Friday, 18 April 2014

5th Sunday of Lent John 11:1-45 - Death in inevitable, but it's no longer terminal

At last week’s Lent course we affirmed that there are two certainties in life; death and taxes.  I’ll let the accountants deal with taxes, so let’s think about death, what it means, and what meaning it gives to life.  After all, whilst some people might think they can get away with cheating on their taxes, none of us can cheat death, and knowing that might help us consider how we live and treat others.

Now today’s reading is an intriguing one, and perhaps because we know it so well we wonder if there is anything more to learn from it.  Well in researching this I found out a few interesting questions that hang over one verse in particular, and what it says about Jesus.  Now I warn you, we’re going to have to get into a little detail here, but bear with me because it’s important.

Jesus has reached the house and Mary has come out to meet him.  She cries out to him that if he had been there, then her brother would not have died, which I suspect is the sanitised version of what she probably said, caught up in the pain and inherent intensity of the anger surrounding his death.  But it’s verse 33 that raises the questions for us.  Let me read it to you in the New Revised Standard Version.

‘When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.’
Now listen to it in the New International Version
‘When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.’

Which is it, ‘greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved’, or ‘deeply moved in spirit and troubled’?  And why the difference?  The problem is that this is a very difficult verse to translate.  When we read these two translations, the impression they give us is that Jesus is moved by the grief of his friends, and facing his own grief at the loss of his friend.

However, we might want to consider whether that makes much sense.  This is Jesus, who knows he is going to die and knows he is going to be resurrected.  He knows what paradise is about as he’s going to promise it to one of the thieves who will be crucified alongside him.  Why should the death of a friend trouble him in spirit and leave disturbed and deeply moved?

Well it shouldn’t, and that’s the whole point.  This is one of those verses where the English language really struggles to translate the Greek in a succinct and clear way.  Getting it right is important because of what it says about what was really going on here. 

So let’s split the two phrases up.  Firstly it says that he was greatly disturbed in spirit.  The problem is that the one word which those four words try to render actually had strong connotations of anger.  We assume, from the English, that Jesus was being compassionate but that’s not really present in the Greek.  What it actually suggests is that a kind of anger was at the root of his distress.  However, even that isn’t quite clear cut enough, obviously since if it was, the translators would render the words as simply, ‘Jesus was angry’. 

It’s used in three other places in the New Testament.  In two of them it gives meaning to the stern command of Jesus to those who he had healed not to tell anyone.

The other place it’s used is to describe the feelings of those present at the woman who anointed Jesus at the house of Simon, a sort of righteous indignation.  So taking those translations and the circumstances, ‘disturbed in spirit’ doesn’t really say enough, and to say that Jesus was ‘angry’ goes too far.  It’s somewhere in the middle and the suggestion is perhaps that when Jesus saw Mary and the Jews with her weeping, he felt indignation.

That also ties in better with the second phrase in the sentence, that he was ‘deeply moved’.  It translates literally as ‘he troubled himself’; there is an active form about it.  I suspect that this means that Jesus was indignant that Mary and Martha had been caught up in the ways in which the Jews around them were deeply wailing in ritualistic grief, and were losing sight of the life that Jesus was coming to bring through his ministry.

In fact the whole question is unlocked for us when we discover that when the weeping of Mary and the Jews is described, the language makes it clear it was of the more ritualistic form but when Jesus weeps the word used shows that it is a spontaneous outburst of grief.  And that contrast, I believe, is key to this.  Jesus’s weeping is natural because he feels the loss of his great friend, Lazarus.

But the contrast with the other mourners is that they were professionals who would have come to weep alongside the two sisters in order to help them in their grief.  And that, I believe, is what Jesus was indignant about.  Throughout the Gospels we understand how Jesus was all about life.  In only the previous chapter Jesus said, ‘I have come so that they may have life, and have it in all its fulness’.

Yet what we find here is death.  Many of the Jews, especially those of the Sadducees, didn’t even believe in life beyond death.  We assume that all Jews believed as Jesus did, but that wasn’t the case.  Their focus was on a life heading towards death, with no hope of resurrection, and that kind of attitude, swamping as it did the two sisters with its negative approach, made him extremely indignant as it seemed to soak up the hope they had in him.

So what is the alternative?  What’s this passage able to teach us about life and death as we get older?  It is that we need to change our focus.  Whilst for many of us we are conscious that there are more years behind than there are ahead, what is on the agenda?  Is it a lack of hope?  No, categorically not!

The message of this passage is life, life, life.  We are not heading for death, but, as one of my teachers once called it, we are heading for promotion, from life into real life!  On Easter Sunday we will talk about resurrection in more detail, but the message of this passage is this:  The Jews surrounding Mary could only see flesh, and so they could only see death.

But in Jesus we see the one who brings life, and life in all its fulness.  In this life we can and should work with all of our energies to bring about life for others.  If we are always striving for our own way then we can be killing the possibilities of life for others when we should be setting them free to be who God created them to be. 

And our story doesn’t end here. It goes on and on, through a veil into something beyond all imagination, of life as it should be, as it will one day be.  What a gift.  No wonder Jesus was angry that they’d missed it. 

Death may be inevitable, but isn’t terminal, and whilst we are on this plane, we should live as people who know there is more to give and more to come.

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