(Lent 5A John 11:1-45)
There are so many fascinating threads in the story of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, with its themes of humanity and divinity, and its subplot marking Thomas as possibly the bravest disciple of all. At my lectionary group this week we had a rich discussion, wondering just what this story was really about? It prefigures the Resurrection. It shows us the humanity of Jesus at the same time it underscores his divinity. It gives us two of the best-drawn supporting characters in the gospel, the sisters Mary and Martha, opening out the tiny character sketch of Luke's gospel. It gives us a sense of how intensely people can consider a teacher to be their friend, too, very interesting for those of us in a pastoral role.
Mostly, though, it's a dramatic display of the power of Jesus, not as friend or teacher, but as part of God's self.
It's Martha who says the words, Lord love her. It sort of redeems her performance in Luke's story, doesn't it? She may be practical and brusque or whatever other characteristics the stories might suggest to you, but in this gospel she is the one to make the Christological confession, the role that falls to Peter in the other gospels.
She says the words:
Martha said to Jesus, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him."
Jesus said to her, "Your brother will rise again."
Martha said to him, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day."
Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?"
She said to him, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world." (John 11:21-27, NRSV)
I adore the counter-cultural nature of this scene. What would possess the gospel writer to go so far off-script and give the words that everyone else thought of as Peter's to a woman, to Martha, to say? Not only does she declare the Good News, she declares it TO the Good News himself.
But she doesn't hesitate to remind him that a dead body will stink.
No wonder St. Martha is pictured with a dragon. She would have made a heck of a preacher.