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The Politics of Scripture

The Politics of Border Crossing—John 11:1-44

Although at first glance they may appear incidental, the frequency of border crossings in the story of the raising of Lazarus suggests the presence of a theme. Through a narrative of successive boundary crossings, the power and willingness of God to traverse any distance and border is made manifest.

John 11:1-44
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4 But 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.’ 5 Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6 after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 8 The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ 9 Jesus 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. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ 11 After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ 12 The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23 Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24 Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25 Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27 She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

28 When 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.’ 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The 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. 32 When 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.’ 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37 But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus 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 for four days.’ 40 Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I 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.’ 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44 The 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.’

There is a lot of movement in John 11:1-44, particularly for a Gospel that is characterized by long discourses, with the characters remaining in a single location for chapters at a time. Jesus, his disciples, Mary, Martha, the Judeans, and even Lazarus himself, all move from “here” to “there,” “in” and “out”—across boundaries—in the narration of this account. While at first glance these movements may seem insignificant details, present simply to keep the plot moving, when considered as a whole, they provide a powerful testament to the theme of border crossing in the Lazarus account.

To begin with, the sister’s messenger, and ultimately Jesus and his disciples themselves, cross the geo-political border between Perea and Judea. In the previous chapter, Jesus and his disciples had been in Jerusalem, the capital city of Judea, teaching in the temple (John 10:22). When the Pharisees began to perceive Jesus’ message as a threat, they accused him of blasphemy and attempted to stone him to death. Jesus and his disciples sought political refuge just outside of the territory of Judea, in Perea. In this period, the Pharisees were among the group of Judeans given limited power by the Roman governors in order to hold the broader population in check. In contrast, Perea—the region “beyond the Jordan” (John 10:40)—was outside of the immediate purview of the Roman governors of Judea, being still under the rule of Herod Antipas (along with Jesus’ home region of Galilee).

Despite the connection of this territory with his home region of Galilee, however, being himself a Jew, in the broader sense of one who worships in the temple at Jerusalem, Jesus’ presence in Perea was in a sense as an exile or refugee in this land beyond the Jordan. Thus, when Jesus and his disciples cross over again to Judea (11:7, 17), they are both returning ‘home’ and placing themselves in grave political danger: “Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him’” (11:16).

Next, the “Judeans” (NRSV translates, “Jews”) also can be seen to cross borders in this text. It is important to note that, being residents of Bethany in Judea, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are also Judeans. However, here the Johannine author seems to refer to Judeans/Jews as a particular group of Judeans who reside in Jerusalem. This can be discerned from the reference to Jerusalem with the introduction of the Judeans in 10:18-19. From a geo-political standpoint, this would likely have been a group of more conservative Jews, who, along with the Pharisees, placed tremendous significance on the temple religion. In any case, this group of Judeans leaves the holy city, crossing over the border into Bethany, in order to console Martha and Mary (10:19). The emphasis upon this group’s consoling purpose is accentuated by the narration of their movement always into circles of care—first, from Jerusalem to Bethany in order to console the sisters (10:18-19) and then from their house with the intention of going to the tomb “because they thought that [Mary] was going to the tomb to weep there” (10:31).

This border crossing can be seen to hold even greater significance when one considers Brian Capper’s argument for the possibility of Bethany as both a bastion for the poor and one of three locations outside of Jerusalem designated in Qumran for the care of the sick.[1] The Jerusalem Judeans, then, put themselves at risk, crossing both socio-economic and health-related borders in order to console the Bethany sisters through their presence. From this perspective, then, it becomes clear why both the sisters and their Judean supporters would have criticized Jesus for not likewise immediately putting himself at risk by crossing the border that separated him from this family. Martha laments, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:21, emphasis added). Thus, crossing the borders of relative security to poverty, of health to sickness, of home to graveside, the Judeans move throughout the course of the narrative in a manner focused on providing comfort and care to Martha and Mary as geographic and religious compatriots.

Moreover, Martha and Mary cross several borders of their own. First, Martha also moves out of a place of security—her home—to meet Jesus and his disciples on the road (10:20). Ultimately, Mary, at the prodding of her sister, does the same (10:28-29). Thus, while the Judeans cross the border into Bethany to be with the sisters, the sisters must cross out of Bethany to meet Jesus and his disciples when they enter Judea (10:30). In this meeting, then, each character is in his or her own way at risk. They meet one another at a place of vulnerability—perhaps signified by their collective weeping (10:33, 35).

However, these are not the only borders to be crossed. After all of the characters meet on the road in their vulnerability, they cross together from a place of life to a place of death: “Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb” (10:38). And here, Jesus demonstrates that there is no border separating God from us that God will not or cannot cross. Noticeably, Jesus does not command Lazarus to “get up” as might be expected from his previous reference to Lazarus’ condition as asleep (10:11) and as he does to raise the little girl in Mark 5:42. Neither does Jesus proclaim Lazarus as “alive” as he promises that the official’s daughter will live in John 4:46-54. Instead, Jesus commands Lazarus to “come out!” (10:43). As a result of this, the last locative movement of this pericope takes place in 10:44 when “The dead man came out” (emphasis added). Lazarus thus crosses over the threshold of the cave that has been his tomb, while Jesus shows the power of God to cross even the borders between this world and the next—between life and death—hearkening back to Martha’s proclamation earlier in the story, when “She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (10:27, emphasis added).

The Rev. Amy Lindeman Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.

[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to 40bicycles@gmail.com.]

[1] Brian J. Capper, “John, Qumran and Virtuoso Religion” in Paul Anderson, Mary Coloe, and Tom Thatcher (eds.), John and Qumran (Leuven: Peeters, 2009).

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