Facing Martha’s Challenge

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Gospel Story of the Week

Jesus Raises Lazarus from the Dead (John 11:1-45)

Gospel Quote

“‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25-26)

Gospel Reflection

Jesus and his disciples arrive in Bethany during the extended wake for Lazarus. Lazarus has already been dead for four days and the house is full of mourners. Martha goes to meet Jesus even before he reaches the house. Her greeting is filled with emotion: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (v. 21). It must have been beyond Martha’s comprehension that Jesus did not arrive in time. This greeting may contain the frustration and disappointment of “What took you so long?” It may also be filled with the kind of anger and resentment that would cause us to ask, “Where in the world have you been?” Martha is clearly grief stricken – both by the loss of her brother and by Jesus’ failure to prevent his death.

Above all, Martha is a practical woman. She may be grieving, but she knows what she wants: “Even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask…” (v. 22). The dialogue that follows is revealing. Jesus first affirms, “Your brother will rise again” (v. 23). Martha indicates that she “knows that he will rise in the resurrection on the last day” (v. 24). For Martha, the resurrection will happen – eventually. It is Jesus’ next statement – “I am the resurrection and the life” (v. 25) – that she may not be ready to embrace. For Jesus, the resurrection is a “here-and-now” reality that he makes present. Even though Martha quickly affirms her belief in the resurrection, it won’t be long before that belief is tested.

When Jesus orders the stone taken away from the tomb, Martha can’t help herself. She is so practical that she can’t imagine Jesus knows what he’s doing. “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days” (v. 39). Jesus’ response – perhaps annoyed or even amused – chides her for her lack of faith. “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (v. 40).

Most of us face Martha’s challenge: not letting our pragmatism blind us to the ways that God brings life out of death. Although Martha must have been overjoyed when Lazarus emerged from the tomb, it was an embarrassing day. First, she makes a bold request – telling Jesus what she wants. Then, when he questions her about her faith, she confidently professes her belief in the resurrection. Within minutes, Jesus begins to fulfill her request, asking that the stone be rolled back from the tomb. Yet Martha’s pragmatism overpowers her belief, and she tries to stop him.

There is a huge part of all of us that identifies with Martha’s pragmatism. Our pragmatic, Martha side would never think of rolling back the stone. Our sensible side grasps the reality of death – with all its stench and decay. It knows how risky it is to open a grave. Better to grieve and mourn. Better to cling to the distant hope of being reunited with Lazarus on the last day. Anything is better than facing the darkness of the tomb.

There is nothing wrong with pragmatism, as long as it doesn’t become our dominant response to life. When pragmatism begins to take over, it squeezes out faith. I know about pragmatism because I make my living as a management consultant. In that role, I advocate for a clear game plan – spell out the action steps, set deadlines, clarify accountabilities. Unfortunately, life is by nature unpredictable. It doesn’t unfold according to the plans we’ve made, and it can’t be reduced to a simple formula or set of steps. There’s more to it than that.

To appreciate the “something more,” we have to enter into the realm of faith and mystery. It is a realm that children embrace naturally. My grandchildren are relatively unimpressed by my credentials as a management consultant. What’s important to them is whether I can enter into their experience. To do so, I have to tempter my pragmatic instincts. Danielle doesn’t really care how other kids play hide- and-seek, she enjoys hiding in the same place every time. For her, the high point of the game is the laughter and delight of being found.

To enter into the realm of mystery and faith, we have to leave our Martha-like pragmatism behind. Only then can we enter into the realm of Danielle’s laughter, beautiful sunsets and falling in love. Only then can we open ourselves to a God who surprises us by transforming the stench and decay of our lives into the fullness of life.

By the end of that unforgettable day, one thing is clear to Martha the pragmatist: She is not in charge. The mystery of life and the power of God are beyond her control. She sent an urgent plea for Jesus’ help, but he chose the timing of his arrival. She urged him not to roll back the stone, but he wouldn’t listen. Her faith in the resurrection – so mixed with doubt, hurt and disappointment – was challenged in a public and embarrassing way. Her attempt to keep her brother in the tomb failed, and she received him back alive and healthy. Her too-small image of God was shattered to make room for a deeper and more profound grasp of Jesus as the resurrection and the life.

As we face Martha’s challenge, we are called to let go of our pragmatism and trust the realm of mystery and faith. To do so, we have to endure both excruciating waits and embarrassing moments. Ultimately, Jesus – the resurrection and the life – will turn our tears into joy.

Questions to Ponder

  • When have you, like Martha, been disappointed by God and found yourself struggling to trust that God was there for you?
  • What life experiences have called you to move beyond pragmatism and embrace the realm of mystery and faith?
  • In what ways have you been urged to give up control and your too-small image of God to make room for a deeper grasp of Jesus as the resurrection and the life?

Invitation to Prayer

Jesus, you are the resurrection and the life. Like Martha, my pragmatism can blind me to the powerful ways you bring life out of death. Give me the faith to trust that the resurrection is a here-and-now reality, not just something that will happen eventually. Help me see the ways that your life-giving power fills the world around me with new life.

Jesus, you are the resurrection and the life. Help me to trust that on the day I’m called across the canyon of death you will hold out your hand and guide me home. Give me the courage to trust that you will seek me out, call me by name and welcome me with outstretched arms.

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