02 January 2016

Jesus Wept... But Why?

The Scene: A RURAL FIELD just outside the town of BETHANY.

The Cast:
JESUS, a popular teacher who has fallen out of favor with the religious and political authorities.
His loyal DISCIPLES, who fear for JESUS's life more than he does.
MARTHA, a calculating, practical-minded woman whose brother LAZARUS has just died.
MARY, the less practical sister of MARTHA and LAZARUS, given to grand gestures and occasional hysterics.
A variety of MOURNERS (LAZARUS was popular, and also fairly rich, which probably helped with the popularity).

The Background:
A week or so ago, LAZARUS came down with a mysterious disease. After he took a turn for the worse, MARY and MARTHA dispatched messengers to JESUS, saying, "He whom you love is sick." JESUS got the news, predicted that it wouldn't end in LAZARUS's death, waited two days, and then set out for BETHANY.

Fast-forward to now: MARTHA meets JESUS outside of town and tells him LAZARUS has been dead for four days. The first words out of her mouth are: "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died."

After some confusing talk about the coming resurrection, MARTHA sends MARY out to see JESUS. MARY collapses dramatically at JESUS's feet, wailing up a storm. She manages to choke out, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." The MOURNERS come along with her, and they add to the storm that she is a-weeping up.

Then, the funniest thing happens: JESUS weeps right along with them. This causes some of the MOURNERS to remark, "See how He loved him!" But some of them also say, "Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?"

The reason I call this a funny thing is that JESUS had very, very little reason to weep. Quite the opposite, in fact -- I would have expected him to comfort the weepers, to offer them hope, to try to shush them. Because -- SPOILER ALERT -- JESUS is going to raise LAZARUS up from the dead.

My question, then, is why? Why the tears and the mourning and the anguish? What purpose does any of that serve? It's not making LAZARUS any less dead, that's for sure.

But let's back up a step and look at this a little more methodically and a little less theatrically...

Reasons Jesus Didn't Need to Weep

1.) He had already predicted the outcome:
  • This sickness won't end in death (11:4a)
    • Spoken to his disciples. Just think, by the way, of how they must have felt when they got there and found out Lazarus had already died before Jesus had even said this. Disappointment? Disillusionment? Deception? Betrayal?
    • He ends up being right -- it won't end in death. But it will go through there.
  • Lazarus has fallen asleep; I'm going to wake him up (11:11-14)
    • Of course, the disciples don't get it. "Hey, that's good news! If he's sleeping, that will help him rest up and get better!" 
    • Wrong, boys.
  • Your brother will rise again (11:23)
    • Like the disciples, Martha misunderstands this. She thinks Jesus is slinging platitudes. "Yes, I know that he will come back to life... when the resurrection comes and everybody does." 
    • Wrong, Martha. I am the Resurrection. 
2.) He knew God had something good in mind:
  • This will be for God's glory (11:4b)
  • Jesus delayed His coming on purpose (11:5-7)
    • He did this at the Father's leading, of course -- see also John 5:19-21
    • My opinion: God did this to ensure Lazarus was good and dead. After four days, there's no possibility that people will think of this as a mere swoon or deathbed recovery.
  • Jesus had faith in God's plan and timing despite other people's opinions of it:
    • You're going too soon (11:8, 14-6)
    • You didn't come soon enough (11:21, 32, 37)
3.) He knew he had the power and the prerogative to bring Lazarus back. He knew that:
  • This is why God allowed the sickness to occur (11:4)
  • This was why he was being called back to Bethany (11:11-15)
  • He himself was the resurrection and the life, not only for Lazarus, but for all who would be raised up on the last day (11:23-27)
  • God would hear his request and honor it, because the Father was where this whole plan came from in the first place (11:41-42)
If ever there were excellent reasons not to weep, these are. We often weep from lack of control or power over a situation, overwhelming despair, or utter hopelessness. But Jesus had none of these motivations. He knew the outcome would be powerful, glorious -- the very best best-case scenario imaginable. He knew he would grapple with the grave itself and come out on top. 

And yet, there's verse 35, in black and white: Jesus wept. 

So why would the almighty maker, the life-source, the conqueror of death, the victorious one, the winner, succumb to tears right before the moment of his greatest triumph yet?

Here are a few possible answers:

1.) He missed Lazarus and was sad that he had died. This isn't too far-fetched -- it's actually what the people observing the scene thought, too! "See how he loved him!" (v. 36). And well they might think this. When our loved ones die, we lose something of ourselves. Of course, one could also argue that Jesus knew it wasn't for keeps, so this seems to be a less likely motivation than some others.

2.) He saw Mary and the other mourners weeping and was deeply moved and troubled in spirit. I cheated a little bit on this one -- it's from verse 33. So this is actually as close to a "right" answer as I'm going to get, I think. It's right there in the Bible, so I believe it's true. The problem is that this answer doesn't really get to the heart of the matter: Why was Jesus moved? Why was he troubled in spirit? It approaches an answer to this question, but never really arrives there.

From here on out, the answers are a little more speculative, so proceed at your own risk...

3.) I'd argue that Jesus was moved because he was very empathetic. He saw the sorrow of his good friends, and because they mourned, he did, too. I'm reminded of Romans 12:15:  "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep." The weeping of our friends can bring great healing. In my greatest moment of grief, I went off by myself because I couldn't bear to be around everyone else. Then, a godly man came and found me in my hiding place. He could have offered me platitudes, scriptures, or words of wisdom. Instead, he only offered me a big hug and his tears. I can't tell you how much it meant to me to know he was sharing my mourning. I also suspect I wouldn't have been nearly as comforted by any words he could have said in that moment. I think Jesus knew this, too: Sometimes loving people means simply crying alongside them.

4.) My next idea actually comes from my good friend Mike, who I was discussing this passage with this week. (So if you disagree, I'll be glad to give you his number so you can give him a piece of your mind.) Mike's idea is this: Jesus was human. Too often, we put Christ's deity so high in our minds that we forget he shared our infirmities, too. He shared our emotional nature. Sometimes, he was overcome by feelings he had no control over. Of course, he never allowed his emotions to be a conduit or an excuse for sin, but he was subject to their influence nonetheless. To overlook Jesus's uncontrollable emotions would be to deny his nature as Emmanuel, God with us.

5.) Perhaps Jesus was mourning over something bigger than the immediate situation. More than anyone else, Jesus knew the whole picture. He had seen heaven's holiness. He had seen mankind's bliss in the garden of Eden. And he had seen the horrible consequences of sin. He had seen pain, sickness, and misery beyond all reckoning. He had seen the ravages of lust, and murder, and death. What if Jesus was weeping over death's very existence? What if he wept because, even though he knew he would bring Lazarus back, his good friend still had to taste the bitter cup that Jesus himself would soon drink? And so many countless others would taste it, too. Seems like a pretty good reason to cry, if you ask me.

Regardless of why Jesus wept, we can take several important lessons from this passage.

1.) Crying isn't a sin. Too often, we try to pave over pain with words like, "Well, everything happens for a reason!" or "The joy of the Lord is my strength!" We try to pretend things are all right when they are most definitely not all right. Through his own weeping, Jesus gave you and me permission to weep. Now, it's also true that our tribulations are a cause for rejoicing (see Romans 5:3 and James 1:2). But that doesn't mean you have to be all smiley about them right away. It does mean that God will inevitably transform them into a something glorious, which is great news. But it's OK not to feel that at the time. (What we must avoid is the temptation to unnaturally prolong our weeping and misery. Our flesh sometimes likes to hold onto pain long after healing should have begun.)

2.) Crying with others can be a service of love. Again, remember Paul's exhortation to the Romans: Weep with those who weep. This doesn't mean to have a never-ending pity party. It does mean that we ought to work to cultivate empathy -- the ability to see and feel things from someone else's point of view. Again, we do this in an effort to love and serve one another as our Savior loves and serves us.

3.) Don't assume you know what's going on in God's plan. Like Martha, the disciples, and the mourners, we don't know what's going on with God's plans. We might think he intends to do one thing, when his actual plan involves something completely incompatible with that thing. Sometimes, Lazarus dies.

4.) Don't assume you know what's going on in people's hearts. If I'd been there, I'd have been tempted to say, "Hey, now, Jesus. It's OK. Martha was right -- Lazarus will rise again in the resurrection. I know you loved him; I did, too. Let's just celebrate the things we loved about him, OK?" Or even, "Well, Jesus, everything happens for a reason!" I suspect this sort of comfort wouldn't have been a blessing to the weeping savior.

5.) Don't mistake an intellectual answer for an antidote to sorrow. Jesus had literally all the answers in this situation. If ever there were a place and time for explaining away sadness, this was it, and he was the man for the job. But it wasn't, and he didn't. He did offer explanations to Martha, because she wanted and needed them (though it's not clear that she really understood them). To Mary, though, he offered only his tears... and, then, after the tears, her heart's desire.

Well, I'm afraid I probably haven't given a very satisfactory answer to why Jesus wept. But I have arrived at one very definite conclusion: I want to get better at weeping like him.

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