It was prophesied that the Messiah would speak in parables and obscure proverbs. The Jews learned over time that God speaks in mysteries because He wants to enter in the human heart through the gate of the mind; God wants to be discovered like a lover plays hide and seek with her beloved allowing her to find him.
Century after century the wise men of Israel scanned the Scriptures for clues about the promised Savior, collecting as many signs as they could find. One of the signs was that the Messiah would speak in parables. The word comes from the Greek παραβολή (parabole) that means, “thrown on the side” or pretty much like the crumbs a bird catcher leaves forming a path that leads to the trap. In this case the trap is a hidden meaning, and the clues left by the parable lead the wise to its ultimate teaching. Jesus was well known to speak in parables, delightful simple but profound tales that even children could enjoy. The meaning however was concealed for those perspicacious enough to crack the code.
Psalm 78:2 — I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter obscure proverbs from of old.
Here I propose we consider Jesus’ life as a parable, carefully preserved in the Gospels, delightfully concealed to be opened only at the right time in history, having a message specific for every generation like a diamond that breaks and reveals light in various colors as it is turned.
This passage of Scripture we are going to visit is a good example of the many hidden parables in the Gospel. The Holy Spirit buried a great treasure in the Scriptures so we can draw its riches when we need them most.
News from Bethany
A friend of Jesus, Lazarus of Bethany is ill. The name of the village is made of two words beth, meaning “house” and te’enah meaning “fig” בֵּית־תְּאֵנָה (beit-te’enah) literally “house of figs.” Just before the cleansing of the Temple, when Jesus expelled the moneychangers violently, we find the brief story of Jesus and the fig tree:
Mark 11:12-14 — On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.
According to this passage of Mark, Jesus was coming from the house of figs, that is from Bethany and found a fig tree in leaf, that is giving the external appearance of bearing fruit. On inspection the tree was devoid of figs and Jesus cursed it. Many of the early Fathers see in that episode a condemnation of those who have all the appearance of following Jesus but bear no real faith. “Produce fruits of repentance” is a phrase we find in many parts of the Gospel but not one time we read, “act as if you had faith and faith will be given to you,” a saying than many sincerely believe to be in the Bible. I can assure you it is not, Jesus never asked us to produce the appearance of fruitfulness but actual, real fruits of repentance. That day Jesus was coming from Bethany, perhaps he had visited Lazarus and his sisters. We have reason to believe Lazarus’ family had shown fruits of repentance from a previous life of sin. Having that in mind let us enter in John’s story about the death and resurrection of Lazarus of Bethany.
John 11: 1- 6 — Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Notice how John points at the repentance of Mary, the one “who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” Intertwined in the story of Lazarus resurrection there are echoes of other resurrections of the spiritual kind. Repentance from sin is a kind of resurrection.
When Lazarus fell ill the first thing the sisters thought about was to call Jesus, and they invoke Jesus’ love for his friend: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” Our Lord knew about it already and he mysteriously delays his visit to Bethany. The length is suggestive: two days. “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day” writes St Peter in 2Peter 3:8. For those of us interested in discerning the end of times, those “two days” appear as a hint of the two millennia that the Church has been waiting for the promised return of Our Lord. Every time our Church has been in danger we have sent prayers up to Heaven just like the sisters of Lazarus did: “the one you love is ill, Lord.” So far, Our Lord has delayed “two days” if we count them according to the divine measure revealed by St Peter.
John 11: 7- 16 —Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
The two days passed and Jesus resolves to return and visit Lazarus. The disciples are concerned because they know the Jewish authorities are hostile to the Teacher. Jesus reminds them that his path on Earth is carefully arranged by God. Nothing will happen to him before its time. This is evidence of his divinity, says St Thomas Aquinas because God, who lives in the eternal realms outside circumstance, cannot be taken by surprise.
The Messiah speaks mysteriously again: “Our friend Lazarus sleeps” he says. The disciples know that sleep is good for the sick: the human body repairs itself while sleeping; that is known from antiquity. As usual they misunderstood the Master and now he speaks plainly and reveals to them that Lazarus is dead. The disciples conclude that the death of Lazarus is an ominous warning of their own impending death at the hands of the authorities in Jerusalem but nevertheless decide to follow Jesus “no matter where he goes.” (See Revelation 14:4)
Jesus the resurrection and the life
Observe that Jesus arrives in Bethany but does not go straight to Lazarus’ house. Four days have passed — I hope this is not an indication that this miserable world is to last yet another two millennia — Jesus sends word of his arrival to the sisters. They react like the disciples; their faith ends at the finality of human death even when they must have known that Jesus had resurrected a young man, and a young maid before.
John 11: 17- 27 —When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
Martha’s faith is well grounded, she knows Jesus is the Messiah, and she knows her brother will come back to life in the final resurrection. She believes in Jesus but she is not aware of Jesus’ power to bring Lazarus back to life.
Martha calls her sister and they go back to the place where Jesus and the disciples are prudently waiting, the Jews visiting the grieving family, assuming they are going to the tomb, accompany the sisters.
John 11: 28-37 —When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
I sense we are beginning to see the elements of the hidden parable: Jesus is near, the two sisters know it but those following them don’t know they are going with them to meet the Messiah. To me, this is a hidden model of the parousia, the moment when Jesus will fleetingly visit the world to rescue mankind from sure self-destruction. Compare this event described by St John here with the saying of Jesus at the Mount of Olives: “For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming [parousia] of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” (Matthew 24: 26-27) And also consider this paragraph from Roy Schoeman’s article The Jews and the Second Coming:
“St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans contains an extensive discussion of the conversion of the Jews in the end times that will be explored at length in the next chapter (Romans 11:25-26): “Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles come in, and so all Israel will be saved.” Jesus Himself prophesied the conversion of the Jews prior to the Second Coming when He said (Matthew 23:37-39): “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem … Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
So there gathered before Lazarus tomb we find Jesus and his disciples, Lazarus family, and their Jewish friends. They are all overwhelmed with sadness and there Jesus experiences in his own incarnated humanity the profound wound that death opens in the human soul. Jesus enters the hearts of all around him and feels what they feel as men and women, sons and daughters of Adam, condemned to death by sin. Jesus weeps like one of them, he weeps for Lazarus but he also weeps for every human soul from the first to the last. He has reached the terminus of the human condition. The scene one day will be repeated worldwide at the end of times, when great upheavals mark the final days of this age: “If those days are not cut short no one would live, but because of the chosen ones, those days will be cut short.” (Matthew 24:22 Aramaic Bible in Plain English)
Jesus raises lazarus to life
John 11: 38-44 —Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
With his Sacred Heart still filled with grief, Jesus orders to take away the stone. It’s been four days; the weather has been warm as spring is approaching. Martha, the practical sister warns Jesus of the stench coming out of the tomb. Martha has been close to the entrance; she knows the corpse is decomposing. Jesus responds in a most surprising way: “you will see the glory of God.” What can be more opposite to the uncleanness of a cadaver than the unfathomable holiness of the glory of the Creator? Here the two extremes of the universe meet. On one side the deadly decay of humanity, on the other the love, the compassion, the absolute power of God to redeem his children no matter what the cost. Following the request of Jesus some of the men present remove the stone. That boulder is an apt symbol of sin, the slayer of mankind surrenders to the Lamb that takes the sin of the world.
Jesus prays appealing to the love that unites him with God the Father and then the order is spoken; the Word of God that created everything utters again a command standing inside his own creation: “Lazarus, come out!”
We forget, when we read this passage, that there is a “miracle within a miracle” described here. The Jews used to wrap their dead with strips of linen cloth. Lazarus was completely immobilized bound as he was by the burial shroud. Did he float out of the tomb? How did he come out of the cave? St John does not give us many details but we know that, once outside, the man had to be unbound by others.
The plot to kill Jesus, the prophecy of Caiaphas
This spectacular miracle did not move everyone to repentance. Those who hated Jesus simply would not accept him even if someone coming back from the dead would give witness of Christ’s power. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (see Luke 16:19-31) Abraham declares that much: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” The witnesses of Lazarus’ resurrection, informed the religious authorities of the Jews. One can imagine the priests’ horror: opening a tomb on a Saturday! Touching unclean objects! Contact with a corpse! Those were serious violations of the Law performed in broad daylight right before a crowd!
St John gives us a brief description of the meeting where the religious authorities are informed of Lazarus’ resurrection. The High Priest is present. Caiaphas is no ordinary High Priest because that year, there were two High Priests in Jerusalem. One was Annas, the legally ordained High Priest, and the other was Caiaphas, his son-in-law who was the “officiating High Priest” that year. That was a highly irregular situation because the Law of Moses requires the High Priest to serve for life, just like our Catholic Pope is supposed to serve for life. The Romans occupying Judea noticed that the Jewish office of the High Priest was very similar to that of the Roman Emperor who was also consider Pontifex or mediator before all the pagan gods. So the Romans informed the Jewish authorities that such situation was not going to be tolerated, and ordered the top religious office in Jerusalem to be held every year by a different member of the High Priest family, hence the “priesthood” of Caiaphas. This bears a striking similarity to our days when we have two Popes in Rome, one in office and one emeritus.
John 11: 45-53 — Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, ‘What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death.
Caiaphas was moved by the Holy Spirit to prophesy that Jesus would die for the entire nation, and not for the Jewish nation only but for all the children of God around the world all the way to the end of time.
The attitude of Caiaphas can be compared to that of some religious authorities of today who are already under the influence of the political forces of the world and fear not to offend God but to upset the world powers. We should notice that the killing of Jesus did not save the Jerusalem of that time from being destroyed by the Romans only a few decades later in 70 A.D. The world is always the enemy of those who serve God, even if they don’t serve faithfully. Those who think that bending to the political winds of the age will buy them protection, are making the same deadly mistake that Caiaphas made.
Now we can look at all the events related in John 11 and meditate, pray, and learn about the wonders of the Gospel. The purpose of God is revealed in parables and obscure proverbs indeed. Paying careful attention to the details of Christ’s life is essential to know God’s purpose. St Paul advised the Colossians of the first century: “so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Colossians 2:2-3)
 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! [the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!] Behold, your house is forsaken and desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again, until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
 Isn’t it remarkable the choice of the name “Lazarus” for that parable?