Monday, March 7, 2011

Two Sisters; Part the First: the Go-getter

Image: John Singer Sargent, "Venetian Interior"

“Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat [still] in the house.” ~John 11.20

When Lazarus of Bethany – beloved brother to Mary and Martha, and friend of Christ – becomes gravely ill, and one doctor after another has wrung his hands in despondency, telling his sisters bleakly not to hope, both women know just what to do: they must call Jesus. They know Jesus is no ordinary friend – He is a Prophet, sent from God - and they believe His very Presence at the sickbed of their brother will heal him instantly. Thus they waste no time engaging a messenger: “Lord, the one whom you love is sick,” says he to Jesus.

They are simple words - yet robust in meaning: for they convey, with startling acuity, the sisters' profound confidence in Christ's love for their brother - a love so deep they need not mention him by name.

Then, after the message has been sent – what can they do but wait?

It is uncertain how much time elapses before Christ's arrival, but one can imagine what this waiting may have been like. Two sisters taking turns - Mary blotting her brother’s brow with a cool, wet cloth while Martha watches at the window, sweeps the stair. one ear cocked to the road, straining for some sound or signal of His approach… Hours pass, morning is swallowed up by afternoon, but still there is no sign of Christ. By break of day, Lazarus has grown worse; he is groaning and sighing and telling his sisters he cannot hold on.

Do they exchange anxious looks? Or avert each other’s eyes, choosing, instead, to ply their brother with assurances: “He is coming; He is coming. You must hold on.”

But Lazarus cannot hold on. By the time the sun has crested in the hazy, cloudless sky – it is too late. Lazarus's limbs have all gone slack, and he is resting – not in sleep, but in death. Midst their numbness and bafflement, their heart-hurt and weeping, these sisters must wrap Lazarus in a burial shroud; they must array themselves in grieving garments and attend his body to the tomb.

Three long days pass by with agonizing slowness. They may as well have been years.

Do the sisters privately exchange possible reasons as to why their Friend and Savior did not come? Surely they try to be generous; try not to give in to dark thoughts - yet all the while their feelings of disappointment mingle with feelings of betrayal, perhaps even deep, deep despair, as the question sinks deeper into the deepest hollows of their souls: why, oh! -- why hadn’t He come?

Meanwhile amongst the mourners there is a buzz: “Look; see? This man Jesus - He is not the Christ; He cannot be.” “Would the Savior of the World abandon His friends in their hour of greatest need?” “Would He who is said to be capable of anything do absolutely nothing to help those He claims to love?”

It isn’t until the morning of the fourth day that Christ is spotted on the road – “He is coming! He is coming!” someone shouts, “He is near to Bethany! He is on His way to the door!”

And it is precisely here, at this moment of great tension, that the essential differences between Martha and Mary are dramatically expressed. John tells us, “Then Martha, as soon as she heard that Jesus was coming, went and met him: but Mary sat [still] in the house.” The distinction is subtle but profound: “Martha…went and met…but Mary sat still…” (11.20, italics mine).

In the core of her person, Martha has interpreted her brother’s death as an accident which could have been avoided; an error which she must take it upon herself to rectify. In this small act of leaving home, Martha reveals herself to be the quintessential go-getter –literally leaving her house full of guests to go and get - first Jesus, and later Mary.

It may be a bit of a stretch but, on rare occasions, the word that is used for “went and met” connotes a hostile meeting, such as in Matthew 8.28 when the same word is used to describe Jesus’ encounter with two demon-possessed men who are described as “exceedingly fierce.”

Thus it is tempting to consider whether there may have been a note of hostility in Martha’s countenance when she rushed to meet Jesus. Could her first words of address - "Lord if you had been here our brother would not have died." - been laced with reproach? Might she have spoken them as an an accusation? “Lord if you had been here our brother would not have died!”

Significantly, after she speaks, Martha does not wait for Christ to answer. Instead, she says, “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you” (John 11.22). Pause a moment, and consider: what is Martha is really saying? Is this an expression of faith in Christ? Perhaps, in part.

But there is an idiomatic expression we “post-moderns” use to describe this kind of language: we call it passive-aggressive. Martha doesn’t come out and bluntly ask Jesus to perform a miracle; instead, she insinuates and implies. This could be because she doubts Christ's ability to grant her request; or perhaps she simply does not want to humble herself by asking Him for something she feels He should have done in the first place.

Then Christ says something remarkable: “Your brother will rise again.” Notably absent in Martha’s reply is any sense of wonder, awe, or gratitude. She does not respond in faith and submission – as do most recipients of revelation. In fact, Martha says nothing to indicate that she believes Christ is actually speaking to her present situation. “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day,” she says (italics mine).

It is the tone we have all taken when some poor soul tries to tell us something we’ve heard a thousand times and are sure we already know. We are polite but insincere: “I know…”

Martha assumes – without asking for clarification – that the resurrection to which Christ is referring will occur on “the last day,” the Day of Reckoning, when the Messiah returns to judge the world. Tragically, Martha does not really hear a single word Jesus is saying. In one sense, one could argue that she does not hear because she is not really listening; but in another, more heartbreaking sense, Martha literally cannot hear Christ - or even begin to grasp His purpose for her situation - because she is so utterly absorbed in her own.

But Christ – who knows Martha’s thoughts and motives before she herself does – is unrelenting in His pursuit of Martha's heart: “I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus, “He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"

Christ's words are like a provocation, inciting Martha to believe that He is, in fact, the Son of God. But Martha’s reply is remote, even guarded: "Yes, Lord," she says, “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world.” Martha gives intellectual assent to the idea that Christ is the Messiah and Savior of the world; but the Christ Who stands before her does not touch her personally; He does not penetrate into the world of her present pains and hardships.

If we put ourselves in her situation, this is not so hard to understand: for from Martha’s limited perspective, Christ has failed her. The gulf between her expectations and His provision is too wide, she cannot cross it. The burden of her suffering is too immense – she cannot lift or leave it. And so, like the rich young ruler whose great wealth crippled Him from following Jesus, Martha walks away. She walks away from the Living God of the Universe, and calls her sister, “saying secretly, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you’” (John 11.28).

Notice that Scripture does not say that Christ calls for Mary; instead, it says that Martha tells Mary that Christ has called her. But could Martha’s retrieval of Mary been a contrivance? Could this errand, this act of going and getting Mary, have been, for Martha, the last in a long string of tactics to get Christ to resurrect her brother? “Christ may have been unwilling to grant my request," I imagine her thinking bitterly, "but surely He will not deny my sister hers. For I know how much He loves her."

Here, perhaps, lies the real tragedy in the story of Lazarus and his sisters: for it is not Christ's failure to arrive in time, but Martha's failure to trust Him - and to believe that He loves her, no matter what circumstances may say.

How often, when tragedy strikes – or some relationship or hard-wrought endeavor, which I have deemed vitally important to my life – “fails” do I run direct to Jesus and demand reparations, begging Him to right the wrong, settle the misunderstanding, amend the oversight, and undo what has been done instead of trusting that the same God who spoke the universe into existence may just have a plan which - in all perfectness - He is in the process of unfolding?

"Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent that you may believe” (John 11:15).

" the intent that you may believe." God always has a purpose in every pain; and His purpose is always good. Rarely does He answer in the way we expect - but He always answers, and if we are willing to wait on Him, He will bring about a result that exceeds even our wildest expectations.

1 comment:

Joseph Anfuso said...

Your message here reminds me of the sermon I preached last Sunday at a church service attended by several hundred people in Haiti. Everyone present had lost at least one friend or family member in last year's devastating earthquake. The reality that God "works ALL things together for good" can seem farcical in the face of such inexplicable loss. Yet these are the very moments when we can discover--more profoundly than ever before--that NOTHING can separate us from His love.