“Lord, if you had been here…”

Several months ago, I spent a couple nights at the Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. Although all the monks observe a strict rule of silence most of the year, my visit fell on the feast day of their founder, St. Romuald, so I was able to eat cake and drink beer with the monks! One of the monks, Brother Robert Hale, told me about their Rabbi-in-residence. The other monks would pray and listen to God through silence whereas this Jewish Rabbi would pray by often yelling and screaming in anger. His prayers were so loud that they had to move him to his own private hermitage because the other brothers thought he was going crazy. I thought this was pretty funny, but also very revealing of the Jewish art of lament and complaint that we Christians have lost.

Jewish author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel once wrote, “I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to him for that reason.” In Jewish spirituality, there is a freedom to question and even accuse God for the suffering in one’s life and in one’s world. Along with authors like Wiesel, the Biblical authors within the Books of Psalms and Job also highlight this aggressive prayer.

Although most Christian traditions claim to uphold traditions of Judaism (especially those prior to the emergence of the church) as integral to their spiritual heritage, the freedom to confront God with human questions and accusations has been mostly stifled and smothered by Stoicism and other Hellenistic influences.

While reading through the Gospel of John, I have been driven by the question: “Where do we see aggressive prayer in the New Testament, particularly in the Fourth Gospel?” In focusing on the pericope of John 11:1-54 (“The Raising of Lazarus”), two questions emerge under the umbrella of the driving question above. First, why does Jesus remain in the place where he was for two days after hearing about Lazarus’ serious illness? (11:6) Second, Why are the two dialogues between Jesus and the two sisters underscored in the text? (11:21-37).

I will attempt to answer these questions by exploring the three worlds revolving around the text as laid out by Sandra Schneiders in The Revelatory Text. However, I will use different terminology since I find Schneiders’ terms confusing. Instead of The World Behind the Text, The World of the Text and The World Before the Text, I will approach the “worlds” from a more a chronological and temporal posture: The World Before the Text, The World of the Text and The World After the Text.

 

The World Before the Text

According to Schneiders, the initial question to ask regarding the pericope involves the historicity of Lazarus’ resurrection: Did Jesus really raise the dead Lazarus back to life?[1] Although Schneiders relays Rochais’ historical conclusion that the resurrection of Lazarus was “probably…not” an historical event,[2] the meaning and message of the narrative remains unencumbered. Another, perhaps more significant, historical concern should involve the Johannine Community and the questions that they may have been asking, addressing or attempting to answer in the pericope. Schneiders suggests that the passage confronts an anxiety that most likely plagued the Johannine Community (as well as other early church communities): How do we understand and handle the death of our fellow believers?[3] The question held importance since many hoped and assumed that Jesus would return before the first generation of believers all died out. [4] Apparently, for the last two millennia, Jesus has been taking his time, which brings us to our first question: Why does Jesus remain in the place where he was for two days after hearing about Lazarus’ serious illness?

The historical method attempts to answer the question “Did he actually remain?” before answering the question “Why did he remain?” The Raising of Lazarus narrative, like many of the Marcan pericopae, “has behind it a traditional narrative shaped in the course of Christian teaching and preaching, and then remolded by our evangelist to convey his own special message.”[5] In retrieving the pre-redaction narrative, Stenge maintains Jesus’ two-day stay as part of the original account.[6] However, the dialogues between Jesus and Mary and Martha (11: 20-27) are seen as “clearly redactinal,” according to Stenge.[7] When considering the anxiety that plagued the Johannine community concerning the death of believers, it makes sense that the evangelist would include the heartfelt dialogue, especially when the question repeated twice, almost word for word, in the dialogue, is “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21, 32). In other words, “Lord, if you had returned by now, many of our sisters and brothers of the faith, who have passed on, would not be dead!”

 

Lazarus

The World of the Text

“After having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (11:6). Although this is a fairly accurate rendering of the text, it is helpful to point out one nuanced difference between the Greek text and the English translation. The Greek word men fails to come through in the translation. Pronounced like the English word “men,” men is a conjunction that implies affirmation and is the root for the word “Amen.” Commonly translated as “indeed” or “truly” the word men appears before the word emeinen (“he remained”). The two words together carry a poetic quality of alliteration, sounding something like “men ameinen.” Some ways to translate the poetic phrase are “Indeed he stayed” or “Truly he stayed.” Since the punctuation in the original Greek text was so sporadic, we can even imagine paraphrasing men emeinen as “Can you believe that he stayed…?” or “He stayed…really?”

The phrase men emeinen, especially in association with “two days,” may also have carried particular weight for the apostles (and subsequently the early church) who experienced all the pain and confusion involved with Jesus’ “staying” in the tomb for two days. The apostles could very well have thought, “I know you had to fulfill Scripture and all, but you could have saved us from a whole lot of agony and horror if you decided not to remain in the tomb for two days!”

By looking at the world of the text, I do not find an answer to my question, but instead I discover the same question being asked implicitly in the text itself. In juxtaposing the word for Jesus’ staying with another word that gives grammatical root to “Amen” (a word that Jesus himself used quite often), I cannot help but see a dissonance and a questioning within the text itself: “Why do you stay away from us, God?” or, in the Psalmist’s urgent words, “Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?…Rise up, come to our help!” (Psalm 44: 24-26) No, “indeed, he remained.”

Above, I mentioned a repeated line used by both Mary and Martha during their interactions with Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21). However, a closer look at the Greek reveals a subtle but fascinating difference. Though it is virtually impossible to offer a word-for-word Greek translation (since some Greek words simply do not translate into English), I will make a humble attempt to do so in order to highlight the difference between Mary’s and Martha’s line.  Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, if you were here not would have died the brother my” (Kurie, ei hV wde ouk an apeqanen o adelfoV mou John 11:21), whereas Mary says, “Lord, if you were here not would have my died the brother” (Kurie, ei hV wde ouk an mou apeqanen o adelfoV John 11:32. Italics added). Although the two are essentially saying the same thing to Jesus, the word “my” takes a different position in the syntactical arrangement in Mary’s complaint.

I am not interested in playing the age-old game of guessing who Jesus liked more, Mary or Martha? Or, who should we attempt to imitate most in our lives, Mary or Martha? Or whom would we rather have dinner with, Mary or Martha? However, I do see them both representing different ways to approach Christ (God) during our times of trial and frustration.

In Martha, I see a personification of the Songs of Trust (Ps. 11, 16, 23, 27, 62, 63, 91, 121, 125, 131) whereas in Mary I see an embodiment of the Psalms of Lament (Ps. 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 17, 22, 25, 26, 27, 28, 31, 36, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 52, 53, 54, 55, 56, 57, 58, 59, 60, 60, 64, 70, 71, 74, 77, 79, 80, 83, 85, 86, 88, 89, 90, 94, 120, 123, 126, 129, 139, 141, 142).  In the Songs of Trust, the Psalmist often expresses some concern or frustration, but always ends on a resounding note of faith and trust in God’s power to save. The Psalms of Lament also tend to end on a positive note (except for 88, 89, and 120), but not without spilling out all of the gall, bitterness and anger towards the One ultimately responsible.

Martha complains, but then quickly affirms her faith in Christ’s power to save: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him” (Jn. 11:21-22). Martha may feel like she is walking through the valley of the shadow of death, but she knows that God is still with her. As a result of her trust, Christ challenges her to broaden and deepen her understanding of resurrection and believe even more profoundly in God’s goodness and salvific power (Jn. 11:25-26). Like Psalm 23, Martha’s interaction with Christ ends on a positive life-affirming note: “I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long” (23:6); “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God” (11:27).

Mary, on the other hand, sounds a lot more like Psalm 88, which begins with a complaint and then ends with a complaint. The Psalm begins, “O LORD, God of my salvation, when, at night, I cry out in your presence, let my prayer come before you; incline your ear to my cry” and then proceeds, “O LORD, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?” and then concludes with a most dreadful denouement, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” Recalling the difference between the sister’s shared complaint, we remember the prominence of the word “my” in Mary’s moan. Like the Psalmist, her brother is in darkness and making that clear to the Lord ought to be enough to get him moving. In a paraphrase, she says, “Lord, my brother is dead. And if you had any concern about me, then you would have done something about it. Obviously, you have just been dilly-dallying, which means you must not really care about me. So what else can I do, but cry?”

Some might see the prominence of “my” in Mary’s complaint as an indication of her self-centeredness. However, I see it at as a healthy self-assertion, the kind of healthy self-assertion that Walter Brueggemann describes in expressing his concern for the loss or lack of laments in church, which he thinks leads to “both psychological inauthenticity and social immobility.”[8] By not approaching God with our whole self (anger, warts and all), we lose our voice and our capacity for “genuine covenant interaction.[9] We also lose “the ego strength that is necessary for responsible faith”[10] and our prayers become “a practice of denial, cover-up, and pretense,”[11] creating “a false narcissism which keeps hoping for a centered self.”[12]

Without lament and the hard questions of suffering and evil, we fall into “civility…docility…grim obedience and eventually despair.”[13] Brueggemann asserts that ego and healthy self-assertion are necessary in order for one to engage with God in a covenant relationship and in order to have genuine faith.

Jesus response to Mary’s self-assertion indicates that he accepts her ego strength as an act of genuine faith. Many commentators assume that Jesus weeps due to his anger and sadness from their unbelief.  This assumption makes an ass out of Jesus and also misses out on one of the most profound acts of love and pastoral care within the Gospel of John. “Jesus’ tears,” Schneiders explains, “are an honest sharing in Mary’s grief and perhaps in her anger at death, the enemy of all life. Jesus, in his most fully human moment in the Fourth Gospel, legitimates human agony in the face of death.”[14] Also, I would add that Jesus legitimates Mary’s self-assertion and her willingness to be painfully honest with her anger.

 

The World After the Text

I will admit that I would rather have dinner with Mary. Her raw self-assertion encourages me to bring my whole self to God in prayer while also affirming those times when I have yelled at God and then found myself strangely and spiritually accompanied in my subsequent tears.

Returning to the questions above, I do not know why Jesus remained where he was for two days while Lazarus died. And I do not think the author did either[15], which is why the dialogues between Jesus and Mary and Martha are underscored in the text. The dialogues capture the human frustration in dealing with the divine, similar to the Psalms of Lament. The dialogues also prove that aggressive prayer can be found in the New Testament. However, what separates the aggressive prayer of the New Testament from that of the Old is the glorious glimpse we get of God’s reaction. In Jesus, we see God responding to human faith with a challenge towards even deeper faith. And we see God responding to human misery and anger with the utmost human humility, with tears of love and compassion (“with suffering”). Jesus knows why he stayed where he was for two days and he also knows that we cannot understand why he stayed, at least not by verbal explanation. Like Ricoeur, Jesus knows that “language only captures the foam on the surface of life”[16] and Jesus’ actions and behavior dwell far below the surface. Jesus does not attempt to explain his absence to Mary. Instead, Jesus empathizes to the point of shedding tears.

Jesus’ sympathetic tears, as a response to Mary’s anger, ignite enormous implications for psychology, pastoral care, spiritual direction, and theology. The theological implications get interesting when we start viewing the Cross through a similar lens. The confrontation between our anger and God’s loving compassion reaches its crescendo as we crucify the One whom he hold ultimately responsible for all of our suffering. We assert ourselves to the point of committing deicide. And God’s response? Resurrection and a question that reveals God’s continual desire for genuine covenant interaction: “Do you love me?” (John 21:17).


[1] Sandra M. Schneiders, The Revelatory Text: Interpreting the New Testament as Sacred Scripture (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1999), 173.

[4] “It has been suggested,” Schneiders elaborates, “that the problem faced by the Johannine community in the Lazarus narrative is the same as that in other New Testament writings, namely, the delay of the parousia and the fate of Christians who die before the second coming of Christ (e.g., 1 Thess. 4:13-17; Rev. 6:10; 14:13).” Schneiders, 174.

[5] George R. Beasley-Murray, John , vol. 36 of Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), 186.

[8] Walter Brueggemann, The Psalms & the Life of Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1995), 111.

[15] Since little attention has been given to the author and authorial intent, it is worth summarizing my hermeneutical approach to the Biblical text as influenced by Paul Ricoeur: Once something is written down, there is a distanciation which takes place between the text and its author, along with the author’s finite horizon. This distanciation gives birth to the semantic autonomy of a text thereby allowing a surplus of meanings (a polysemy) to be discovered in the text as subsequent generations of readers fuse their horizons with that of the text. Thus, the semantically autonomous text is able to surpass the finite horizon of its author and enjoy an enormous variety of interpretations as readers attempt to appropriate it to their context. In appropriating the pericope to my context, I offer my interpretation as one among many. Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1976).

[16] Paul Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning (Fort Worth TX: Texas Christian University Press, 1976), 63.

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