The Grief of Two Sisters and the Compassion of Jesus

The death of a loved one can be traumatic to say the least. Aside from the sadness, the hole left in our lives, or any number of emotions, grief can sneak up on us and strike when we least expect it. A movie, a casual comment, hearing a phrase the loved one used, or even a commercial can trigger tears or the wrenching of our hearts.

Today I want to take another peak at the lives of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazurus. The three siblings were apparently very close to Jesus and we have the opportunity to observe the sisters’ reactions and the reaction of our Lord to the loss of a loved one.

When we read about Martha and Mary a few months ago in Luke 10 we saw that Mary had the faith that Jesus most appreciated while Martha—well, he kind of fussed at her for not paying attention to what was important. Mary, who seemed so useless to Martha, was praised for listening and spending time with Jesus. I also believe Jesus’ rebuke of Martha was a gentle one, and He took the sting out of his criticism by addressing her by name. I also believe He was more disappointed with her attitude than anything else. Remember? She called him “Lord” then demanded He tell Mary to help her. In other words, Mary should be serving too, why don’t you see that and say something? (See my July 2015 blog.)

So let’s spend some more time with these two fascinating women and see how they interact with Jesus at a tragic juncture in their lives. It’s kind of a long chapter, but I encourage you to read John 11:1-43 for yourselves.

Just days before Lazurus dies, the sisters send Jesus a message telling Him that Lazarus is sick, referring to their brother as “the one you love.” Perhaps those words are meant to convey the urgency of the situation as well as an expectation that Jesus come immediately. But Jesus, in a seemingly callous manner, waits until after Lazurus dies to go to them. In verses 7-16 Jesus lets the disciples in on His plans. These verses deserve a closer look and we could most definitely delve into this passage and find some great treasures, but I mainly want to stick with Martha and Mary. (Again, I encourage you to read through these verses, and look at what the disciples say about His planned journey.)

In John 11:17, Jesus arrives when Lazurus has been in the tomb for four days. In verse 20 Martha hears He is coming and goes out to meet Him while Mary stays at home.

Wait. What? Is that right?

Yep. That’s Martha all right, heading down the road to meet with Jesus while Mary stays at home with the guests who had come from Jerusalem. Let that sink in for a minute. Martha who previously had been the one hurrying about, anxiously serving and taking care of preparations leaves a house full of mourners and heads out to meet Jesus with no desire that I can see, to serve Him. She simply wants to get to Him. Perhaps she is hoping to receive comfort. Or perhaps she wants to confront Him. All we know is that Martha wants to be with her Lord.

When she meets with Jesus, the first words out of her mouth according to Scripture are: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Hmm. Sounds like confrontation wins out. Or does it? Perhaps Martha is just seeking honest answers. Jesus doesn’t interrupt her, but listens as she continues (I don’t know about you, but I think Jesus is a pretty good listener), and her next words reveal her heart. “But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”

Wow! Do you think she really believed that Jesus could raise her brother from the dead? (Hang on and we’ll gain more insight into her thinking.)

Jesus then tells Martha that her brother will rise again. She understands this—she knows he will rise at the last day. But Jesus has something more to share. “I am the resurrection and the life,” He tells her. “He who believes in me will live even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” I imagine Him stating these words so gently with an extra dose of the love that He has for this woman.

Martha’s reply is apparently immediate. And look at what she says! (It really is a great answer. Okay, take a deep breath. Ready to see more of Martha’s heart?) “Yes, Lord. I believe you are the Christ, the Son of God who came into the world.”

Dude. The first time I read this I was so proud of Martha because, to be honest, I was a little worried about her harsh attitude toward Mary in the Luke 10 story. But now I see her standing before Jesus having this quiet conversation. And He gives her a chance to confess what she believes about Him. She knows her brother will be raised and live forever. Jesus just had to remind her of what she already believed. He changed her focus and got her to confess aloud what she believed. This must have been a comfort to her for “after she had said this, she went back.” When she returns, who does she go to? The Bible says she pulls Mary aside and tells her sister that the master is asking for her. I’m so glad we get to see this side of Martha as she delivers the message that Jesus wishes her to come to Him. That is so awesome. Picture Martha’s kindness to Mary as she pulls her aside so they can speak in private. I love it. And Jesus requests her presence.  So now it is Mary’s turn to go to Jesus. And she leaves so quickly that those who had come to comfort notice and follow her.

When Mary reaches Jesus, she falls at His feet. Much like her old self for this isn’t the first time she is at His feet. She once washed His feet with her tears, and dried them with her hair (Luke 7:37-38) jesus annointed with perfume

in a display of devotion. So now her emotions spill forth again in much the same way but this time with grief. And she says the same words as her sister. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” According to the Scripture, she doesn’t add Martha’s statement that God would do whatever He asked, yet Jesus understands her aching spirit. He is moved by her weeping and the weeping of those who had come with her. Maybe this is the reason “Jesus wept” for as soon as He asks where they have laid Lazurus and they tell Him “come and see,” He weeps. The ISV states that Jesus burst into tears. The Aramaic Bible in Plain English says “And the tears of Yeshua were coming.” I don’t know about you, but I want to weep when I read those words. Theologians have come up with a number of reasons for Jesus’ tears. All we really know is that Jesus is moved with compassion for Mary and for all the Jews who had come with her.

The people lead Him to the tomb and as Jesus tells them to remove the stone, Martha objects. “Lord, by this time there will be a stench.”  Keep in mind that we just heard Martha say that God would do whatever Jesus asks, but now her practical side has settled on her and she thinks about the smell. (Notice that once again she prefaces her objection with “Lord.”)

As you probably know, the stone is moved and Jesus calls Lazurus from the grave. Many come to believe in Him because of this miracle much to the chagrin of the Pharisees. It is interesting that the Bible says nothing about Martha and Mary’s reaction to having their brother back. And I wonder–do they dance with joy as they welcome him into their embrace? Do perhaps both of them fall at Jesus feet and cry tears of joy? As Jesus wept with them, does he now laugh with them? Or maybe they stand in stunned silence.

But God was glorified as Jesus said He would be (verse 4), and both sisters find comfort in Christ.

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