Lazarus: The Essential Bit-Part Actor
I don’t know how many of you are fans of criminal dramas on TV, but most people are familiar with the Law and Order series. There is one part in just about every episode of Law and Order that strikes me as kind of funny, but when you think about it it’s rather necessary. I’m talking about the poor actor who has to play the role of the dead body, the corpse at the beginning of a Law and Order episode. You can actually see them listed in the credits. Sometimes the corpse has a name, and other times the actor is simply credited as “dead man in alley” or “murdered woman at bordello”.
There was actually an article in the Wall Street Journal a few years ago written by a woman who sometimes play that role. She said that at filming, the director would yell something like, “Corpses, hold your breath… And, action!” The woman described having been slumped in a chair on a Hollywood set for hours covered in a gooey mix of corn syrup and medical latex made to look like a messy chest wound. The name of the Wall Street Journal article was “Working stiffs: playing dead on TV can keep a career on life support.”
I don’t know exactly what made me think of this when writing the sermon for the Lazarus story today except that I have a strange mind and the fact that Lazarus, whose name often is the label for this particular event in John’s Gospel, actually has the bit part. He doesn’t speak. In fact, Lazarus never speaks, because the next time we see him he is overshadowed by his sister Martha bickering with Mary and complaining about kitchen duty.
In stories like the raising of Lazarus, I think it is interesting to read the story from the perspective of various characters. What would it be like to be Mary and Martha in this story of the raising of their brother from the dead? What would it be like to be Jesus? What would like to be the silent but essential Lazarus? The disciples? Part of the crowd who was following Jesus?
The story of the raising of Lazarus is certainly about the raising of Lazarus, but in many ways, he is not the central character of the story. It is, after all the dialogue with his sisters that is central to the theological themes of the story, and coupled with the words and actions of Jesus it is the culmination of a series of seven stories in John’s Gospel known by some as the seven signs in John’s Gospel. In fact, the “miracles” in John’s Gospel are often spoken of as signs, in large part because the symbolism of the event overshadows its historical or narrative relevance. There are seven signs in John’s Gospel. Only the feeding of the 5000 is found in the other Gospels.
For purposes of looking at the raising of Lazarus I’m going to give the actor with the bit part a little more attention today, because what is said about him and done about him is really pivotal to the progression and narrative of John’s highly symbolic and theological Gospel.
Despite the fact that he says nothing, Lazarus serves a number of instructive purposes in this detailed narrative, beginning with his name. This is not the first time we have seen the name Lazarus in Scripture. You will recall that in another story a man named Lazarus dies and goes to heaven while those who ignored his poverty and hunger on earth suffer in hell. This is not the same Lazarus. The name Lazarus is the Latin derivation of the Hebrew, ‘el Azar”, which means “God is my help”. So even the name of Lazarus has meaning.
The death of Lazarus shows us the importance of this dead man and his family to Jesus, and it serves a purpose in the identity of Jesus. From very early on, the chief critique of John’s Gospel is that it overemphasized the divinity of Jesus Christ and underplays his humanity. After all, this is the gospel that begins with what some call the “hymn of the word”. The word was with God; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The word always was. Jesus, the light of the world who had always existed, and who was synonymous with the one who created all things from the beginning. The relationship with Lazarus serves as a mitigation of the alleged over-divinization of Jesus.
Jesus is obviously close to this man and his family. He is grieved by the death of Lazarus. In all of the translations of the Bible that we grew up with, his reaction to the death of his friend is the shortest verse of the Bible. “Jesus wept.” This translation says that Jesus began to weep, and I cannot for the life of me figure out why the editors of the NSRV needed to add two more words. Jesus wept. He loved. Jesus, the human being, understood human relationships and human love and human grief, and could experience the full range of human emotions. Jesus does not deny his divinity in John, but here is his humanity distinctly peeking through. Lazarus has fulfilled his first purpose for us today by making Jesus look darned human.
The occasion of the death of their brother leads to a deeply theological and eschatological conversation between Martha, Mary, and Jesus. They profess their faith that they have come to believe that he is the one who was meant to come and exhibit power over life and death. The Christ. The conversation started, quite frankly, with the sisters sounding a little regretful that Jesus took his time getting there, because they knew that he could heal their brother. Now, their faith is what they rely on, because Lazarus is dead. Yet, they persevere in their belief, and their profession of faith identifies and clarifies who Jesus is for them and for us: resurrection and life. Lazarus, the bit part actor, the object of such deep theological introspection and exposition. Indeed, his death is no bit part at all, for it serves to open up this discussion about the very nature of Jesus.
Jesus goes to the tomb and commands that the stone be taken away. Sound familiar? Well, that will happen again, except that the next time a stone is removed from the tomb, it will be the empty tomb of Jesus. The raising of Lazarus points us in the direction of the resurrection of Jesus. Behind that stone is our bit part actor, waiting to make his entrance, and even that stone is significant.
And now Lazarus gets his moment to appear when Jesus shouts, “Lazarus, come out!”. His hands and feet are bound with strips of cloth as would be the custom in that day, and even his face is wrapped. And Jesus utters a command that I have always found striking when he tells his friends, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Lazarus is bound. He is not only dead; he is bound. This story of his being raised from the dead is not complete until he is unbound. This dramatic moment of unwrapping and unbinding this character Lazarus reminds us of how wrapped up in death we become.
Despite all of my belief and hope in the risen Christ (at least that’s what I profess), how many times have I either bound myself up or allowed myself to be bound up in my fears, and in the learned hopelessness or helplessness that at times surrounds me in this world in which we live. To be people of the resurrection, to be people raised by the power of God in Christ, means to be unbound. This act symbolizes not only resurrection, but the freedom that it gives us. We need not be bound or held down, we need not suffer the restraint that hides hope from us, because day after day we are given this opportunity to step out of the dark cave and into the light of life and truth.
We pause here for a moment to look back at our first reading today from Ezekiel, that marvelous story of the dry bones, a vision of the nature of resurrection and rebirth. For this, we go back for a moment to the narrative and the discussion between Jesus and the sisters. After all, they are freaked out that Lazarus has been dead for four days. He is not just a dead man. He is a corpse, a rotting lifeless corpse. Lazarus is a dead body, and his death is not a momentary incident that is the occasion of CPR. Rather, like the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision, his death begs the question, “can these bones live?”
The Hebrew Bible is largely silent regarding any Blessed afterlife for the dead, but this earliest appearance in the Bible of what became a central belief for Jews and Christians, the resurrection of the body, is not unlike the raising of Lazarus, in so far as at the time he is raised his body has begun to fall apart. In the institutes of the Christian religion by John Calvin, he reminds us that, “for a body to be resuscitated long after it is begun to decompose, that is the miracle”.
This God who can create human beings out of dust can reassemble and reinvigorate our broken pieces and make us whole. Resurrection of the dead is a restoration of our broken and deteriorated condition. And we come to believe that only God can put those pieces together. So even Lazarus, the decomposing corpse – yikes, talk about a bit part – has a role to play in our understanding of life after death in Christ.
Now that we’ve looked backwards toward Ezekiel, let’s take the liberty of moving forward in John just a little bit, and Lazarus appears once more. Once again, he is silent. After all, with the drama of Martha and Mary in the kitchen, who can get a word in edgewise? Jesus is at their home for dinner. Martha is kvetching about the kitchen work, and Mary chooses to engage Jesus in a more meditative and worshipful moment. The crowds have formed and follow Jesus since the raising of Lazarus, and they are not far away. And now, the resurrection of Lazarus has the religious leaders frightened that they will lose power. And so, in the story, they actually entertain the possibility of murdering Lazarus in the hopes that this popularity of Jesus will go away. And in their plotting to kill Lazarus, we are reminded that even resurrection is a risky business. In the need to hang onto power, these leaders would choose death over life. Being a people of the resurrection does not always mean that we are safe. It means that we are unbound in a world that is good at binding people up.
This week we celebrate the martyrdom of Martin Luther King, Jr. Need I say more about the cost of raising up and unbinding?
We live among nations that cling to power, not by inventing ways to live better, but rather by coming up with more effective means of killing other human beings. Ours is not always a world that values life over death. The very presence of Lazarus who says nothing, who plays this bit part, is the occasion for our reflection on the very struggle between life and death and our role in it as people who follow Jesus.
In those moments when the greedy and death-dealing world around us can get us down, we become Martha whom Jesus asked, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” This resurrection and life is supremacy over death itself. The raising of Lazarus signifies that God’s promises are here and now, already, being realized amidst and despite the adversities of life, which includes illnesses, deaths, wars, and the burials of Lazarus over and over again. It is a sign of the oneness of Jesus with God, and our oneness with God in Jesus.
More powerful than death that happens over and over again, is resurrection that happens over and over again in every moment of the Christian life, in every action taken in the name of Christ, in every unbinding of those who are in bondage to their own sins or my sins, or the sins of others. Ours is a message of the ultimate hope, the ultimate conclusion of the story of our relationship with God and what it means for our life in the world. In the scheme of things, in the story of life itself, we may all have what looks like bit parts.
However, you and I, bit-part actors, all of us, are far from insignificant, because of the Jesus who raised Lazarus. Amen