The Lazarus Problem: A Reflection for Monday of Holy Week 2021

In yesterday’s reflection for Palm Sunday, I wrote about how the crowd’s false expectations about Jesus blinded them to what he was telling them about who he was. Today, on Monday of Holy Week, I’d like to pick up on a similar thread from today’s Gospel: If the crowds could not see Jesus as he was because of who they wanted him to be, the religious authorities rejected what they did see — and tried to destroy it.

Today’s Gospel reading takes a step back in time, taking place in some quiet moments in between the raising of Lazarus and the events of Palm Sunday. It shows Jesus simply spending time with his good friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus. But word has spread of the miracle that has taken place in Bethany, and crowds are starting to gather. Here’s what happens next:

When the great crowd … learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the people were deserting and were believing in Jesus (John 12.9-11).

It’s easy to act shocked at this. But it’s a pretty typical human response to seeing something we don’t want to see. It’s similar to why our first instinct when we see a strange bug in our homes is to smash it, or why people who call attention to big problems — think whistle-blowers, or women who call out sexual harassment, or climate scientists, or those who protest racial violence — are often seen as troublemakers. All too often, for those in power, if a problem isn’t visible, it doesn’t exist. And so the real problem to be solved is the person who makes them have to see it what they don’t want to see.

To the religious authorities, Lazarus is a problem. Jesus has drawn their ire by speaking truth to them and not being impressed by their authority. And now he goes and raises a man from the dead, undermining their power even more. Lazarus is a problem, and so he must be destroyed.

Of course, Lazarus is not actually a problem. In fact he’s a glorious sign of the coming of God’s kingdom, a symbol of life’s ultimate power over death. The real problem is that the authorities have become so comfortable and confident in their own power, that they are closed to what God is doing in their very midst, and so perceive the presence and power of God as a threat.

It’s far easier to see this tendency in others — especially those with more power and privilege than we have — than it is to see it in ourselves. But we’d be foolish to think that this tendency is not alive and well in all of our hearts. And so if yesterday’s Gospel challenged us to meditate on where our expectations of what God ‘must’ be like might be getting in the way of our truly seeing and knowing God, today’s Gospel challenges us to examine in what ways we might be rejecting uncomfortable truths, about ourselves, our world, and our God.

After all, God’s Kingdom is within and among us; it would be a real tragedy to be like the chief priests in today’s Gospel and miss it.

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