Mary, Martha and Lazarus: Blessed Are the Mourners
User's Guide to Sunday, April 6
Sunday, April 6, is the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A, Cycle II).
Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalms 130:1-8; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45 or 11:3-7, 17, 20-27, 33-45
Sometimes you notice a line from a Gospel that you never noticed before. Often, it delivers a key insight that illuminates a familiar story in a new way.
Here are three lines and insights that can go unnoticed in today’s Gospel about the raising of Lazarus.
1. Mary’s Model Lent
The first line is one such line: “Now, a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill.”
It is insightful because Mary was the woman who anointed Jesus.
We have met this family before. Remember the story of Martha and Mary’s dinner with Jesus — Martha was the active one, busy serving; and Mary, the contemplative one, just sits at his feet. When Martha complains, Jesus says: “Mary chose the better part, and it will not be taken from her.”
The anointing at Bethany gives us even more insight into Mary.
“In pouring this perfumed oil upon my body, she did it to prepare me for burial,” says Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew (26:12). “Amen, I say to you, wherever this Gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be spoken of, in memory of her.”
This is high praise — and it reveals the depths of Mary’s faith. She knows that Jesus will die and accepts it. Peter, famously, says to Jesus that he must not die and gets rebuked for saying it — Mary, on the contrary, prepares him for burial.
Mary has learned a great deal by sitting at Jesus’ feet. She has learned that suffering can be redemptive and that our job is to join Jesus’ road to Calvary, not to avoid it. In other words, she has learned the purpose of Lent.
2. Blessed Are They Who Mourn
Another Gospel line that jumps out is: “Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother.” Later, when Martha gets up to leave, it adds, “The Jews who were with her in the house, comforting her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out; they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there.”
Picture the scene: Mary and Martha are grieving for their brother, four days after his death. But they aren’t alone: “Many” Jews are visiting them to comfort them.
We expect comforters to go and grieve with a person who lost a loved one — but “many”? It’s a beautiful expression of the community spirit among the Jews of Jesus’ time.
And when they see her get up, presumably to cry at the tomb, they don’t give her “alone time” — they follow her to be with her and show her their love. This story exquisitely teaches the beatitude “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
The ultimate comfort for those who mourn is spoken of in the first reading today: “O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them” — just like Lazarus.
3. The Greatness of Martha
A third line that might be overlooked: “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home.”
This is one we noticed a few years ago. It is a bit of a vindication for Martha, who we might think of as “that busybody who didn’t choose the better part.”
Here, we see how the active life pays off, too. Martha hears Jesus is coming and rushes off to meet him right away, while Mary sits at home and has to be sent for later.
Martha needs no invitation. Knowing that Jesus is near is enough, she is off, bringing him her concerns and provoking one of the most comforting lines in all of Scripture: “I am the Resurrection and the Life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live; and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
She responds with one of the great professions of faith in the Gospel: “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
As we head into the final stretch of Lent, we should imitate her active faith.
Christ is near. Don’t wait for an invitation: Seek him out — and stand by his side.
Tom and April Hoopes write from
where Tom is writer
in residence at
- April 6-19, 2014