Friday, November 20, 2009

Po' Lazarus (forgiving Jesus): Part 2

Remember the Dietzes, whose farm I was on last month? They were kind enough to invite me to church with them, and while it was my first time at an Anabaptist house of prayer (the elder Dietzes are part of the River Brethren group of Mennonites), I was struck less by the similarities and differences of the the service and more by the content of the sermon, which was based on the story of Lazarus.
This past Sunday I went to a Jahovah's Witness service with Sarah's lovely Iranian neighbors, the Haghighis, and once again poor Lazarus was brought up (this time in conversation, if not flesh).
We humans hold so many beautiful, powerful myths tucked safely away between the pages of our holy books, ready for the days we need them. Like any strong story medicine, Lazarus' tale resonates in different ways at different points in our lives. Back in Pennsylvania, I found myself drawn in by the sheer humility and wretchedness that both Jesus and Lazarus' sisters experience "for the glory of God;" last Sunday was a good reminder that I'd been meaning to blog about it for a while, so I might as well get crackin'!The Story of Lazarus is a misleading one if you go on title alone. A bit character without any lines, Lazarus himself lurks at the edges of the story, surfacing only at the end as a vessel for Jesus' superstar powers. Popular mythology doesn't help; from paintings to witty similes, we tend to focus on the theatrics of Lazarus' situation. Try to abridge any of it - Jesus hears his friend is sick, arrives after he dies, and brings him back to life - and you miss the point entirely. But read it aloud, give yourself time to mull over the verses individually and in their collective entirety, and a different, deeper tale emerges; one of duty and submission, pain and resignation, of power balanced with empathy.

We have an almost universal passion for asking Jesus for forgiveness; I'd argue that there are times when we need to forgive Jesus. It's a common enough sentiment to feel upset with those who lead us (presidents, parents, bosses, you name it), but it's less acceptable to do so when that leader is Jesus. The story of Lazarus says it's not only acceptable; it's been going on since he was there to hear about it, and what's more, it can be a way station on the path to personal peace.
I'm sure the very notion of Jesus needing our forgiveness strikes some as sacrilegious, but let's think about it: here's a story about a (really nice) guy who knows his friend is dying, knows the depths of suffering it's gonna cause, and lets it happen anyway, in order to prove a point. And let's be honest, here: he doesn't just do it to prove a point, he does it to prove a point that he knows is going to make him look good. Really, really good... godlike, to be exact. Now, the fact that Jesus lets his friend die because it's for the greater good, and besides, his leader told him to, doesn't negate the fact that poor Lazarus kicks it, and Jesus doesn't do squat for two whole days.

Talk about tough love.

We've all experienced tough love, or betrayal, or abandonment, and while it helps to try and understand why people make difficult choices, and to acknowledge that it often hurts them to do so, it's also important to let ourselves experience the anger that comes from bearing witness to the imperfections of those we love. Not because it changes the outcome of their choices, but because from there, we can parse our emotions down from anger to sadness to love. And therein lies forgiveness.
"How could you do this?" becomes "You hurt me."
"You hurt me" becomes "I trusted you not to."
And if we're really brave, if we're really willing to humble ourselves before God and those we love, we can arrive at the nitty, gritty truth of the matter: "I put my trust in you because I love you."

And "I love you" becomes what it always was, even when it was hidden away under everything else. It becomes itself. It becomes Truth.

That Jesus suffers tremendously over the death of Lazarus doesn't negate the truth that everybody around him was thinking: "If you'd been here, Lazarus wouldn't have died."
If you'd been here. If you'd done your job. You have a gift, you have God's ear, "whatsoever thou shalt ask of God, God will give thee," and you did nothing.
You did nothing.


The question is so strong, so keening, it practically levitates from the text, and it's a rare one of us who hasn't asked that same lost, wretchedly humiliating question of the Cosmos. Why?
Here, in this myth, the answer rises up clear and clean, though elsewhere in our lives it might lie rotting, shrouded and still, buried behind the boulders of our pain. In the story of Lazarus, Jesus sacrifices his friend, and (I'd argue) a part of himself, for the sake of his greater task.
He does it because he has faith that it's the right thing to do; the thing that God asks of him.
He does it because it's the thing that will serve the most people the best, though it hurts his friends the most.
He does it because of all the painful places on his personal Path, he's finally arrived at that one, and the only way past it is to keep walking.
He does it because if he didn't, he wouldn't be Jesus.

In what other text is Jesus' humanity wrought so clearly as it is here? This is a family that Jesus loves, and one that openly loves him, despite the fact that their neighbors want him dead. These people are his allies and his followers, and yet when they call out to him in their direst need, he refuses to answer, though the consequences make him groan.
It's telling that when Jesus gets the message that Lazarus is sick, he knows immediately that it's for his benefit, and yet he keeps the news to himself for two days.
Why does he bear this alone, when he's surrounded by all his disciples?
Perhaps he knows what he has to do, and is unwilling to risk being swayed by what he or anyone around him wants. Or perhaps talking about it would just make things worse. Who among us can't relate to that?

In the end, though, the time comes when he has to tell them, and that's the second place we can see how much it hurts him. Incidentally, this is one of my favorite lines in the story; the dialogue is so sparse, but it holds worlds of angst and meaning. Where else in the Bible do we get to hear Jesus say, "Some bad shit just went down, and I was part of it, and you know what? Y'all got something outa this, too, and you don't even have to believe me, but that's what happened."
I'm paraphrasing, of course, but you get the point. (BTW, the previous post is the American Standard Version; feel free to write your own retelling. Everybody else did.)

There's more beauty to be found here, and more to write about eventually (ohh, eventually...), but I want to get on with my day, as I'm finally starting to feel resurrected myself (Louisiana climate + mold = one sick wandering Jewess), thanks to the miracles of Dr. Terry, one of the amazing naturopaths and co-founder of the Center for Natural Healing. Good People are everywhere, and Dr. Terry is at the top of my list. Now... to clean my car!

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