I created this blog as a way to process and record my experience as a seminary student. I also hope it will provide a platform for my friends and family to participate in the journey. Some of the entries are kind of long, but what can I say--I was in graduate school, they made us do that...


Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Remembering Lazarus’ Sisters

{This is a hermeneutical essay about Lazarus and social location I wrote for NT class}

I approach the bible as a white, educated, middle class, American woman. While these basic descriptions tell you where I fall on the race, class, gender continuum, they cannot fully explain the reasons I think and believe the things I do. In order to understand the way that I interpret the bible, you have to understand a bit about my journey with religion. Without recounting my entire spiritual autobiography, let me offer a few important details. Raised without religion I found Christianity as a young adult and for almost a decade I tried on several religious hats: new believer, fundamentalist Christian, liberal Christian, Quaker Christian, agnostic Quaker, and finally, non-believer. I in no way mean to trivialize my religious experiences by listing them in this flippant manner. Rather, I mean to show that I have personally read and interpreted the bible from many perspectives. I know what it feels like to approach the bible as the inerrant and holy words of God. And I am learning to deal with what it means to approach the bible as a non-believing seminary student who very much appreciates the power of the bible—albeit power given by the belief and actions of human beings.

As I sit with the passages that make up the eleventh chapter of the Gospel of John—the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead—I find a fantastic story of friendship, love, mourning, belief, disbelief and power over death. There can’t be a greater power than power over death. Death is terrifying, and while I don’t know for sure, I have a hunch that death scares most people—regardless of their social location. Hence, it makes sense why a story of someone being raised from the dead is appealing. Resurrection from the dead is, of course, a crucial component in the Christian narrative and the story of Lazarus doesn’t shy away from this fact. Jesus has the power to take away death.

That is exactly what the Australian Catholic priest Francis J. Moloney finds so powerful in this text. Moloney has an extensive resume, sometimes listed with seven sets of initials after his name. He is currently living in Australia and is the Provincial Superior for his order, the Salesians of Don Bosco. He has studied at pontifical universities in Rome and Oxford University in England. He has taught at colleges in Australia and America. While it would take too long to list all of his accomplishments in the Catholic world, suffice it to say, he is a well-known and well-respected theologian in western Christianity.

In 2003, Moloney wrote an essay called Can Everyone be Wrong? A Reading of John 11:1-12:8. The thrust of this essay, as the title indicates, is that everyone gets the story of Lazaus wrong. Moloney claims that each character inside the story and the majority of interpreters outside the story fail to understand Jesus’ goal and the meaning of his message. According to Moloney v. 4 is a crucial text, for this is where “Jesus sets the theological and christological agenda for the events that follow” (510). The end of v. 4 reads, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4b). Moloney argues that Jesus wanted Lazarus to die; therefore, he waited to go to him. This decision seems odd when judged by human standards, especially in light of Jesus’ love for Lazarus and his sisters as portrayed in v. 5. Moloney’s point, however, is that the Jesus’ decision to wait shouldn’t be judged by human standards. It reflects the larger agenda for the Lazarus story, namely God’s design (511). He writes:

The focus of the reader’s attention must not be upon the fact of death, but upon the revelation of the glory of God and the beginnings of a process that will lead to the glorification of Jesus, the Son of God. (510)

This is precisely where, according to Moloney, the characters in the story, Mary, Martha and ‘the Jews’, get it wrong. They are unable to transcend their human grief over the death of Lazarus and come to an understanding that it is all for the glory of God.

Moloney is particularly critical of Martha. He says we must not be distracted by her confession of faith in v. 27, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27). Moloney asks us to remember the question to which she offered this answer. In vv. 25-6, Jesus asked whether she believed that he was the resurrection and the life. According to Moloney, “she affirms her long-held view that Jesus fulfills her messianic expectations,” but does not answer the direct question (514). Moloney highlights two other confessions of faith by Martha. Besides resting on messianic expectation in v. 27, he says that she also thinks of Jesus as a God-directed miracle worker in vv. 21-2 and confesses to believing in the resurrection at the end of times in v. 24 (515). He contends that she misses the point each time because she fails to “acknowledge Jesus’ self-revelation in vv. 25-6 as the resurrection and the life” (514).

Turning to Mary and the Jews, Moloney focuses on the verses that involve weeping. He puts forth the idea that until Mary joins the Jews in weeping she is actually on the right track. He claims that v. 32, in which Mary kneels at the feet of Jesus and simply tells him that if he had been there, her brother would not have died, “transcends Martha’s aggressive understanding of Jesus as a miracle worker and Messiah (vv. 21-2)” (517). But by joining in the mournful weeping, Mary fails to see the larger picture. She fails to see that Lazarus’ illness and death are “for the glory of God and the means by which the Son of God will be glorified” (517). A careful reader would, of course, notice that Jesus himself weeps in this narrative (v. 35). Moloney responds to this with a careful study of the original Greek. He compares the words used to describe the weeping Jews and Mary and the words used to describe Jesus. He contends that Mary and the other Jews are wailing, they are mourning the loss of Lazarus. Jesus, on the other hand, is not wailing. According to Moloney:

Jesus is angered and deeply disturbed emotionally—even to the point of tears—by the universal lack of faith. His profound annoyance and emotional disturbance lead him to tears, but the verb used to speak of Jesus’ weeping singles him out from others who mourn the loss of Lazarus. (519)

As noted above, Moloney holds v. 4, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” as the crucial theological and Christological point of this narrative; therefore, Jesus weeping over his friends death makes no sense to him. Rather, “Jesus, the resurrection and the life, is angered, deeply moved, and he weeps, as all his attempts to lead his disciples, Martha and Mary into a true understanding of life and death meet failure” (519).

It is not Moloney’s intention in this essay simply to lambaste the characters in the Lazarus narrative. He is being faithful to his own understanding of what the author of John is trying to do—invite his readers into a deeper understanding and faith. The last lines of Moloney’s essay get at the heart of his personal interpretation of the raising of Lazarus:

The emotional mood of the death-shadowed world—in which both life and love are precarious—is shocked into another level of reality. Another purpose is at work. It owes nothing to death nor social expectations flowing from our mortality. “This illness is not unto death; it is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it” (11:4). (527)

Moloney believes that the author of John is inviting his readers to join Mary and Martha on their journey: “The narrative is designed to lead the reader away from mourning and weeping toward faith in Jesus as the resurrection and the life” (517).

I find Moloney’s interpretation of the Lazarus story fascinating, but deeply saddening. It seems he wants all humanity removed from the story, yet from my perspective, it’s the humanity that makes the story great. Someone has died and the people—including Jesus—are weeping. Human beings live in the death-shadowed world Moloney describes, in which both life and love are precarious (527). Over and over again in this essay, Moloney is asking me to transcend my human reaction to death so that I can understand that Jesus has power over death. I do see that Jesus has power over death. But as I read the story, I see it in the very material action of Jesus calling Lazarus from the tomb in v. 43, not in his esoteric claim in v. 25 to be the resurrection and the life. According to Moloney, I, along with the rest of the story’s characters, fail to understand the true message.

I also find Moloney’s continual focus on Jesus wanting Lazarus to die so that God might be glorified to be unhelpful. However, given his background, I don’t find it surprising. I see this theology echoed on church billboards with slogans such as, “God can use your suffering for his glory.” In the modern world I live in, suffering abounds and I find this theology of suffering to be dangerous. I do not believe that suffering glorifies God or that God wants it to happen so that God can be glorified.

Oo Chung Lee, a theologian from Korea, provides a different perspective on the theology of suffering. Through her work to help re-establish relations between members of North and South Korean families separated for fifty years and her work with Asian “comfort women” of WWII, Lee understands the suffering of humanity in very particular ways. As the vice-moderator of the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism, Lee presented a bible study at the 1985 Commission meeting in Limuru, Kenya entitled, One Woman’s Confession of Faith. In it, she compares the story of the woman anointing Jesus present in all four gospels. In the gospel of John, this story falls directly after the story of Lazarus and the woman anointing Jesus is Mary, Lazarus’ sister.

The story of Mary anointing Jesus seems connected to the raising of Lazarus for the author of John. He introduces Mary in v. 11:2 as the one who anointed the Lord and then he wraps up the story of Lazarus with the actual telling of Mary’s anointing in v. 12:3. Moloney argues “Mary’s extravagant preparation of Jesus’ body for burial indicates that she has overcome the menacing realm of human mortality” (526-7). In other words, she no longer has to deal with that annoying human grief. But in Lee’s study, it is precisely this human grief that brings Jesus and Mary together. Lee discusses the oppression of women in Jesus’ time in both religious traditions and culture. She talks about how much women must have loved Jesus because of the way he related to them as equals (216). Lee says, “Jesus and the women knew that only where they shared pain, fear, oppression and discrimination would there be salvation and resurrection” (216). According to Lee then, Mary anointed Jesus with oil, not because she had transcended her humanness, but because she felt it so much in relationship with Jesus.

Using Lee’s work, I return to my previous disagreement with Moloney over Jesus’ tears. As in Lee’s quote above, resurrection comes from shared pain. I would re-word this into restoration and transformation coming from sharing grief, from mourning together. I am deeply moved by the text’s account of those mourning the loss of Lazarus together, a mourning that causes Jesus to weep. Like these mourners, I’ve experienced mourning the pain and grief of death with other loved ones, and I understand the desire to bring someone back from death.

Martha understands my perspective, for she desperately wants her brother back. In vv. 11:21-27 Martha and Jesus have an extended conversation and as I noted earlier, Moloney criticizes Martha for expecting Jesus to be a miracle worker and missing the larger picture of his message. But Japanese theologian, Satoko Yamaguchi, argues, “Martha’s words…contain two elements of the traditional Jewish lament, namely the address and the complaint” (331). Martha sent a message to Jesus that her brother was sick and he didn’t come until it was too late. Still hopeful even though he’s delayed, she tells Jesus in v. 11:22 that “even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” For Yamaguchi—who was the co-director of the Center for Feminist Theology and Ministry in Japan at the time she published the essay Christianity and Women in Japan in the Japanese Journal of Religious Studies in 2003—Martha is an important character.

Unlike Moloney, Yamaguchi does not think that Martha has missed the true message; in fact she asserts that Martha is right on. She compares the words of Martha’s confession in v. 27a to what the author of John says he wants his readers to believe in v. 20:31a:

But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. (John 20:31a)

She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God. (John 11:27a)

Yamaguchi says that:

Martha thus takes on the role of the spokesperson who testifies to the faith of the Johannine communities. Here we see that in this Gospel Martha is assigned the representative leadership role that is assigned to Peter in all the other canonical Gospels (Mt 16:16, Mk 8:29, Lk 9:20). (331-2)

In other words, Martha does not misunderstand at all; rather, she is the author’s example of what it means to have faith in the “Son of God.” In her essay, Lee highlights the fact that Martha’s confession, though almost identical to that of Peter’s, is rarely given any attention (and in the case of Moloney, is even seen as invalid). Yamaguchi writes of the need to re-member Martha’s story. She uses the term re-member in order to convey Mary Rose D’Angelo’s “idea of bringing what has been hidden out of the shadows of history, of putting together what has been dismembered and of making someone a member of oneself/of the community in a new way” (329). From a feminist perspective, then, Yamaguchi offers a chiastic diagram of the Lazarus story in John 11:1-12:11:

A. Lazarus under death threat—deepened in A’
B. Martha’s faith confession—echoing contrast with B’
C. Jesus’ sharing in tears with Judean neighbors—opposing contrast with C’
D. Jesus’ life-giving sign in the raising of Lazarus—center of the
structure and story, foreshadowing Jesus’ resurrection.
C’. Judean authorities’ plot to kill Jesus—multiply foreshadowed plot
B’. Mary’s anointing service—foreshadowing Jesus’ foot-washing.
A’. Lazarus and Jesus under death threats. (330)

Martha and Mary’s roles in this story are unusual in biblical narratives. Women are not often named and given important roles in important stories. But here, the author of John names two women and uses them in the central story of his gospel.

In this story, Martha and Mary are allowed to use their voices. They are identified as disciples of Jesus. Yamaguchi offers a study of the Greek word diakonia. It is only used twice in the Gospel of John, once for Martha’s activity in v. 12:2 and once in Jesus’ discourse on true discipleship in v. 12:26 (332). According to Yamaguchi, this “very limited use of the word implies that the word is used as an important theological term, meaning a ministerial service” (331).

Martha and Mary are the only named individuals given voice in the story of Lazarus and they use their voices and actions to offer deep confessions of faith. Martha in v. 27 and Mary in v. 12:3. As Yamaguchi highlighted in her chiastic diagram, these confessions of faith illuminate the message in an echoing contrast within the entire narrative (330-1).

For Yamaguchi, to re-member the story of Martha and Mary in the story of their brother Lazarus:

is to seek justice both for ancient and contemporary women in ministry. Our struggle to stop all kinds of discrimination against ‘women ministers’ in our church and to build up better conditions for women ministers to work to their full potential is something for which we can claim a firm grounding in the spirituality and praxis in our Christian origins. (335)

As a feminist theologian, Yamaguchi finds comfort for herself and her community, women ministers in Japan, in the story of Martha and Mary in the Gospel of John. Lee, someone who has worked directly with human grief, finds solidarity and relationship as she reads the story of Mary anointing Jesus. And Francis Moloney, a catholic priest, educated in Rome, heard the call of Jesus, calling believers to transcend human grief and to understand that he is the resurrection and the life.

I consider all three of these theologians to be faithful to their life experience and their personal understanding of the story of Lazarus in the Gospel of John. I find it fascinating how three faithful people, reading the same text, can come up with such different points of focus. From my perspective—the doubting seminarian—I am enriched by what all three have to say. I’m convinced that if I were to read three more accounts, I would find even more diversity. And rather than finding this diversity confusing, I find it highly valuable. Different voices help to maintain balance. They help us, as readers of the bible, to avoid dangerous dogmatism.

When I first sat down with the story of Lazarus, I found a fantastic story. I still find the story fantastic, but I have a far richer understanding of it. I now feel a personal connection to characters I was surprised to see at the center of a story about a man being raised from the dead. I entered this study with the expectation of reading about Lazarus, but he remains oddly silent; it’s Martha and Mary that I’m walking away knowing better. And I am pleased to find such strong women, who were obviously very close to Jesus.

I began looking at this story in awe of v. 11:43, “Lazarus, come out!” But I leave it curious and slightly disturbed by v. 11:6, “after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.” Although I’m frustrated with Moloney’s focus—that Lazarus’ death and the consequent suffering happened in order to glorify God—I admit that his argument can be found in the text. Jesus did wait to go to Lazarus’ family and he does say that Lazarus’ illness is for God’s glory. I’m not arguing that this notion isn’t in there, it clearly is. But I don’t believe focusing on this particular element in the story is at all helpful. Teaching people to believe suffering is for the glorification of God, as Moloney would have it, is dangerous. It teaches people that suffering is what God wants and even blesses, leading to a theology that cannot only ignore, but also excuse the horrifying calamities that exist in our world, and it forces individuals to hide from their own personal suffering. Moloney is right, Martha and Mary are unable to transcend their grief, their human reaction to death. And in my view, they shouldn’t. Focusing on the women in this story, along with the other Jewish mourners and even Jesus’ tears, teaches us a very different lesson: humans suffer and death is a tragedy. But when we are able to acknowledge it and support each other through it, real transformation (resurrection) at least has a chance to occur.

Works Cited:
Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Lee, Oo Chung. “One Woman’s Confession of Faith.” International Review of Mission
74.294 (1985): 212-216.
Moloney, Francis J. “Can Everyone be Wrong? A Reading of John 11:1-12:8.” New Testament
Studies 49.4 (2003): 505-527.
Yamaguchi, Satoko. “Christianity and Women in Japan.” Japanese Journal of Religious
Studies 30.3-4 (2003): 315-338.

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