I’ve been kidding with my wife lately (who is a practicing parish pastor) that recent Sundays’ Gospel lessons seem designed to build up the endurance of congregants’ legs to stand through the mammoth reading of the entire Passion account next week on Palm (or Passion) Sunday, April 5th. First, we had 38 verses of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well from John 4 on Lent 3, then 41 verses of Jesus and the man born blind from John 9 on Lent 4, and now (tomorrow) 45 verses of Jesus and the raising of Lazarus from John 11 on Lent 5. Too bad that it will all be for naught this year, as most every congregation will not congregate, but make do with (no, make the most of) an online service in the comfort of their several “shelters.”
Ironically enough, within tomorrow’s long reading is the shortest verse in the entire Christian Bible, John 11:35, traditionally rendered as “Jesus wept.” The traditional understanding of why Jesus was crying is that this is a fulsome demonstration by the evangelist with the most elevated Christology that Jesus was fully human. His friend Lazarus was dead and buried, and he was simply joining the deceased’s family and other mourners in grief. Such a reading seems supported by the immediately following verse: “So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’” (NRSV here and following).
But things are seldom entirely as they seem in John’s Gospel. The verse right after that one sounds a dissonant note: “But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’” In fact, a holistic reading of the chapter to this point suggests that nobody but nobody was “getting it.” The disciples mistake his reference to Lazarus’s “sleeping” as, well, his sleeping (v. 12). Martha mistakes Jesus’s assurance that her brother will rise again for a reference to the resurrection of all at the End of All Things (v. 24). Mary gently chides Jesus for not preventing her brother’s death by making a little more haste to be there in time (v. 32). The effect of all the weeping makes its mark on Jesus: “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (v. 33). So, we are told, “Jesus wept.”
A teacher of mine long ago suggested that his weeping may well have been above all in sorrow and even frustration at the accumulation of so many wrong frames of understanding, even among his very closest friends and followers. If so, this occasion may or may not have been the first: we are told that Jesus wept over Jerusalem’s refusal of a long line of prophets up to and including himself, but Matthew places the event after his final entrance into Jerusalem (23:37), while Luke places it well before (13:34).
I would not put it past John in the least to have intended both what I shall call sympathy and head-banging on the part of Jesus. All of which makes me wonder at how much we have given Jesus to weep over in the years since. Yet still he weeps with us, for us, and over us, and in that I take a certain comfort.