“Unbind him and let him loose.”
How a story of resurrection invite us into the miracles and into this moment
Lazarus’ sister Mary sent word to Jesus: “the one you love so very much is sick.” Can you hear the longing and hope in those simple words? But Jesus seemingly brushes off the message, telling his disciples that the sickness isn’t fatal and that it will actually showcase God’s glory. They wait a couple of days and then Jesus says it’s time to go back to Judea. The disciples aren’t exactly keen on that idea – there are people there who wish to kill him – but Jesus says he will wake up Lazarus. They think he is talking about Lazarus actually sleeping, possibly recovering from his illness so Jesus speaks plainly now: Lazarus is dead. And he’s glad for their sakes that he wasn’t there because something amazing is about to happen.
When Jesus finally arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days. This story will be a turning point towards the end for Jesus. Because of what is about to happen, Jesus will catch the eye of the high priests and Pharisees: from then on, they are plotting to kill him. But Jesus heads off to Bethany with his disciples anyway.
Martha comes to meet Jesus, Mary remains in the house. Think about that detail for a minute. Mary: the one who anointed Jesus’ feet with oils and then wiped it off with her own unbound hair. Mary: who took the place of a student or a disciple at the feet of her rabbi, Jesus, even though women weren’t allowed that position, who chose to sit there and listen instead of doing women’s traditional work. She remained in the house, grieving.
But Martha heads out to Jesus with one question burning on her lips: where were you? “If you’d been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.”
Then she says, pleadingly, “Even now, I know that whatever you ask God he will give you.” Martha is often remembered as the “busy one” who failed to choose the “better thing” of sitting at Jesus’ feet. I’ve never liked that interpretation: Martha isn’t the bad guy in the story at all and it’s cartoonish to reduce her relationship with Jesus to an often-misunderstood interaction because this moment also showcases her as a woman of great faith and trust, too. She is also the woman who seems – without precedent – to believe that Jesus could still do something here. What he will do or could do, she likely doesn’t know, but surely something; Jesus is always up to something. Surely this isn’t the end of her brother’s story.
Her faith and fierce hope and intelligence invites Jesus to offer her one of his great “I am…” statements. Jesus tells her that her brother will be raised up and she has a dutiful right answer ready: yes, of course, I know that he will be raised up in the resurrection at the end of time.
But Jesus says, “You don’t have to wait for the End, Martha. I am, right now, the Resurrection and the Life. The one who believes in me, even though he or she dies, will live. And everyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all.”
Hearing this, Martha comes to the same realization that Peter will come to just a little further down the line: “You are the Messiah, the son of God.”
And then of course she runs to get her sister which would have been my exact same reaction.
Mary jumps up and runs towards Jesus when she hears that he wants to see her. She falls at Jesus’ feet and, like her sister, says, “If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.” Martha sounded fierce to me when she said those same words; Mary sounds heartbroken. She sobs at his feet and, rather than responding to her emotion in the same way that he did with Martha, he responds with his emotions, becoming angry- angry at death, at sickness, at the grave. He demands to know where Lazarus has been entombed and when they tell him, he weeps.
The text doesn’t tell us much beyond these powerful two words, but much has been made of them: even if all is redeemed, even if Jesus fully knew what he would do here, even if there is a theological argument and a miracle pending, Jesus responds to the tears of Mary and the sobs of their community with his own tears.
At the sight of his tears, some remarked on how deeply Jesus had loved Lazarus but others begin to whisper, “well, if he loved him so much, he should have done something to save him.” Jesus continues to the tomb but he’s still angry: when they arrive, he says, “Remove the stone.”
Martha, ever-practical and ever-unafraid of telling the truth even to the Messiah tells Jesus that if they remove the stone, the stench of his rotting body would be horrible. After all, Lazarus has been dead four days! We needn’t pretend this is pleasant, Jesus. Death is decay, death is destruction. But Jesus looks her straight in the eye and says, “didn’t I tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” The text doesn’t tell us what she said in response but Jesus’s next demand for the stone to be removed is met with no opposition, no arguments. I imagine the people looking to Martha for permission to roll away that stone before they began: I imagine her weighing what she knows in her heart with what she knows in her mind, looking at Jesus, looking at that stone, and simply nodding. Do what he says. I believe.
Jesus then prays aloud for the benefit of the crowd gathered around and he hollers, “Lazarus! Come out!” And out of the grave walks their brother, Lazarus, still wrapped up in his grave clothes from head to toe, even the kerchief is still covering his face.
Then comes an often unremarked and yet remarkable statement from Jesus. He tells Mary and Martha and the crowd, “Unbind him and let him loose.”
“Unbind him and let him loose,” Jesus tells the people there. Other translations use the phrase, “unwrap him.” Lazarus has been raised from the dead but he is still bound by the clothes of the dead.
He’s still encased in the remnants of death.
It will take the hands of his sisters and of his friends to unbind him, to set him loose to life again.
With those words, Jesus invites the community into the work of resurrection.
The dead have risen, now we are part of the unbinding.
We are called to unbind what was bound in death. The miracle doesn’t exclude us, it includes us.
I keep seeing this baffling and life-changing moment over and over again in Jesus’s miracles and signs of the Kingdom: it’s invitation.
We are always invited to be in on what God is doing among us and to be part of the new way of life.
Look at the miraculous feedings of four thousand and five thousand in the book of Mark. Both times, Jesus asks the disciples what they have – it is, of course, never enough. And each time Jesus blesses what they have, breaks it, and then gives it back to them. They are invited to participate in the feeding. The miracle isn’t only in the multiplying, the miracle unfolds in the invitation to participate. The miracle also happens because someone brings five or seven loaves of bread and a few fish. The miracle also happens because the disciples hand out the food to the crowd.
We perhaps see this most clearly at the ascension of Jesus himself. He commissions the disciples – in that moment and for all of time, he invites us to continually participate in this new life by saying, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” One commentary I read said that “Jesus deputizes the disciples to be agents, to be engaged in the same peace-making activity he has carried on.” We have been designated, commissioned, empowered and enabled to live as disciples in this world.
There is always invitation to participate in the unbinding of what was dead and is now alive, an invitation to participate in the feeding, an invitation to participate in the life of Christ now.
I have thought of this a lot in our work in the world lately, particularly the work that is centred on peace-making in the world.
We are wrapped up in death. Our culture, our government, our systems, we are being exposed as what we always were all along. And yes, I still believe the Spirit is at work in this moment. But the work of the Spirit is never an excuse for inaction or silence: it is actually the very invitation to participate in the unbinding, the feeding, the healing, the tearing down and building up.
Now we have work to do.
Now we are deputized in the resurrection life.
Now we unwind the grave-cloths because we are called to justice.
It’s one thing for us to sing resurrection songs and clap and celebrate on Easter Sunday and offer platitudes at funerals about how this isn’t the end or blandly imply that there isn’t anything we can do because racism or systemic injustice or white supremacy is really just a sin issue too bad.
It’s another thing entirely to believe that our practice of resurrection has implications for the hungry, for the bound, for the oppressed, for the marginalized, for the silenced, for the dead among us. Gustav Gutierrez said that suffering isn’t redemptive in and of itself – what is redemptive is working to alleviate suffering.
I see a generation right now that isn’t content to sit by and watch Lazarus come out of the tomb, smelly and bound. I see a generation ready to tear the grave-cloths right off and pass out bread to the hungry and tear down structures that oppress. May God bless and protect them as they participate in God’s resurrecting work now.
Image: The Miracle of Jesus, by Herbert Singleton Jr. (1998)
Resurrection is not only about someday: resurrection has something to say for right now and right here. Resurrection has something say for the moment we are in right now.
It’s about recognizing that this isn’t about flesh-and-blood battles, not really, but instead it is about what Paul referred to in his letter to the Ephesians as the “powers of this dark world” and “spiritual forces of evil.” That’s a pretty good description of systemic oppression and injustice, white supremacy and transphobia, ableism and patriarchy to my mind. It’s evil, it’s powerful, it’s a spiritual force. (And keep in mind, this is the passage that immediately precedes Paul’s famous admonition to “put on the full armour of God.” When we believe that the resurrection of Jesus is the Great Beginning, stretching on until the final Resurrection, we have work to do in this time and in this place and that work looks like resurrection. We’ll need that full armour for this work.)
Because of the resurrection, we’re on the same side as Love now. Walter Brueggeman writes, “The vision of wholeness, which is the supreme will of the biblical God, is the outgrowth of a covenant of shalom, in which persons are bound not only to God but to one another in a caring, sharing, rejoicing community with none to make them afraid.”
The resurrection is our victory over death and it’s also a victory over the grave-clothes. It’s a victory over the exploitation and injustice and oppression that stalks the land. Rather than attempt to tame the beasts or pet them or turn them into the engine for religious systems, we joyfully embody resurrection by unbinding the grave clothes.
This is the difference between peace-making and peace-keeping, I believe. Peace-keeping says, “it will stink if you open the door, let what is dead stay dead.”
Peace-making says not only “remove the stone!” and “Lazarus, come out!” but it also says, “unbind him from the clothing of the dead” and then gets to work.
That’s why justice matters, why liberation matters, why peace-making matters. Because it’s not about a “social gospel”- although why people get mad about that idea, I’ll never know – or about “justice as a trend” in the Church nor is it about being sanctimonious about the cancel culture coming for you next.
It’s about resurrection.
It’s about peace-making in the ways of Jesus.
It’s about participating in the life of Christ now. At this moment in time, we are still encased in the remnants of death.
It will take the hands of our sisters and of our friends to unbind us, to set us loose to life again.
Jesus has invited the community into the work of resurrection. The miracle doesn’t exclude us, it includes us. As the New Orleans artist Herbert Singleton powerfully depicted in his work I’ve included just above here, everybody is gonna eat! So start passing the bread.
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