From The Gospel According to John
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. 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 also have kept this man from dying?” (John 11:28-37)
Martha’s confession terminates her conversation with Jesus: at this point there is no more to be said. In the light of the ensuing verses, Martha’s care to draw Mary aside before announcing Jesus’s arrival is an attempt to provide her sister with a private meeting. The Teacher is a natural way of referring to Jesus for any disciple in the pre-resurrection period. That Jesus was asking for Mary becomes clear only now; there is no record of his actual request – a salutary reminder of how condensed and fragmentary the records are.
The effort to secure a private meeting between Jesus and Mary should not be invested with too much theological significance. It is precarious to conclude, for instance, that the sisters were trying to protect him from his enemies, for there is no evidence to support the view; or that Jesus chose to remain outside the village in order to preserve his anonymity (which would make little sense since he has already announced to his disciples that his purpose for taking this trip was to raise Lazarus from the dead – which could certainly not be done in obscurity. It is much more likely that both Jesus and the sisters were trying to preserve a little privacy in the midst of a house full of mourners, professional and otherwise.
Whatever the attempt at privacy, it was to no avail. Mary’s departure is duly noted by the mourners, who, thinking she is heading for the tomb, decide to follow her, doubtless to lend their support. There is no negative overtone in this reference to the Jews.
When Mary reaches Jesus, she falls at his feet – indicating, perhaps, less emotional restraint than her sister displayed – and utters the same thing Martha had said. This similarity surely makes it harsh to conclude that Mary gives the impression of being nothing but a complaining woman. If unlike Martha she does not go on to affirm her continued faith in Jesus, her words nevertheless reveal her confidence that Jesus has power to heal. Her approach to Jesus is more emotional than that of her sister, and less private, and so the interchange now follows a different line.
Jewish funeral custom dictated that even a poor family was expected to hire at least two flute players and a professional wailing woman, and this family was anything but poor. In addition to the tears of Mary and her grieving friends, therefore, doubtless there was quite a bit of professional grief. When Jesus saw all this, he was outraged in spirit, and troubled.
What does the crucial word embrimaomai (to be moved) actually mean? In extra-Biblical Greek, it can refer to the snorting of horses; as applied to human beings, it invariably suggests anger, outrage, or emotional indignation. In the New Testament, it occurs twice in this chapter (v. 38), and elsewhere only in Matthew 9:30; Mark 1:43 and 14:5; and in a textual variant to Matthew 12:18. Not only this word but its cognates as well move in this sphere of meaning. German translations get it right; most English translations soften the passage to “he groaned in spirit,” “he sighed heavily,” “he was deeply touched,” or, as here, “he was deeply moved in spirit” – all without linguistic justification. The phrase, in spirit, is not in dispute. It does not refer to the Holy Spirit, but is roughly equivalent to, “in himself”: his inward reaction was anger or outrage or indignation. John adds that he was troubled, the same strong verb used in 12:27 and 13:21. It is lexically inexcusable to reduce this emotional upset to the effects of empathy, grief, pain, or the like.
At what, then, was Jesus angry? The suggestion that the grief of the sisters and of the Jews is almost forcing a miracle upon him, arousing his wrath is countered by the fact that Jesus had already expressed his own determination to perform the miracle. It is equally unjustified to think that Jesus is upset because he judges the mourning of the Jews to be hypocritical. The text does not cast their mourning in a different light to that of Mary, and in any case John, unlike the Synoptists, does not focus on the hypocrisy of the Jews (he never uses hypokrisis and related words). Even if we note that Jesus’s visceral response occurs when Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, two interpretations are possible. Some think that Jesus is moved by their grief, and is consequently angry with the sin, sickness, and death in this fallen world that wrecks so much havoc and generates so much sorrow. Others think that the anger is directed at the unbelief itself. The men and women before him were grieving like pagans, like “the rest of men, who have not hope.” Profound grief at such bereavement is natural enough; grief that degenerates to despair, that pours out its loss as if there were no resurrection, is an implicit denial of that resurrection.
Perhaps these two interpretations are not irreconcilable. With most of us, to be angry with someone is inconsistent with being loving and empathetic toward that person. With Jesus, as with his Father, the antithesis breaks down. This is the Jesus who could utter his terrible woes, yet grieve over the city of Jerusalem. Christians themselves, “like the rest were by nature objects of God’s wrath” (Ephesians 2:3), even though, “In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” (Ephesians 1:4-5) So also here. The one who always does what pleases his Father is indignant when faced with attitudes that are not governed by the truths the Father has revealed. If sin, illness, and death, all devastating features of this fallen world, excite his wrath, it is hard to see how unbelief is excluded. But the world that is at enmity with God is also the object of God’s love, so it is not surprising that when he was shown the tomb where the body lay, Jesus wept. The verb wept (dakryō) is different from that describing the weeping of Mary and the Jews (klaiō): it means “to shed tears,” but usually in lament before some calamity. It is unreasonable to think that Jesus’s tears were shed for Lazarus, since he knew he was about to raise him from the dead. Rather, the same sin and death, the same unbelief, that prompted his outrage, also generated his grief. Those who follow Jesus as his disciples today do well to learn the same tension – that grief and compassion without outrage reduce to mere sentiment, while outrage without grief hardens into self-righteous arrogance and irascibility.
Jesus’s display of emotion is interpreted in two ways by the Jews, both interpretations curiously right and wrong. To some, Jesus’s tears before Lazarus’s tomb testified how he loved him (phileō). Their conclusion was true: Jesus did love Lazarus and his sisters, but Jesus’s tears were scarcely evidence of it in the way the Jews imagined it, for they understood his grief to be as despairing as their own. Others remembered the spectacular healing of the man born blind, and wondered why someone who could heal so powerfully could not have prevented the death of a friend he obviously loved. At one level their reasoning is sound: Jesus did heal the blind man, and he could have prevented Lazarus from dying. There is no need to suppose that their attitude was sneering, that their confidence that Jesus had healed the blind man was dissembled. They were puzzled and confused. Nevertheless, even to ask the question in this way betrays massive unbelief. It is the unbelief of the person whose faith does not rest on who Jesus is and what he has revealed of the Father, but on displays of power. Such inchoate “faith” is so weak it constantly demands new signs and miracles. This unbelief is the reason the next verse reports that Jesus’s quiet outrage flares up again.