A Household of Beloved Disciples—John 11:17-37

Studies in John’s Gospel — Bible Study Lesson 28

by Reta Halteman Finger

Jesus at the house of Mary and Martha, painting by Harold Copping
Jesus at the house of Mary and Martha, painting by Harold Copping

From the other side of the Jordan River, it was a two-day walk to Bethany. Jesus must have approached the village dusty and weary, but there was no time for footwashing and refreshment. Along the way, he was told that Lazarus had been dead four days. His spirit had flown, and his body had begun to decay.

An enigmatic dialogue.

Read John 11:17-27.  Martha, probably the older sister, runs down the road to meet Jesus. I try to imagine that meeting. Did she fling herself into his arms? Did she kneel at his feet, as Mary, his other sister, would do later? Or did she shrink back from Jesus out of resentment at his late arrival? Whatever she did, her first words were a reproach:  “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” She implies that Jesus has the power to heal, but not enough compassion to get there in time.

As Jesus absorbs this criticism, let’s pause to reflect on this unusual household of three siblings—two sisters and a brother living together presumably without parents or spouses. In this kinship culture where everyone gets married in order to produce children—boys at 18 and girls around puberty—what has happened to this family? Although both Luke (10:38-42) and John feature these sisters living together, neither evangelist questions their lack of husbands. Perhaps both parents died before they could arrange marriages for their daughters, and Lazarus may have still been quite young. Martha may be assuming leadership until Lazarus grows up to head their household and make these arrangements for them. If so, his loss in this culture, where men dominated the public sphere of life, was doubly devastating.

The other unanswered question is how Jesus came to know and love this family. Was he a cousin or other relative? Did the sisters run a hostel for pilgrims coming to worship at Jerusalem, and he stayed with them when he came? Whatever brought them together, it was such a loving, intimate friendship that both sisters felt free to reproach Jesus for not coming sooner. Only these three siblings are known in this Gospel as “beloved disciples” (11:5, 36).

Then follows a puzzling dialogue about dying, not dying, rising, believing—a stream of words freighted with double meanings and ambiguity. Like Martha, we feel emotionally jerked around. Finally, Jesus says, “Martha, do you believe?” Through her tears, she’s probably thinking, I don’t know what the heck you’re talking about, but yes, I believe in you. “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (v 27).

One fact is unambiguous. Unlike what is attributed to Peter in the other three Gospels (the Synoptics), in this Gospel Martha is the person who first names Jesus as Messiah. Without a doubt, Martha was a beloved disciple with very high status in the Johannine community.

From private to public actions

Read verses 28-37. Martha goes back home and privately tells Mary that Jesus is asking for her. Running to him and falling at his feet, Mary repeats her sister’s reproach:  “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” (v 32). If Martha is the left-brain thinking sister, Mary is pure emotion. Yet both feel equally betrayed.

But something has changed. This is no longer a private dialogue between Jesus and Martha. This is public. All the people who came to console the sisters have followed Mary and are now onstage.

And now Jesus realizes the enormity of what he has done. If he is truly human like us, he must understand that his decision to wait until Lazarus was dead before he shows up has caused untold suffering on the part of these people. “He was greatly disturbed in spirit, and deeply moved” (33). He must have struggled internally over whether he had done the right thing. So when Jesus asks where Lazarus has been laid, they all go to the tomb, and there Jesus openly weeps.

At this point we must consider something which would have been obvious to John’s audience, but less so to us. In 11:4, Jesus had announced that Lazarus’s illness did not lead to death, but was for God’s glory, “that the son of God might be glorified through it.” In that culture, “glory” was very similar to the term “honor,” and honor was the highest value in Mediterranean society. For men, honor was always public, never private. To have honor means people speak well of you—and that is who you really are.

Today we might console a child who has been bullied at school by saying, “It doesn’t matter what those kids think of you. You are a good person and important regardless of what they say.” Nobody in that culture would ever talk like that. If Jesus had gone to Lazarus while he was still alive and privately healed him in his home, it would not have brought him or God public honor and glory.

Now that the neighborhood with its gossip network is here and watching . . . wait until the next lesson to see what happens!

Questions for discussion and reflection:

1.  Did Jesus do the right thing by making people he loved suffer longer for his public honor?

2.  What does Jesus actually say to Martha? Identify words with ambiguous or double meanings.

3.  What does this conversation about dying/not dying mean to you?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.