse 16: Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellow disciples. Let us also go, that we may die with him.
Thomas (Didymus), who represents being of two minds, would prefer to have the matter settled, and so presumes it is, assuring himself with a display of flamboyant resolve.
Verse 17 states a numerical fact (Then when Jesus came, he found that he had lain in the grave four days already.) and as math partakes of the absolute and certain, the numerical reference signals the end of this segment of confusion, which began in like manner with a similar numerical fact in verse 6 (…he abode two days still in the same place); this befuddling segment is hemmed in on both sides with number facts, thereby containing the apparent disorder. We’ve been given a glimpse into the miscommunication, confusion, and absurdity that characterizes our natural condition, as well as our varied attempts to corral that disorder with fact and presumption. It is our “faith” in our own faculties to control the vicissitudes of life that is “the sickness unto death.”
Nevertheless, Jesus’s words throughout this section, though seeming to contribute to the confusion, are clear and consistent. I’ll not go through all four examples one-by-one but will instead offer just one explanation: to the second example in the list (7-10):
Jesus has informed his disciples that they will go into Judaea to assist Lazarus, and they respond that there is danger there: possible stoning. Their presumption is that Jesus must assess the outward circumstances before deciding to act: are circumstances favorable? dangerous? worth the risk? Although Jesus’s answer seems to have nothing to do with their question (Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world. But if a man walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him [9 and10]), his response does answer their concern. For he is teaching that one’s actions should not derive from one’s assessment of outward circumstance, as the disciples presume, but instead from inward direction found through “the light of this world.”
The Self that Presumes and the Self that Waits
Now we can return to the theme of the manner of being that does – or does not – reach to Jesus. The next passage in the chapter (18-35) features a contrast between the opposing ways the self can function: the first, characterized by Martha, is the proud, arrogant self whose presumption fills up the self, puts itself forward, and spills out its presumptions onto others; and the second, characterized by Mary, is the humbled, empty self that waits to be given, to be filled with what she knows she does not herself possess. The distinction between the two is made immediately:
Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat still in the house (20).
Conversely, Mary comes out to meet Jesus only after first learning that she has been called:
And when she [Martha] had so said, she went her way, and called Mary her sister secretly, saying, The Master is come, and calleth for thee. As soon as she heard that, she arose quickly, and came unto him (28 and 29).
Martha “went her [own] way,” and there’s evidence of her self-direction in her encounter with Jesus, who can teach her nothing. Look how frequently she presumes, using the words “I know”:
Then said Martha unto Jesus, Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died. But I know, that even now whatsoever thou wilt ask of God, God will give it thee. Jesus saith unto her, Thy brother shall rise again. Martha saith unto him, I know that he shall rise again in the resurrection at the last day (21 – 24).
Jesus’s response (I am the resurrection, and the life…) completely glances off her, and she falls back onto her stockpiled “knowledge,” which bears no relevance to the powerful words she’s just heard. With all the assurance of ignorance, she repeats her catechism:
Yea, Lord: I believe that thou art the Christ, the Son of God, which should come into the world (27).
Although Mary’s encounter with Jesus begins with the same words her sister spoke (Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died [32, 21]), she utters these words having first fallen down at his feet (32). Her spirit is humble, as we learned early in the chapter when she was first introduced: lowly, wiping his feet with her hair (2). Unlike her sister, she doesn’t presume to be higher than she is, neither in knowledge nor in life. So low and empty of life is she that she weeps her emptiness before the Lord. And he, sensing the depth of her sorrow at loss of life, is reached, joins with her, and likewise weeps (35). It is the felt despair that – if we’re honest – comes to us in our earthly life, and does elicit the Lord’s compassionate response, his unity with us, and we feel his love.
The Prevalence of Presumption
To emphasize the prevalence of the error of presumption, we are given yet more examples. The “Jews” fare no better in this chapter than they do in the rest of this gospel. Here they as a group have a single voice, and form a kind of backdrop chorus that stands for humankind in general, repeatedly in error to the point of comic absurdity. Situated midway between the accounts of each sister’s meeting with Jesus are the Jews… presuming they know:
The Jews…when they saw Mary… went out, followed her saying, She goeth unto the grave to weep there (31).
Mary is not going to the grave but is going to find Jesus, who has called for her. Later presuming again, the Jews mistake the cause of Jesus’s tears: that he weeps out of love for Lazarus (36), rather than his sorrow and rage at the misbegotten suffering he’s sees in front of him. More presumption follows, as the Jews speak among themselves about Jesus’s supposed failure to prevent Lazarus’s death:
Could not this man, which opened the eyes of the blind, have caused that even this man should not have died? (37)
And Martha, who from the start has modelled the presumptuous mode of being, again speaks after the Lord has commanded the stone that seals the cave where Lazarus lay be taken away. She does not surprise us when she jumps in with yet another mistaken presumption, this time relying on absolute, certain mathematical fact: “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days (39).” Jesus’s gentle reminder to her goes unanswered—and likely unheeded. (Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?)
Belief versus Presumption
At key points in this chapter, Jesus has spoken of belief: he gives his reason for not immediately setting out to assist Lazarus, his intent being that his disciples might believe (15); he identifies belief as necessary for coming out of spiritual death and into life, and remaining there (25 and 26):
I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.
Belief is needed to see the glory of God (40); he states the cause for voicing his gratitude to the Father for having heard him: that his hearers might believe that he had been sent (42). Finally the story ends with our being told “many of the Jews which came to Mary [interpreted, which came to Mary’s condition], and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him (45).”
It is in verses 41 and 42 that we see the crucial distinction made between belief and presumption, which is the overriding lesson of this narrative. Jesus says:
Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. And I knew that thou hearest me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that thou hast sent me.
Verb tenses are important here as they indicate timing: past, present, or future. (This is one example of the KJV providing the necessary nuance to enable sound interpretation.) Jesus knows he has been heard by the Father—not that he will be heard, or that he is heard but that he has been heard (past tense). Whereas presumption gets out ahead of what is known; belief follows behind what has been known; belief is a result of experience, presumption the result of intellectual speculation.
The second sentence is also in the past tense: Jesus does not say, I know that thou hearest me always, but “I knew (past) that thou hearest me always.” He does not speak so that the Father will hear him, for then his speaking would be a presumption on his part; rather he knew (past) that he is heard “always.” He“said” (Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.) so that others may hear/believe that the Father has sent him (42). And surely they will have done so (future perfect!), when they too have seen (past) the power of God raise one from the dead, and having seen (past) Jesus’s part in the action, they may now believe – not presume – that he has been sent by the Father.
One becomes able to distinguish intellectual presumption from experiential belief when one has been called forth by Christ into life, as was Lazarus (43). Then setting aside the trappings of the grave and spiritual death, that is to say, setting aside presumptuous, self-affirming tendencies, we have learned to wait in emptiness of soul, in the spiritual tomb where we dwell, anticipating the freedom afforded to each of us when we have felt the decree: “Loose him, and let him go.” In that resurrection to life, we see the glory of God, and we glorify his Son whom we have known.
This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby (4).