Though Bethany is listed in the Gospel as the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, note that it was a place of healing long before Jesus got there. The Temple Scroll from Qumran, the longest of the Dead Sea Scrolls, gives the number and exact measurements from Jerusalem in terms of places where the sick should be………… relocated. There should be three separate colonies, one exclusively for lepers. None of them could be within a three thousand cubit radius (about 1400 yards), and according to John, Bethany was 15 stadia (1.72 miles) southeast… out of view of the Temple Mount. Thus, it was the perfect location to hide away the ritually unclean, for two reasons. The first is medical; it prevented the spread of disease and infection. The second is social. No one had to look at the sick and dying, either.
Because the book of Matthew tells the story of Jesus dining with Simon the Leper in Bethany, it’s safe to assume that Bethany was the leper colony mentioned in the Temple Scroll.
Leprosy, today known as Hansen’s Disease, is a bacterial infection. It spread like wildfire because getting it was as easy as coming into contact with an infected person’s cough or phlegm, depending on how much of the bacteria was in the person’s system. Additionally, when you first come into contact with the bacteria, you don’t show any symptoms. If you looked bad enough to be sent to the leper colony, you could have already had the disease for years without knowing it, making it even easier for leprosy to become the “gift that keeps on giving.”
Today, it can be cured by a six or 12 month treatment of multiple antibiotics (depending on severity), now freely provided by the World Health Organization in case any of you Texans decide eating armadillo meat (yes, really) is a good idea.
Of course, back then there was no treatment, because not only had antibiotics not been invented, the idea of something called an “infection” or even a “germ” wouldn’t be introduced for hundreds of years. The only answer was complete isolation. Plus, lepers are not attractive people, which contributed to the temple’s need to stash them away.
Patients present with inflammation of the nerves, respiratory tract, skin, and eyes. As it progresses, lepers develop an inability to feel pain, so not only are their bodies and faces oddly shaped from the inflammation, they tend to have inexplicable wounds all over them because they’ve been hurt without even knowing it. In Bethany, the terrain is hilly, with a lot of brush and short trees… in other words, plenty of opportunities to trip and fall. If you can’t feel an injury, and you can’t see it, you won’t treat it, either. It’s a great recipe for secondary infection.
The classic image of leprosy is that it makes your fingers and toes fall off. This is untrue, although the people of the time thought so. What they thought of as fingers and toes “falling off” was actually secondary injuries causing tissue damage enough to make cartilage absorb into the body and bones to shorten.
If there’s nerve damage in the face, you lose the ability to blink, which can lead to blindness and even more chance for serious secondary injury and/or infection.
Leprosy rates are higher in places of poverty. This makes sense, because in the Aramaic, Bethany (or Beth Anya) means “house of misery” or “poor house.” Painting a picture of Bethany is not a beautiful one in terms of population. If you lived there, you were probably poor, sick, or both. It didn’t matter to Jesus, though. It was just the last stop before journeying into Jerusalem. While he was there, he found friends close enough to make it feel like home.
Jesus met Mary, Martha and Lazarus when he and the Disciples were passing through Bethany (although the village isn’t named in the Gospel of Luke) and the sisters opened their home to them. When Martha complained to Jesus that Mary was not helping her in the kitchen while he taught the Disciples, he said, Martha, Martha… you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. After that, they remained close.
When their brother got sick, Mary and Martha naturally wanted their friend. Not only did they need him for emotional support, they thought that Jesus might be able to heal Lazarus altogether. They sent Jesus a message saying simply, the one you love is ill. Notice that they did not ask Jesus to come to Bethany at all. They did not send a message of expectation. They knew that their friendship bond was strong enough for the message to stand on its own. St. Augustine was the first person to point this out, saying it was sufficient that Jesus should know; for it is not possible that any man should at one and the same time love a friend and desert him.
When he heard the message, Jesus said, this illness is not going to prove fatal; rather it has happened for the sake of the glory of God, so that God’s Son should be glorified by means of it. Political tensions were growing surrounding Jesus’ healing ability. I do not believe that Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, although there are many theologians who do. At that point, I think he believed in his ability to deal with the situation no matter what it was, but that when he healed Lazarus, it would give the Sanhedrin enough evidence to convict him. Jesus did not mean that he was going to Bethany to show off by bringing a dead man to life. He meant that if he healed Lazarus, he was the one that was going to die.
No good deed goes unpunished.
Clare Booth Luce, The Book of Laws
There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
Looking at this scripture in this light, it makes more sense that Jesus waited two days before beginning the journey to Bethany. The gospel does not record why those two extra days were needed, but venturing into fiction, when you know you’re going to die, there are things you have to take care of, first. Perhaps he had to take care of his own panic before he could lead his disciples back into fire.
In John 11:6-10, the disciples are terrified, and they show it:
Now, when Jesus had received the news that Lazarus was ill, he continued to stay where he was for two days. But after that he said to his disciples: “Let us go to Judaea again.” His disciples said to him: “Rabbi, things had got to a stage when the Jews were trying to find a way to stone you, and do you propose to go back there?” Jesus answered: “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If a man walks in the day-time, he does not stumble because he has the light of this world. But if a man walks in the night-time, he does stumble because the light is not in him.”
I believe that those two days were needed for Jesus’ presence of mind and clear vision. He had to pray for discernment, and ask the hard questions, like “am I really ready for this? If I perform another miracle, that’s it. My days are numbered because I already have a mark on my head and this will just send the Sanhedrin over the edge… and if they take me, they’re going to take me in broad daylight, because I will not run.”
When they reach Bethany, Mary is understandably upset, and so is Jesus:
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.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
I depart from most theologians on this scripture. Most of the commentary I’ve read says that Jesus intentionally waited until Lazarus was indisputably dead just to make the miracle that much more…. well… miraculous. But the words “greatly disturbed in spirit” and “deeply moved” do not point to that conclusion.
To me, it is a moment of undeniable humanness. Jesus, in his need for clarity and discernment, is late. When the crowd reaches the tomb, John says again that Jesus is “deeply disturbed.” I believe he has heard the Jews in the crowd who said could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying? After all, it’s going to be the Jews who scoffed at him who ignore the miracle entirely and rat him out to the Sanhedrin, anyway…. and he knows it.
He prays in supplication to show holy authority. The power to raise Lazarus from the dead does not come from him, but from God… and when he yells Lazarus, come out!, inexplicably, he does. Jesus then says to unbind him, and let him go.
This story is quite problematic because it is so great a miracle surely the other gospel writers would have heard about it. It’s also a problem because John says that this miracle was Jesus’ undoing, while in the other three gospels it is the cleansing of the temple… the story that beget the saying, “when asking ‘what would Jesus do,’ remember that getting angry and flipping over tables is a viable option.” To me, the cleansing of the temple seems like a much more punishable offense, but at the same time, if Jesus hadn’t cured Lazarus, would he have received such a spectacle of a welcome in Jerusalem (celebrated on Palm Sunday)?
I believe he would’ve. Jesus did something that none of the other Jews had the chutzpah to achieve- making the temple sacred once more. This story comes across as a parable mimicking Luke 16:19-31, which talks about a rich man and a poor man in the afterlife. The poor man, coincidentally (or not), is also named Lazarus. In it, the rich man begs Abraham to let Lazarus put some water on him because he is in agony. When Abraham denies his request, he asks him to send Lazarus to his house to warn his family of their fate if they keep treating poor people the way he did. Then, this conversation takes place:
Abraham: They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.
Unnamed Rich Man: I know, Father Abraham, but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.
Abraham: If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.
The Jews absolutely wailing at Lazarus’ death did not believe in a God who could change their lives even though a person rose from the dead right in front of them. We cannot possibly know what actually happened that day, but we cannot ignore the truth in the story altogether. It doesn’t matter whether Jesus raised Lazarus corporeally, but it does matter that if you feel dead inside, there is a way out.
Think about all the secrets that burn you up… the ones in which you’d rather be dead than tell. Everyone has them, because we are all human. What would it take to resurrect you and free you from that pain? Jesus is talking about walking in more than literal sunlight. The darkness is where we hide the things we’d rather not share, and in keeping them pent up, we limit ourselves from resurrection into a new life, one in which we can be our flawed human selves and have people love us, anyway.
Today as we celebrate the sainthood of those who have gone before us, I ask that you remember we call everyone who has passed on “saints,” but that doesn’t mean they were perfect when they were alive. They had the experience of loving and living just as we do right now, in the same “heavenly hell.” Talk about them as they were, and tell their stories of the death and resurrection that happened over and over in their lifetimes…. every time they had enough of the life they were living and decided to reach up for something more. Every time they resolved a problem they thought would never end. Every time they tried for perfection and reality got in the way but they bounced back, full and alive again. Talk about their Good Fridays, and every Easter afterward.
And then talk about yours.