The Friendship of Christ

He had two sisters, Martha and Mary. His house was one of Jesus’ favorite places. And yet He waited three days to go visit him after his death. Many were scandalized. And then came the miracle of the resurrection, bringing with it the death sentence for Christ


Not a word from him. Not a gesture. Not an expression or an emotion. We don’t even know what he looked like. His face has “crossed” more than two millennia hidden by a shroud.
His name, Lazarus of Bethany, is entwined with another, John. John is the only one of the four evangelists who tells about his resurrection, brought about by the Lord.

Lazarus and John, the favorites par excellence: two people among those best loved by Jesus during His time on earth, to the point that Lazarus was snatched from the jaws of death four days after he died.

Everyone knew that Lazarus was the Lord’s friend, the only one referred to in the Gospel narrative by the term “our friend Lazarus.” And yet he was not part of the close circle of disciples, nor did he follow Him in His wanderings.

Lazarus had two sisters, Martha and Mary.

As is known, the Lord had no home; Lazarus’ house, in Bethany, was where He stayed when He was in that area, between Galilee and Judaea. Martha, the “engine” of the house, saw to His needs. The other sister, Mary, as soon as Jesus arrived, would drop everything to sit at His feet and not miss a word of what He said.

“Our friend Lazarus is asleep”

And then there was Lazarus: the events concerning him took place at the end of February or the beginning of March of the year 30.

Jesus was on the other side of the Jordan River, in an area called Peraea, right where John the Baptist had baptized Him, and He intended to stay there for some time.

It was there that He received from Mary and Martha the sad news that Lazarus was ill. It must have been a very serious illness, if the two women asked the Lord to be present at His friend’s side. Besides, Peraea was only a little more than a day’s walk away.

Here is how John (11:3) tells of the message from the sisters and Jesus’ subsequent behavior: “The sisters sent this message to Jesus, ‘Lord, the man you love is ill.’ On receiving the message, Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death, but it is for God’s glory so that through it the Son of God may be glorified.’ Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”

At this point, the Lord’s behavior threw everyone off-balance. It was expected that this great friendship, this great love for the three would push Jesus to rush off toward the house in Bethany; but no. When the Lord “heard that he was ill, He stayed where He was for two more days before saying to the disciples, ‘Let us go back to Judaea.’”

Here we have to consider a fact of paramount importance: to set foot in Judaea at that moment meant going practically to Jerusalem, since Bethany was only a little over a mile and a half from the cityin other words, into the den of Jesus’ enemies. The disciples were alarmed and openly showed Him their worry. “Rabbi, it is not long since the Jews were trying to stone You; are You going back there again?”

The disciples were referring to the fact that, two months earlier, Jesus, interrupting his travels through Judaea, had gone to Jerusalem to continue his ministry there. His presence in the city was noted immediately, becoming the object of special attention and surveillance by the highest authorities of Judaism, who had “had their eyes on Him” for some time. And precisely on that occasion, after provoking Him at length about who He was, the Jews had hoped He would admit to being the Messiah so they could report Him to the Romans as a political agitator. At that time, Jesus had avoided a direct answer, but did state that He “and the Father are one.” This reply set off, nonetheless, the violent reaction of the Jews, who tried to get their hands on Him to stone Him. Luckily, the Lord “hid and went out of the Temple.”

We cannot understand His love for Lazarus completely unless we remember how much He was risking if He came close to Jerusalem. Then Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.” These words confirmed the disciples in their error, as they thought that Jesus, hearing about His friend’s illness, had said that it would not be fatal. Above all, they thought this because He had stayed where He was for two more days, instead of running to His friend’s bedside. So they answered trustingly, "Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover."

They did not say, “he will wake up,” but “he will recover.” They said this because medical knowledge during Jesus’ time held that deep sleep was a sign that the organism was reacting to the illness and beginning to get rid of it. “So Jesus put it plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead; and for your sake I am glad I was not there because now you will believe. But let us go to him.’”

At that point the poor disciples did not know what to think. Lazarus was dead, therefore there was no longer any reason to go to him. And they should stay away even more so because going to Judaea meant going into the den of the Pharisees and the high priests. They were caught in the middle between the dark fear of risking their necks among those spiteful enemies and their total devotion to Jesus, who seemed unshakably set on making the trip. Thomas made an effort to persuade his friends, revealing plainly, however, his total lack of confidence in the final outcome: “Let us also go to die with Him.” All of them, therefore, started walking to Bethany, arriving after just one day.

“Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died”
At this point, we need do nothing more than read again John’s narrative, so moving and precisely detailed: “On arriving, Jesus found that Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days already. Bethany is less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming she went to meet Him. Mary remained sitting in the house. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died, but even now I know that God will grant whatever You ask of Him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said, ‘I know he will rise again at the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said, ‘I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in Me, even though that person dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this? ‘Yes, Lord,’ she said, ‘I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, the One who was to come into this world.’ When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in a low voice, ‘The Master is here and wants to see you.’ Hearing this, Mary got up quickly and went to Him. Jesus had not yet come into the village; He was still at the place where Martha had met Him. When the Jews who were in the house comforting Mary saw her get up so quickly and go out, they followed her, thinking that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Mary went to Jesus, and as soon as she saw Him she threw herself at His feet, saying, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.’ At the sight of her tears, Jesus was greatly distressed.”

The Jews buried their dead on the same day of their death. It was thought that the soul of the deceased wandered around the body for three days, hoping to get back in again, but on the fourth day, when decomposition had started, it went away for good. Sympathy calls from relatives and friends went on for seven days, but they were more frequent in the first three.

“Lazarus, come out!”
When Jesus arrived, the two sisters were surrounded by visitors bringing their condolences. Jesus was met first by Martha, then Mary moved toward Him too, followed by the visitors. After exchanging a few words with the sisters and seeing all those people mourning and weeping, “Jesus was greatly distressed,” like any real, living man, able to feel the same feelings as everyone else. “And with a profound sigh He said, ‘Where have you put him?’ They said, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus wept; and the Jews said, ‘See how much He loved him!’ But there were some who remarked, ‘He opened the eyes of the blind man. Could He not have prevented this man’s death?’ Sighing again, Jesus reached the tomb: it was a cave with a stone over the opening. Jesus said, ‘Take the stone away.’ Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to Him, ‘Lord, by now he will smell: this is the fourth day since he died.’ Jesus replied, ‘Have I not told you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?’ So they took the stone away. Then Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, ‘Father, I thank You for hearing My prayer. I Myself know that you hear Me always, but I speak for the sake of all these who are standing around Me, so that they may believe it was You who sent Me.’ When He had said this, He cried in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his feet and hands bound with strips of material, and a cloth over his face. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go free.’”

Palestinian tombs during Jesus’ time were located not far from the residential areas or right on their edge. The tombs of people of some rank were usually dug out of the rock, either perpendicularly like a grave in the flat places, or horizontally like a cave in the hilly areas. They consisted essentially of a funerary chamber with one or more niches for the bodies, and often had a small atrium in front of the chamber. The atrium and chamber were connected to each other by a narrow door that was always open, while the atrium communicated with the outside through a door that was blocked by a large stone.

The body, after being washed, sprinkled with perfumes, and wrapped in strips of material and then in a sheet, was simply laid in its niche in the funerary chamber, thus remaining essentially in immediate contact with the air inside. It is easy to imagine that on the third or fourth day after it was laid there, despite the perfume, the whole interior of the tomb would have been rank with the exhalations from the corpse.

This is what Martha was worried about when Jesus ordered her to take away the stone that closed the outer door. Lazarus’ body had been there for four days.

Today, on the spot where the ancient Bethany stood, a tomb is shown that a tradition already established in the fourth century identifies as Lazarus’ tomb. But, apart from the authenticity of this tomb, what is impressive about John’s narration is his extreme precision, down to the most minute details, even the psychological ones. Think about the behavior of some of the Jews. They accused Jesus, not without a hint of mockery, of not having prevented Lazarus’ death, after having given sight to the blind man in Jerusalem. After this miracle, a split occurred among the Jews themselves, as narrated by an eyewitness: “Many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what He did, believed in Him, but some of them went to the Pharisees to tell them what Jesus had done.”

The effect of the zealous message was the decision made by the Pharisees to do away with the worker of such great, and public, miracles.

In this regard, Giuseppe Ricciotti admirably writes in his Life of Jesus Christ, on page 543: “Here it is important to note that the split produced among the Jews who witnessed the miracle has a historically perfect psychological foundation. Among those adversaries of Jesus, those who have not forgotten they were men surrender to the miracle and believe in the one who performed it; conversely, those who have subordinated their minds and hearts as men to their roles as members of a party, are concerned only with the party’s triumph and run to report Jesus.”

The miracle of Lazarus, which condemns Jesus to death
In any case, the Jewish magnates of Jerusalem took the report of Lazarus’ resurrection very seriously. They called an assembly in Jerusalem, in which many members of the Sanhedrin took part. The question was put to them: “What action are we taking? Here is this man working all these signs. If we let him go on in this way, everybody will believe in him, and the Romans will come and suppress the Holy Place and our nation.”

The high priest Caiaphas also participated in the assembly. After listening quietly to the various proposals, he took the floor: “You do not seem to have grasped the situation at all; you fail to see that it is to your advantage that one man should die for the people, rather than that the whole nation should perish.” Caiaphas did not name any names, but everyone understood that the one man who had to die for the people was Jesus.

The Lord found out immediately about this assembly and what had been decided there. From that moment on, He no longer appeared in public and, moving away from the “hot spot” of Jerusalem, withdrew to a town called Ephraim, about 15 miles north of Jerusalem.

What happened to Lazarus? We know, once again from John, that he met the Lord again; Jesus stayed for only a short time in Ephraim. As Passover was drawing near, He set out for Jerusalem, taking the longer road that ran along the Jordan and went through Jericho.

But going up from Jericho toward Jerusalem, Jesus necessarily had to pass through Bethany, which He had left only a few weeks earlier. When He arrived in the city, He was welcomed in triumph because of the fresh memory of Lazarus’ resurrection. The evening of His arrival–it was the Sabbath–a dinner was held in His honor at the house of one Simon, called the Leper, one of the richest men in the neighborhood, whose nickname came from the illness from which he had recovered, perhaps at the hand of Jesus.

Lazarus and his two sisters were among the guests. And as always, Martha directed the preparation of the dinner. Mary had brought as her gift an alabaster jar containing precious ointments meant for the Lord. When she came to the couch on which Jesus was reclining, instead of removing the seal at the mouth of the flask, she broke it at its long neck, a sign of greater devotion, and poured some over His head and the rest on His feet. Then she dried them with her long hair. This wastefulness shocked Judas Iscariot. He protested openly, with the excuse that if they had sold all that ointment they could have given the money to the poor. In reality, as John tells us, Judas “was a thief” who took money from the disciples’ common fund.

In the meantime, in Jerusalem the great crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and “came not only on account of Jesus but also to see Lazarus whom He had raised from the dead.”

This too was reported in Jerusalem, and so the high priests, whose intention to have Jesus killed was reinforced, “decided to kill Lazarus as well.” The reason was clear: once Jesus and Lazarus were dead, the people’s emotion would surely calm down and everything would go back to the way it was before.

We know how it all ended, a few days later. Lazarus managed to save his life. The Lord went on His way to Jerusalem with His disciples so that the Holy Scriptures could be fulfilled. We know from John that the pilgrimages to Lazarus’ house did not cease. Many wanted to continue to see first-hand Jesus’ friend who had come back from the dead.

It is touching to think that the resurrection of Lazarus accelerated the Lord’s death: the magnificence and grandeur of that miracle, in effect, swept away the hesitations of the Pharisees, by this point terrified of Christ’s fame.

A few days more, and another, much more glorious Resurrection would take place.