Forgotten but not forgettable
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for April 3rd: Psalm 36:5-11; Isaiah 42:1-9; Hebrews 9:11-15; and John 12:1-11. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
A couple of Sundays ago I preached on the Johannine passage of the raising of Lazarus. The sisters Martha and Mary enter the biblical tradition independently through both the Lucan source and the Johannine source. Surprisingly, Lazarus does the same. With that said, however, most everything about these three New Testament characters is shrouded in mystery. We cannot mark where history ends and tradition begins, and it is not the best form of biblical study to conflate their different stories from different Gospels into one blended story. I assume that Martha, Mary and Lazarus were somehow important in the lifetime of Jesus and that memories of their special relationship with Him become the source-material for the biblical accounts which they inhabit.
Luke shares uniquely the story of the day Jesus visited the two sisters (10:38+). Also, Luke alone records Jesus’ parable of Lazarus and the rich man (16:19+). There is no connection between the sisters and the imaginary Lazarus in Luke, but none of these three names are ever mentioned in Matthew or Mark. They are, however, all three mentioned in John’s Gospel. Luke’s two sisters are sisters still in John, but the imaginary Lazarus of the Lucan Jesus’ parable becomes Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary, and the one Jesus raises from the dead. Something is going on here, but that something is lost to us.
From what we have in Luke and John, we can imagine that Jesus once told a parable about an anonymous rich man and a poor man named Lazarus. In Jesus’ “the first shall be last” world, the rich man’s name is ignored and the poor man’s name is remembered. Why the name Lazarus was chosen would be exciting to know, but we cannot. Was there someone near and dear to Jesus by this name? We can’t know. Maybe ten or fifteen years later John writes his Gospel and Lazarus is now a real person not a character in a parable. As in the parable, Lazarus in John’s Gospel flirts with that boundary between life and death. Is there a connection here? Possibly.
For all the glory and wonder associated with Lazarus in both cases, Lazarus himself is a rather dull character. He never speaks a word. He is much more acted upon than someone who acts. The sisters are his opposite. For the sake of brevity, in both different Gospel accounts, Martha is the one who busies herself with household tasks. In Luke, Mary sits at the feet of The Teacher as a disciple among the other disciples. In John, Mary is again at Jesus’ feet, but this time anoints them with a costly perfume, which Jesus accepts and acknowledges as preparing His body for burial. Lazarus was simply one who was at the same table.
I would like to think that these three, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, were all important in some special way to the historical Jesus, but in possibly mundane ways. Maybe they were simply friends of Jesus, a home where the tired Teacher could find rest, nourishment and companionship. When Mark and Matthew tell the story of Jesus’ anointing, it is at another’s house (Simon the leper) and the woman is left unnamed. Does John receive this tradition and alter it to the house of the sisters and to Mary’s generous act? I think so. Are these names created out of whole cloth, however? I think not. I imagine these are the actual names of people near and dear to the historical Jesus. Maybe not the anonymous woman who anointed Jesus, maybe much more pedestrian than this, but nonetheless, these three loved Jesus and were beloved by Jesus.
As we enter Holy Week, I hope we have grown closer to Jesus. I hope we are like a Martha, Mary or Lazarus, someone close to Christ even if our stories are ordinary. It’s not as important that what we did because of our faith in Jesus is remembered as extraordinary. It’s important that our faith is remembered as an ordinary, everyday, commonplace part of our lives. How wonderful it must have been for Martha, Mary and Lazarus to be the proverbially house where Jesus could just show up and be welcomed. May Lent help us to foster this familiarity with Jesus and He with us so that we may be as ordinary in our relationship with Christ. We have no idea who Martha, Mary and Lazarus were, but I think they mattered to Jesus, and really, that’s all that matters.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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