This is the story of two sisters–and the man who loved them.
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” (John 11:5)
Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus–Jesus was their particular friend. There’s not a friend like Jesus–the soul of kindness, and if anyone had a just claim on that kindness, it is a particular friend.
But one day He disappointed them. Lazarus fell ill, and though they dispatched word to Jesus, they sat at their brother’s side, day after day, and watched him–anxious, frustrated, dumbfounded–as he sickened, dwindled and died. And where was Jesus? Where was their particular friend?
Now you know these ladies, daughters of the same mother and father, but so very different in their characters.
Martha is the one who, left to roll the canapés all on her own, dropped the “Don’t you care?” bomb on Jesus. (Luke 10:38-42)
Jesus? Care? You mean the one who left Glory for our sqalid hovel of a planet to come to our miserable kitchen, wipe up the spilled milk we cried over, scrape our burned toast, with His own hands–and at great personal cost–whip up a feast so nourishing that it endures for eternal life? That Jesus?
He told her, basically, that with Him there, a woman’s place was not in the kitchen.
And Mary, the other sister, she was the one who, shortly afterward will engage in–let’s face it–some pretty blatant emotional excess (John 12:1-7). It’s one thing to raise your hands while worshipping, but where’s the sense of decorum?
Still, Jesus doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, He quite approves. The congregation objects, however, particularly Judas (v. 4) who seems to have been working on commission (not the “great” one). Maybe Judas is the patron saint of the anti-emotionalists… Oh, wait, he can’t be anybody’s saint. Silly me.
So here we are, dearest brother Lazarus now dead and buried–for four days no less (V. 17)–before particular friend Jesus makes it to town. He even missed the funeral.
Martha, the sensible one, did the right thing and went to talk with Jesus. Mary, who couldn’t be separated from Him before, doesn’t go. She sits at home.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she says (v. 21). Makes sense. Perfectly theological. She was right. Worse than that, He could have healed Lazarus with a word from anywhere.
She does hint. Gives another very sensible proposition: “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (v. 22). A statement of indubitable truth.
In return, Jesus gives her some of the most magnificent red letters in all the Bible.
“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (25, 26)
Now, I love me some propositional truth–I really do. Objective statements of Scripture that we can ground our lives on, as Jesus Himself said. The gospel is about Jesus Christ, what He did, and does, outside us. Martha understood this. She knows: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (v. 24). She believes: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (v. 27).
Jesus gave Martha a great gift, showed her great kindness. Oh, that His very words to me might be written down forever in Scripture. Unimaginably gracious.
Then He asked to see Mary.
How was Mary feeling? Yes, feeling. Do you suppose John tells us for nothing that she stayed sitting in the house, while Martha went to see Jesus? Grieved over Lazarus, her heart was broken regarding Jesus. Yet, when He called for her, she hurried to Him (29, 31), and fell at His feet, crying. Not just “weeping,” crying (klaiousan).
And she said the same words as her sister: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
And they were the same words, exactly the same words–and yet what she said was not the same.
Now bringing up the Greek, directly, need only be an occasional thing. But here it is necessary. I would not begin to know how adequately to render the difference in the two sisters’ statements to Jesus. So I will show you. Understand, you may have heard that word order is not important in Greek. This is perfectly untrue. It functions rather differently from English, but there are regular patterns and variations, and these signal meaning. One device is known as “fronting,” moving a word or phrase toward the front of a sentence or clause from where it usually would stand. This gives it something called increased “prominence,” which does any number of things, depending on the context.
This is what happens in this passage. The ladies no doubt were speaking in Aramaic, though John represents their speech in Greek. And he is an excellent and thoughtful writer, the difference, subtle perhaps, is non-accidental. Non-incidental.
Κύριε, εἰ ἦς ὧδε οὐκ ἂν ἀπέθανεν ὁ ἀδελφός μου
Kurie, ei es hode ouk an apethanen ho adelphos mou
Lord, if you-were here not – died the brother of-me.
Κύριε, εἰ ἦς ὧδε οὐκ ἄν μου ἀπέθανεν ὁ ἀδελφός.
Kurie, ei es hode ouk an mou apethanen ho aldephos
Lord, if you-were here not – of-me died the brother.
Syntactically, the genitive pronoun which belongs with the noun it modifies, belongs at the end of the clause, is moved up in Mary’s speech about as far as it can go in it’s clause. Semantically, this alters the focus of the statement.
Martha is stating the objective reality about Lazarus. Just the facts, ma’am.
Mary, however, is saying something about herself. Very much personal. Very subjective. It’s something like “if you had been here I wouldn’t have lost my brother,” though that is too forceful, I think.
So what was Jesus’ response to her? What was the gift He gave Mary? Some precious objectivity?
Jesus wept. (v. 35)
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. (v. 33)
He was moved, troubled, emotional. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15). This was His answer to her prayer. That she should “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
A subjective cry received a subjective response from our Lord, who cannot be unmoved by the tears, the cries, the pain of His particular friends.
He therefore felt with her, wept with her.
And raised her brother from the dead.
Remember, He knew all along that Lazarus was sick and dying, would die, and yet would not be left dead (4, 11, 13-15). He was acting on instructions (John 5:19), though it had to pain Him. And was He not acting in answer to prayer? The prayer, however, came later in time, or prayers, two at least, Martha’s and Mary’s.
There is great mystery here. Does it matter how we pray what we pray? “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt. 6:8). It’s not a matter of information. Is there something about mingling the subjective with the objective–as we were created for both?