Now look, I don’t know if you watch The Walking Dead on television or if you’re into zombie movies like Night of the Living Dead, REC, Dawn of the Dead, World War Z, or 28 Days Later. I am not sure if the idea of a once-dead human being rising from death to be “alive” again intrigues you or if it just plain freaks you out.
Regardless, it’s appropriate to talk about zombies, because the story of Lazarus is a zombie story.
I like the Brick Testament’s Lego version of Jesus and Lazarus…
So it is only a few weeks away from when we talk about the death and resurrection story of Jesus, which also is a zombie story. That’s why most people think of the Lazarus story as just a prequel to Jesus’ resurrection story. I’ve said before, however, that when anyone projects things and ideas onto the scripture stories, one can go to crazy extremes. So how about we just read the Lazarus zombie story as it is and then go from there? I think we’ll find more meaning and hopefully more inspiration to live as more loving and compassionate human beings…who are alive.
It is also my hope that we’ll be creative people who use our brains; after all, so far no one is actually eating anyone’s brains.
So who was Lazarus?
He was from Bethany, and his name means a Galilean. Why should you care? Well, Jesus was a Galilean and the Galilean Jews represented a particular ideology and world view. The short version is that the Galileans weren’t in love with the Roman Empire or the religious temple system. You see, when we talk about “the Jews” in a NT context, we don’t just mean the people who lived in “the Holy Land-Jerusalem” and that they all believed the same things. “The Jews” were [and are] a diverse group of people—geographically, culturally, and religiously. Galilee was a northern province. Judea was a southern province [where Jerusalem was]. Galilee, the north, was more diverse ethnically and culturally due to the Assyrian conquest in the 8th century B.C.E. The influence of other religions and cultures [Hellenistic] was widespread.
Galilee was separated from Judea by…Samaria.
Politically, Galilee was set apart from the rest of Judea, resisting Roman rule. Galilee was also a major place for resources—good fishing and agriculture. Galileans also spoke a unique form of the Aramaic language. Imagine Jesus with a thick accent in which he drops consonants from the end of words. And religiously, Galileans were not thought of highly by their Judean neighbors to the south. They were far from the religious epicenter of Jerusalem, they did not maintain as strict or strong Jewish traditions, and they were definitely influenced by the Greeks.
This is all very, very important in the story.
Jesus, from the north, was not considered by many Judeans to be as religious or culturally relevant. He was not accepted overall in the south as a great prophet or teacher.
It is in this context that we meet Lazarus, who happens to be sick.
Actually, the word in Greek for sick is better rendered as lethargic or weak.
Lazarus was pretty much like a zombie.
Then John’s Gospel reminds us that those of us reading this in 2014 in the United States have some work to do. Verse 2 of this story mentions Mary, the one who anointed Jesus with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. Turns out the zombie Lazarus is her brother.
Oh, right, except there’s just one problem:
The story of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with perfume hasn’t happened yet.
How come John’s authors assume we already know that story before it’s told?
Friends, this is yet another example as to why I argue that we need to read Bible stories as they are in their literary, social, and historical context. John’s Gospel isn’t for you and me. It was written for a specific group of people who already knew the stories and were now getting a different interpretation of them. So as we read this, let’s walk in their shoes and enjoy it even more.
Lazarus was as sick as a zombie.
But even when Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus secretly that he should do a pastoral visit, Jesus didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He stayed two more days in the place where he is. No urgency. Finally, he eventually said to his friends: “Let’s go to Judea.”
Uh…Judea? The south? They just escaped from there and barely! Are you crazy?
But Lazarus was Jesus’ dear friend, and according to him, there was still the light of day with which to walk. So why not?
Lazarus was just asleep, so why not wake him? The disciples understood…or did they?
They assumed Jesus would just say to Lazarus: Wakey, wakey, Lazzie…
But Jesus was referring to death and then the life that would come after.
It seemed like the only disciple who got it was Thomas, who assumed that if they did go to Judea, things would not end well.
Sure, Jesus, let’s all go to see Lazarus, so we will all die.
Man, that’s a bit depressing.
But the story throws us for another loop, because apparently, Thomas and the others didn’t go. Jesus alone eventually makes it to Bethany to see Lazarus.
Maybe he followed the smell.
You see, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. The professional Judean mourners were already there. Mary stayed with them and Martha went to meet Jesus. An interesting dialogue occurred.
Martha was convinced that if Jesus would have come earlier [i.e. NOT hanging out and partying for two days with the disciples in Galilee-Vegas], for sure Lazarus would not have died.
Then, she affirms her generic religious response: I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.
But that’s not what Jesus was saying at all.
He was saying: Your brother Lazarus will rise…TODAY.
Martha’s religious dogma and doctrine was set. Resurrection in the last day? Check. Messiah, Son of God, coming? Check. But it was all in the future and tied to tradition.
So let’s find Mary, shall we? Martha whispered to her [pssst..the teacher is here] because the Judean mourners were still there [remember what I said about the Judeans and Galileans not getting along?]
So Mary went to see Jesus and repeated [like a zombie] just what Martha said:
If you had been here earlier, my brother would not have died.
Uh-oh. Mary wasn’t sneaky enough, though. The Judeans followed her to where Jesus was.
Would there be a fight?
No, actually. Jesus saw everyone’s great sadness. He empathized. He cried, too. But he was more than just sad. He was angry, too. The suffering was real. Jesus did not ignore it.
But, in spite of Jesus’ empathy and compassion, some still wondered why he didn’t come earlier.
Time to go find Lazarus.
The tomb was a cave and a stone lay against it. Caves were metaphors for transformation or metamorphosis—kind of like the caterpillar’s cocoon.
Take away the stone, says Jesus.
Martha is hesitant to do this now, because, um, it smelled bad and apparently they ran out of incense.
But Jesus didn’t care. As the people moved the stone, Jesus prayed.
Then he shouted: Lazarus, come out!
At this point in the story, Lazarus is actually no longer a zombie [tired and weak], but more like a mummy.
He was still wrapped in burial cloth, after all.
And that’s fitting, because Jesus’ one-liner, climatic line is:
Unbind him; let him go.
Indeed. Unbind him; let him go.
Throughout the whole story, Martha, Mary, the disciples, and the Judeans were limited by their understanding of life and death; they were limited by their religious views and socio-political conditioning.
In short, if someone was dead, he/she was dead. End of story.
If someone was poor, it must be meant to be.
If someone was limited by gender, language, culture, or geography—so be it.
Everyone thought that Lazarus was a zombie, but they were the zombies.
They were conditioned [even brainwashed at times] by their experiences to think that their own humanity fit into someone’s category and that G-d’s great mercy and love were meant for only a select few.
But Lazarus emerged from his cave-cocoon with life.
What they thought smelled awfully like death would now smell like sweet perfume.
But Jesus’ last words in this story stick in my head:
Unbind him; let him go.
It was up to the people in the story to unbind Lazarus. They had to let him be free.
Man, do we need to hear this.
How many people do we bind in this world—limiting them? How many people do we write off as dead and useless?
Unbind them. Free them.
Or help them unbind and free themselves.
And how much do we notice our own zombie tendencies in day to day life?
Are we just asleep?
Are we fatigued, weak, lethargic?
Or are we dead?
We can say the same thing to G-d:
If only you had been there…maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Where are you, G-d?
Or we can try to comfort people who suffer by saying:
Pray about it.
Just hang in there.
But their suffering [and ours] is real.
Living as fully human, we can stay in that moment of suffering and get angry, sad, and upset.
Ignoring the our own suffering and the suffering of others will fool us into thinking that we’re all meant to be zombies.
Well, we’re not.
We’re meant to live as resurrected people…and now.
So how will you unbind yourself and let go this week?
Who will you help to unbind and be alive?
 R. T. France, Commentary on The Gospel of Matthew (NICNT, 2007)