For the days following Easter, I will be presenting a short series of notes on the Lazarus episode in the Gospel of John (11:1-44)—specifically, the dialogue between Martha and Jesus in verses 21-27. This exchange is similar in certain respects to the dialogue format used in the Discourses, as for example, in the scenes with Nicodemus (in chapter 3) and the Samaritan woman (in chapter 4).
The exchange between Martha and Jesus partially follows the pattern of Jesus’ discourse with Nicodemus in 3:1-10ff. Martha’s initial address—”Lord [Ku/rie]…”—is not all that different from how Nicodemus addresses Jesus (“Rabbi…” v. 2, cf. 20:16 etc), with an honorific title. The use of ku/rio$ (“lord”) may indicate a level of deeper relationship—i.e. of a disciple to his/her master—but it should not be understood here in its full Christological sense (cp. 20:28). The occurrence of the second Ku/rie (“Lord…”) from Martha in v. 27, however, may be intended to show a greater degree of awareness as to Jesus’ true identity, and so is set in parallel with the first address in v. 21, to bring out the comparison.
There are several points to note in Martha’s statement. First, she is giving emphasis on Jesus’ miracle-working ability. It is this which marks her understanding and appreciation of him, and corresponds with her desire to see her brother Lazarus healed of his illness. By all accounts, the working of healing miracles was the basis for much of Jesus’ fame and notoriety during his lifetime and the period of his ministry, as the Gospels (esp. the Synoptic narrative) make abundantly clear. In so far as Jesus was regarded as an Anointed (i.e. Messianic) figure during the (Galilean) ministry period, it was primarily as a miracle-working Prophet in the manner of Elijah, or the Anointed herald of Isa 61:1ff. Nicodemus certainly recognized this as well:
“Rabbi, we see [i.e. know] that you have come from God (as) a teacher, for no one is able to do these signs which you do, if God were not with him” (3:2)
While not used exclusively of miracles, the word shmei=on (“sign”) tends to have this meaning in John, as in the rest of the New Testament.
Second, the first half of her statement focus on the physical presence of Jesus in order to work miracles: “Lord, if you were [i.e. had been] here…” This is similar to the request by the official in 4:46ff, who asked “that (Jesus) come down and cure his son” (v. 47). Clearly he, like Martha, believes that Jesus is capable of working such a cure; yet, Jesus’ response, somewhat surprisingly, suggests that this indicates a lack of faith: “If you do not see signs and wonders, (surely) you do not trust” (v. 48). In fact, the man’s son is cured from a distance, without requiring Jesus’ presence, but only the power and effect of his word (vv. 50ff). In terms of the theology (and Christology) of the Gospel of John, the presence of Jesus is important, as he is the incarnate Son who makes the Father known to his disciples (believers), and yet an equally important message is that true faith (trust) in Jesus ultimately is not based on the observance of physical events and phenomena (such as miracles), but on acceptance of the living, eternal word [lo/go$] which Jesus speaks, and which is present in his person.
Third, it is significant here that Martha frames the question of healing and life by a negative. She might have said, “if you were here, my brother would have lived,”, etc; but, instead, her statement is, “…my brother would not have died away [ou)k a*n a)pe/qanen]”. In other words, life is not-death. This introduces the important interplay between life and death which runs through the dialogue of vv. 21-27 and the remainder of the episode. The verb a)poqnh/skw (“die away, die off”) first appears in the Gospel of John in the earlier episode of the official’s son who is healed (4:47), occurs in a number of the discourses which follow (6:49-50, 58; 8:21, 24, 52-53). The motif of the Son’s life-giving creative power, which even gives life to the dead (i.e. resurrection), is central to the discourse in 5:19-29 as well as the Bread of Life discourse (6:35-58). In both passages, it is fundamentally Jesus’ word (or words, command, “voice”) which gives life to the dead. As the Gospel progresses, the positive aspect—of Jesus’ word being not only life-giving, but life itself—becomes a more dominant motif. This shift is manifest in the very dialogue between Jesus and Martha, as we shall see.