Central Idea: The shortest verse in the Sacred Scriptures speaks to us about Jesus’ humanity, his compassion and his power over death.
John chapter 11, verse 35. It is one of the most beloved, maddening, controversial and misunderstood verses in all of time. Famed writer Stephen King, uses it a lot in his books as an expletive, remembering it from his youth as the only line of the Bible he ever memorized. That’s not that hard to do… it is only two words.
It is a dramatic scene. Lazarus has died. Martha and Mary, his sisters, are mourning his loss. Apparently, Lazarus was both well known and well liked in the town of Bethany, because there are many people who are gathered, even days after his death, to show respect and to bereave his passing.
Finally, Jesus shows up, both to warm welcome as well as a bit of critical speculation. “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother would never had died.” “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” And then the surprise. As he approaches the grave, seemingly uncharacteristic of Jesus, he breaks down and begins to cry. “Jesus wept.”
For many, this single line is the clearest indication of Jesus’ human nature, how he was like us in all things but sin. Here is Jesus with real tears, real emotions, real heartache. This is not the Stoic Superman he is often made out to be in the movies. In fact, Jesus’ reaction catches us all bit off guard, much like it did the townsfolk of Bethany: See, how deeply he loved him. This simple little line exposes the raw, unvarnished humanity of our Savior. He’s not sleepwalking through his earthly existence casually doing miracle after miracle. He is a real live human being, with all the emotions, the feelings, the sentiments that make our lives so messy, so painful, so glorious.
But aren’t we a bit uncomfortable with a weepy Jesus? Why is He so upset? Didn’t He know that He was going to bring back Lazarus from the dead? Didn’t he realize that He had the power to transform this tragic situation? Wouldn’t it have been way cooler just to stride confidently to the grave, do your Jesus thing, have a triumphant homecoming for good old Laz, get a few pats on the back (nice job, dude!) and move on? When you look at it that way, Jesus blubbering at Lazarus’ tomb is awkward, a bit peculiar.
Enter the Scripture scholars offering us their learned, if somewhat strained explanations. One suggests that Jesus tears are caused by the fact that no one believes he has the power to raise Lazarus. Wait, what? Another reasons that Jesus is crying because he knows about the afterlife, he will regret bring Lazarus back. He will be taken from his joyful place in heaven back to an earthly life with the same old pain and suffering he will again inevitably experience. Say what?
I like my interpretation. It is simple and to the point. Jesus cries because he is compassionate and empathetic. He sees the sadness and woe of all those who were close to Lazarus. He sees his friends Martha and Mary broken and crushed and that causes his distress. At funerals, I am get choked up seeing others’ reactions. As I mentioned in the bulletin a couple of weeks back, one of our students at Borgia was killed in a horrific boating accident at the Lake of the Ozarks in 1994. I never had her for class, so I didn’t know her very well. At her funeral, however, I saw the grief, the utter brokenness of her little sister as she sobbed uncontrollably. Witnessing her pain, I was crushed. “Jesus wept” shows how deeply Jesus cares for others, especially his close friends. He not only offers the grace and mercy and blessing of God, he offers his very human compassion and kindness and empathy.
Jesus’ weeping is an emotion, and we humans have emotions so that we can get moving. Our emotions inspire us to action. Here we may see the ultimate reason why Jesus is crying. His tears move him to show his power over sin and death: I am the Resurrection and the Life. Lazarus come out!
This is why “Jesus wept” and the raising of Lazarus so resonates with us. In this story, that which most troubles us, that which most paralyzes us, that which even made Jesus break down, death, has been conquered by our Lord. Right now in our world and in our country, the shadow of death has taken hold. All of us, believer and non-believer alike are standing silently at Lazarus’ grave as this scourge rampages. And we weep. Pope Francis has called this Sunday, the Sunday of Tears. How can we make sense of this senseless situation?
It is the fact that we worship Jesus Christ who knows what horrible grief feels like, and we believe that His power has come to bring the fullness of life even in the midst of tragedy and sorrow. When we truly believe this, when we really understand the tears of Jesus as well as our own, it changes the way we live, how we deal with others, how we manage in these extraordinary times, it changes how we face our fears and uncertainties. And ultimately, this sloppy, awkward, uncomfortable display of emotion moves us towards the courage to continue living with compassion and hope.
All because of John 11:35. Two little words that speak so much: “Jesus wept.”
Read more homily reflections from Fr. Kevin (Click here to view the archive)
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