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Essays, The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of a Love that Goes Further—John 11:1-45 (Amy Allen)

Had God merely sent his Son, that would have been enough, and more than enough. However, God’s love is a love that goes over and above what could be expected, and which calls us to do likewise.

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?”9Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.”23Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” 28When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”29And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there.32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”37But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

45Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

This week’s gospel text picks up just as several Jewish leaders have tried to arrest Jesus, after which he left Jerusalem to return to the other side of the Jordan, where John had formerly been baptizing (John 10:39-40)

But what if Jesus had remained on the other side of the Jordan?

There’s a Jewish Passover song that dates to the 9th century CE called Dayenu (Folktales of the Jews: Tales from Easter Europe: Vol. II, 383). In Hebrew, dayenu means “it would have been enough.” In its many verses the song chronicles the many gifts God has given to Israel, beginning with bringing the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, affirming after each gift, “It would have been enough.”

So what if after bringing good news to the oppressed, sight to the blind, and release to the captives, Jesus had remained on the other side of the Jordan? It would have been enough.

If Jesus had never died on a cross in Jerusalem, if he had lived a long life of teaching and healing and bringing more people to belief (John 10:42), God’s gift to us in Jesus would have been enough.

Jesus embodied God’s love for God’s children and God’s creation from the very start. This is what John means when he says “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14).

But just as the Jewish song Dayenu celebrates how much more God loves God’s children as demonstrated in the bountiful gifts that God has given to the people of Israel, so Jesus’ continued ministry and ultimate death and resurrection are signs of how much more God indeed loves, not just God’s children Israel, but the whole world (John 3:16-17).

In the liberation of God’s people from slavery, in the life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son Jesus, God engages in a costly kind of love.

Dietrich Bonheoffer describes this in his famous, The Cost of Discipleship. He writes, “Such grace”—the grace God gifts to humanity through Jesus—“is costly because it calls us to follow” (The Cost of Discipleship, 5).

In the person of Jesus, God becomes flesh and dwells among us. And that would have been enough. But God does more. God calls us to follow. And in order to follow, we must first have someone, in Jesus, who is willing to lead.

This Jesus doesn’t just lead us into safety on the other side of the Jordan. At least, not forever. Jesus leads his disciples into Jerusalem, into Bethany, even into the hands of those who are seeking to arrest him. And why?

John tells us “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (John 11:4). Jesus wept at Lazarus’ death (John 11:35). And, “greatly disturbed,” Jesus called his friend out of the grave (John 11:38-39).

Why does Jesus return from the other side of the Jordan? Why does he put himself in the hands of precisely those who are plotting to kill him (John 11:53)? “For God’s glory” (John 11:4). Yes. But God has already glorified Jesus (John 8:54) and there are other ways for people to witness this truth. Jesus returns to Bethany, to the aid of his friend Lazarus, for God’s glory and out of human love.

“For God so loved the world,” John tells us (John 3:16). Had God stopped all the way back at the gift of creation, it would have been enough. But God didn’t and God doesn’t because God loves us. God loves the people and the world God has made. And God is willing to bear the cost for that love. Even the cost unto death.

We live in a dangerous world. A world in which people can lose and have lost jobs or appointments and can alienate and have alienated friends or family members for following Christ’s costly lead. For proclaiming good news to the oppressed, sight to the blind, and release to the captives (Luke 4:18).

If all we can do to stand for the marginalized is to write a quiet letter from the safety of our homes—from the other side of our Jordans—it is enough. God reckons it enough.

But, as we long to follow Jesus, God calls us to more. To do more, to be more, to follow more—as much as we are able. Out of love for God’s children, for our brothers and sisters in this walk we call life, God beckons those of us who are deeply disturbed by the inequities and injustices of this world to follow Christ across the Jordan and to act with love.

For, as Bonhoeffer continues, God’s love is “is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”

The Rev. Dr. Amy Lindeman Allen is Co-Lead Pastor at The Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Reno, NV. She holds her PhD from Vanderbilt University in New Testament and Early Christianity.

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