A Reflection on the readings for Lent 5 by Janine Goodwin, M.S. Ed., M.A. Theology.
When I was a teenager, I began a passionate search to learn more about God. Since I was shy and bookish, I began with the church library, a single bookcase full of threadbare copies of inspirational titles which promised a perpetual mood of cheerful holiness I found implausible if I would only yank on my spiritual bootstraps hard enough to achieve a level of trust I couldn't sustain for more than a few hours of hopeful euphoria; those hours were invariably followed by a scrabbling, flailing period of faked happiness that bottomed out into a long, grim letdown. After awhile, each book seemed like more of the same old hopeless thing, but I read through them one by one, searching for the one that would change me.
I still remember the shock of recognition, joy, and a little fear when I saw a new addition, a battered paperback with the title Your God Is Too Small. I remember little of what J. B. Phillips wrote, but have never lost the insight that our concept of God is always too small to encompass God's reality. At various times, I have found out that my God was too small, too rule-bound, too male, too pale, too twentieth-century, and thought too much like me. The too-small Gods fold up in crises, fade away in the face of sustained thought, fail to meet me when I seek them in prayer, and disappear in the light of new knowledge. But that's all right, because none of them are the real, living God, in whom we live and move and have our being, who speaks to us in the deepest part of our souls, who is close to us than we are to ourselves, and who, for all this, remains unknowable.
Scripture is like that, too; it keeps expanding the more I learn about it. My perception of scripture has gone from that of a frightening monolith full of harsh commandments and blinding miracles to a fluid, multi-voiced, very present set of stories that invites us to read,, reinterpret and retell, finding our own truths in its light as we grow.
A priest I knew used to lead a Monday night Bible study: whoever showed up sat in a circle and practiced lectio divina with the coming Sunday's Gospel. The prayerful silence brought forth images, ideas, and interpretations that made the sermon the result of group discernment as well as of the priest's education and skill. The insights and questions that seemed most difficult at the first hearing were frequently the most illuminating in the end, and we would smile at each other when we sang the hymn whose refrain was, "The Lord has yet more light and truth to come forth from the Word."
The themes of the too-small God and the multiple readings of a story came back to me when I began to study the raising of Lazarus in a circle of books. In at least one interpretation of this story, everyone's God is too small, and this makes Jesus so angry he cries.
First, the disciples ignore Jesus when he tells them, with increasing clarity, what is going on. He tells them that Lazarus is asleep, and they don't get it, so he tells them that Lazarus is dead and that they will see God's glory—but all they see is what Thomas voices: they will risk death by heading toward Jerusalem. I had always heard this as a heroic utterance, but Ann Nyland, in her 2005 translation, The Source New Testament, says it is "highly sarcastic." Suddenly, the bold figure I'd imagined, calling his friends to martyrdom, became someone who may be hunched and muttering an aside, or even speaking clearly on the edge of defiance—but someone who went anyhow, following Jesus imperfectly and with doubt.
When Jesus and his fellow travelers reach Bethany, Martha expresses deep faith in Jesus even in her reproach, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." At his prompting, she confesses that he is the Messiah, a confession that would stand alongside Peter's if women had been valued alongside men through the last two millennia. Martha is the heroine! I thought, then read Francis Moloney's commentary on the Gospel of John in the Sacra Pagina series. Moloney contends that Martha's proclamation of Jesus as rabbi and even as Messiah show the limits of her understanding. She still sees only the miracle-worker, not God incarnate. She interrupts Jesus to tell him which resurrection he means: "I know he will rise again at the last day." Her confession of faith is limited to what she already knows.
Here, I felt a flash of anger and a wince of recognition. Can't the woman be the one who really gets it right just this once, and can't we finally recognize it? Then I thought of all the times I have told God what I know in prayer rather than listening for the living and creative voice of the Spirit. If Martha's confession is limited by her limited perceptions, she is still no less an apostle than Peter, whose proclamation was followed by cowardice and whose comment on the Transfiguration was to try and build walls around a vision. None of Jesus' followers see everything and get everything right. When we miss the point, we are following in the footsteps of the apostles—and when we follow, mistakes, rebellious words, and all, we are doing as much as any of them did.
Next, Jesus meets Mary. If Martha made an imperfect confession, perhaps Mary, who sat and listened while Martha was busy managing, will understand better. Mary falls at his feet and repeats, "If you had been her, my brother would not have died." Moloney identifies this gesture and unconditional confession of faith in Jesus' power as a sign of greater faith than Martha's standing and engaging in conversation; given the many examples of faithful women who argue with Jesus in the Gospels, I disagree. In any case, Mary's hope has already died; she joins the mourners, and they all weep out their grief over Lazarus.
Jesus weeps, too. Whether the words describing his state indicate his grief for Lazarus, his anticipation of his own death, or his anger and frustration at his own followers in their failure to imagine how God's glory could come out of this loss, Jesus is as caught up in his emotions as we are in ours: he weeps and is deeply moved. No one is above grief. In the Gospel which insists most strongly and persistently that Jesus is divine, the incarnate God, for whatever reason, sobs and wails with the people who have lost a brother, a friend, a precious set of hopes for the future. God weeps with us in our losses. One persistent vision of God, the God who cannot suffer, is a God who looks too large for us, but is too small in the inability to share in all our griefs. (Recently, theologians have begun to question the idea of the God who is immune to suffering. To name only two, J. Massyngbaerde Ford gives a summary of twentieth-century takes on the impassible God in Redeemer: Friend and Mother and Rosemary Haughton writes luminously of The Passionate God.)
My God was too small, my disciples were too large, and here they all grieve together. Jesus does not show up on the scene, calm everyone down from a detached perspective, and make a miracle as shiny as a laminated holy card. Jesus stands in the dust, weeping as others reproach him for coming to late to heal his friend. He calls for people to push away the stone at the tomb's entrance, and practical Martha reminds him that death stinks. How often, when God is offering to do something new, do we try to turn aside from it because we know what our deaths smell like—the stench of a broken relationship, the dusty smell of a dying church, the sweaty bodies of the homeless, whose smell is a reproach to those of us who will not help them find a clean, safe place? Jesus may weep with us, but he never despairs with us, and he faces our deaths with us even as he brings new life. As anyone who as seen a birth knows, new life is a messy thing. Lazarus does not come out like the undead of the horror movies, but he doesn't come out tidy, either: he returns from death trailing his graveclothes, stumbling back into the light of day blinded by a cloth around his face. Jesus does not make the graveclothes fall away, but calls the disciples to remove them. When God calls something back to life, we have work to do; we must unwrap the graveclothes, bring the food and drink that sustains new life, continue the healing.
Lazarus is returned to his family and his community. Jesus has raised him from the dead so that those around him might believe. In the next part of the story, the part that is not usually read in the lectionary for this week, the imperfect belief of the disciples is joined by the limited belief of the political and religious authorities, who see clearly that Jesus threatens the status quo and their power. He is dangerous, and he must be killed. I find it easy to empathize with the disciples in this story, but it is much harder to face the times when I, too, have wanted to kill the power of God in my life in order to feel safe.
Our God is too small, our faith is imperfect, and sometimes we want to silence the Spirit and kill the messenger: but down the road, beyond the Crucifixion, there is a Resurrection coming. Dare we believe?