John 11:17-44

Questioning Luke's Lazarus and John's Lazarus parabolic stories

All four of the Gospel writers used story, metaphor, allegory and, from time to time, historically accurate information. What they were doing was trying to interpret the on-going impact of the Spirit of Jesus upon them decades after the execution of Jesus.

Although we have the story of Lazarus who, in John's Gospel, was the brother of Martha and Mary and a good friend of Jesus, we need to be aware that there is another Lazarus in Luke's Gospel ch 16:19-31.

Both stories were written as metaphor and parable and not as history. To explain what I mean by 'parable' I turn to the Irish American historical Jesus scholar, John Dominic Crossan who, in his book, "In Parables, The Challenge Of The Historical Jesus", says that a parable "includes almost any type of figurative language from the short riddle to the long and fully developed allegory.... but the parable has only one major point and all the details serve only to build up this single reference....."

However, there can be a temptation for readers and listeners to ask the question, "Is this parable that we are reading, is it really true?" But that is the wrong question.

So today, let us not get hung up on the non-productive question concerning whether or not John's Lazarus really did come back to life - really was a resurrected corpse. Or whether or not Luke's Lazarus was taken straight to Abraham's side and the rich man was sent straight to Hades.

What each one of us should be asking are two questions: First, "What do these parables generally mean for us today?" and secondly, "What do these parables specifically mean for me today?"

Luke's story of Lazarus begins with a rich man who lived in luxury every day. However, sitting at his gate waiting for scraps from the rich man's table was a beggar named Lazarus. He was covered with sores and so weak that he did not have the strength to stop the dogs licking the sores.

What follows in the Luke version is critically important to our understanding of both the stories concerning Lazarus because it puts the story into the religious context of the time. Lazarus the beggar died and the angels took him straight to Abraham's side. At the same time the rich man also died and he went straight to the fires of Hades, the place where the wicked remain in eternal torment.

This was a double shock for the rich man and those listeners who had been taught by some of the Pharisees. The theology of some of the Pharisees was that the rich were obviously blessed by God and the poor obviously did not have God's blessing.

Because they were blessed by God with wealth, power and influence, the rich were meant to go straight to Heaven and to be seated with Abraham around the eternal banqueting table.

Hades was for the unblessed - including the poor. The rich man looked up and saw Lazarus by Abraham's side. Being in agony in the fires of Hades, the rich man called to Abraham and pleaded for him to have mercy. But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.'

Do not miss the point that this was a complete reversal of the teaching and expectations of some of the Pharisees and those they taught! The rich man then felt remorse and for the first time showed concern for others who were, never the less, of his own kind! He begged Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers to warn them so that they could avoid Hades.

Abraham replied, "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them." The rich man argued with Abraham and said that if someone from the dead could go to them, they would repent. Luke then explains to fellow gentiles and to Christian Jews why some of the Jews had rejected Jesus.

In Luke's parable Abraham rejected the plea by saying that as they had hardened their hearts and as they had not listened to Moses and the Prophets, neither would they listen even if someone is raised from the dead - and the parallel is that they did not listen to Jesus.

The important questions for each one of us are: "What is the general meaning behind Luke's parabolic story of Lazarus for us today?" And secondly, "What does Luke's parabolic story of Lazarus specifically mean for me today?"

In general terms perhaps it indicates that knowing the words of the Creeds and praying certain prayers are not what following the Jesus Way is about. However, each one of us should struggle individually with Luke's parable of Lazarus and decide what it means for each individual self.

Also notice that in John's later account Lazarus does not go as the guest of honour to sit beside Abraham, but Jesus himself raises this Lazarus from the dead. Abraham was the father of the nation of Israel but here, with the benefit of added years to develop a new gentile theology concerning the old Abrahamic ways and the new ways of Jesus, John's Gospel shows that the ways of Jesus were now the ways of God.

John's Gospel was written at the time when the Jewish Christian sect had lost its connections with the synagogues and had become a predominantly gentile community. The message was that, although they were important and should not be overlooked, the old ways of Abraham had been superseded and the new had come in Jesus.

John's parabolic story of Lazarus goes on to explain to the growing gentile members of the Christian community in Ephesus why some of the Jews had rejected Jesus, one of their own. John's Gospel was showing that those Jews who had rejected the witness of Jesus had hardened their hearts not only against Jesus but against their God.

In the experiences of the Ephesian community following the teaching of John, Jesus had indeed become the New Way, the New Truth and the New Life! And here is another parallel: John's Gospel says that even though Jesus had raised this Lazarus from the dead, many of the Jews still did not follow Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life!

John's Gospel is written in such a way that the point is rammed home once again: even though Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, the next passage in John chapter 11, vv 45 - 57 shows that some of the chief priests and some of the Pharisees were plotting as to how they could rid themselves of Jesus.

It seems to me that John's Gospel took Luke's unique story of Lazarus and updated it to explain that even the miracles of Jesus are not enough for many people to take up the challenge of following the Jesus Way - as the saying goes, "There is none so blind as those who refuse to see".

The important questions for each one of us are: "What is the general meaning behind John's parabolic story of Lazarus for us today?" And secondly, "What does John's parabolic story of Lazarus specifically mean for me today?"

In general terms perhaps it indicates that the meaning is concerned with the way in which followers of the Way of Jesus should attempt to live - a Way that leads to the daily transformation of life. After all, John's parable tells of Lazarus being transformed from corpse into life again.

In my understanding followers of Jesus continue to be transformed within ourselves and in our dealings with others as we follow his ways and teachings. Following the Jesus way is always about action and not just about saying certain words.

Living the Way of Jesus is also directly related to what The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said on this past Monday when he condemned our contemporary society for the way in which business, finance and politics treat us all as plain economic units who are encouraged at every turn to be materialistic consumers.

The Archbishop also commented that the down side of this is that any gain is at another's loss. The Archbishop also coined two new phrases describing our own evolution as a 21st century species: "homo financiarius" and "homo economicus".

In both the Gospel accounts concerning Lazarus, perhaps the general point is that if we follow the ways and teachings of Jesus we will never be the same again - we will be resurrected within ourselves every moment of every day! And likewise, others will be changed because we are being changed.

The Jesus way is costly as we constantly die to self and are raised again in spiritual re-birth to new life. It is something of a mantra in which I remind myself and others that each moment of self-denying servant hood is a new converting moment in our daily walk with Jesus. Such a life style is not easy but it empowers and enables us to be transformed little by little towards the fullness of humanity in which we will experience the fullness of Divinity.

That was the experience of Jesus and it is the experience available to each one of us as we live God's Kingdom day by day. It is the Easter experience lived not just once a year but on a daily basis.


John 11:17-44 [New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised]

Jesus the Resurrection and the Life

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.' 23 Jesus said to her, 'Your brother will rise again.' 24 Martha said to him, 'I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.' 25 Jesus said to her, 'I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?' 27 She said to him, 'Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.'

Jesus Weeps

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, 'The Teacher is here and is calling for you.' 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, 'Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.' 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, 'Where have you laid him?' They said to him, 'Lord, come and see.' 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, 'See how he loved him!' 37 But some of them said, 'Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?'

Jesus Raises Lazarus to Life

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, 'Take away the stone.' Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, 'Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.' 40 Jesus said to her, 'Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?' 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, 'Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.' 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, 'Lazarus, come out!' 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, 'Unbind him, and let him go.'

Copyright ©: 2014, Rev John Churcher. All rights reserved. Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Anglicised ®, Copyright © 1989 American Bible Society. All rights reserved.