Written by D.A. Carson |
Tuesday, October 18, 2022
Jesus is outraged not because he has lost a friend [Lazarus], but because of death itself. Death is such an ugly enemy. It generates endless and incalculable anguish. And for anyone steeped in the entire biblical heritage, death itself is a mark of sin.
Expressions of Grief
Today it is considered good form to weep discretely, dab tears and turn away, to be quiet and subdued. We go into a mortuary, and our voices go down to a whisper as we talk quietly. We might well consider it good taste to let the bereaved family member go to the tomb in peace and privacy. But in many cultures in the world, including the Jewish culture in the first century, that was simply not the way it was. They expressed grief with loud cries and wails, often communally. You can still see something similar in various immigrant groups today: witness many Greek Orthodox and Muslim funerals, for instance. In the first century, not only did the mourners themselves wail, but they hired professional mourners to keep the noise and tears flowing. In fact, it was customary for even the poorest family to hire a minimum of two flute players and a professional wailing woman (Mishnah Ketubbot 4:4). The flute players would play dirges in minor keys to increase the solemnity and sadness of the occasion, and the professional wailing woman would increase the volume level every time it lowered.
Lazarus’s family was not a poor one. This was a posh family with lots of money. Who knows how many musicians they hired? Certainly there was a lot of noise. John tells us that when they see Mary slipping away, they think that she is going off to the tomb, and they think, “We’ll follow along to provide her with the appropriate support.”
So a great number of people from Jerusalem are there following Mary, along with the intimates from the village of Bethany. But Mary does not go to the tomb. She heads up the road to find Jesus and approaches him with exactly the same words that Martha used: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32). But this time round the conversation takes a very different turn. Who knows where it might have gone if the crowd had not been there? Perhaps Jesus’ conversation with Mary would have followed a line very similar to what ensued with Martha.
But “when Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping”—this is noisy now; not quietly-dab-your-tears but first-class noise—“he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” There is no way that the original text should be rendered that way. I hate to mention two translation mistakes in one passage, but this is just a plain flat-out mistake in translation. It means “he was outraged” (not “deeply moved”). That is what this verb always means whenever it is applied to human beings. Interestingly, all the German translations I’ve checked have it right; all the English ones I’ve checked have it wrong. (That fact, I suppose, shows how often there is a controlling tradition even in our Bible translation.)
“‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept” (John 11:34–35). Probably the fact that Jesus wept is what has constrained some people to render the earlier verb “he was deeply moved.” but that is simply not what it means. Jesus was outraged? But why? And why did he weep? Why these responses? They seem so surprising. It surely was not because he was powerless and frustrated. He was only minutes from one of his most spectacular miracles. Nor is it that he feels forced into doing a miracle (although some commentators have suggested this slightly bizarre notion). This was the very reason he came down south to Bethany. Nor is it simply that he misses his friend Lazarus, as if Jesus’ tears at the loss of Lazarus are essentially analogous to our tears at the loss of a loved one.
It is impudent to try to put yourself in Jesus’ place, but so far as you can, do so in this instance. If you are crying because your friend has died when you know full well that you are going to raise him from the dead in about two minutes, how genuine would the tears be?
Remember the Context
It is important to keep reminding ourselves of the context. Jesus sees all these people weeping, crying, and wailing in the face of implacable death, and he is outraged. He is profoundly troubled, so emotionally worked up over it that he weeps. There is a compassion in these tears, but there is also outrage. Jesus is outraged not because he has lost a friend but because of death itself. Death is such an ugly enemy. It generates endless and incalculable anguish. And for anyone steeped in the entire biblical heritage, death itself is a mark of sin.