In the church where I grew up, especially during Sunday evening services, the pastor would often ask for people to stand up and recite their favorite Bible verse. Inevitably some middle-schooler would jump up and recite from the King James version, “John 11:35, ‘Jesus wept.’” It was a running joke because that is the shortest verse in the Bible, but I think the joke may be on us because we often ignore its significance.
The story, as the writer of the Gospel according to John tells it, is that someone reported to Jesus that his friend Lazarus was ill, expecting, since Jesus had been performing miraculous acts throughout the area, that he would come and heal his friend. But Jesus waited around for a couple of days before going, and by then, Lazarus had died of his illness. After talking with Lazarus’ family, Jesus went out with everyone to the cemetery, and it was then that the writer records that he wept.
So far, so good as our understanding goes; tears are a normal reaction to the death of a friend. But the writer tells us that Jesus knew before he went that his friend had died, and that he would bring him back to life. So, if he knew that he had the power to restore Lazarus to life and health, what was the crying for? We are told this was not just a dab the eyes moment, he is described as “greatly disturbed.” Why not cut everyone’s suffering short and just get on with the miracle?
Jesus was not the only one crying. Friends and family and mourners crowded the house and the graveyard sobbing silently or ululating brassily. In her grief, Lazarus’ sister Martha tried to keep all the proprieties together; Jesus wanted the crypt opened, so he had better have some way of covering the stench of a four-day bloated corpse, or else there would really be some hollering going on. All these sobbing folks expected to be fed, the smell of a dead body would certainly cut their appetites, and their social standing in town would plummet, so let whatever happens be on his head.
Whatever else Jesus knew, whatever purpose he might have for his actions, he found himself in the middle of a mass of intolerable sorrow. He had grown up in a backwater town in a time when death was a constant and present reality; he had likely lost several people in his life by that time, maybe even other close friends. He knew what it meant when a family lost an adult male, one who provided the means of support and respectability for his sisters.
At heart, he also knew that life is precious and death is a tragedy. He knew that his good friend had suffered and was now at peace, and that, if he brought him back, Lazarus would have to go through all that again at some point. Maybe he was not certain he had the power, or maybe he was not sure he should use it. Maybe there was just too much suffering to bear. Everybody he met that day had chastised him for not coming sooner; what did they expect from him, anyway? Life is hard, bad things happen, he could not fix that.
I doubt that there was any occult cosmic, theological cause or purpose in Jesus’ emotions. The author tells us that everyone who talked with him told him what he should have done or should do now, threw their grief in his direction. But here he was, alone among a throng, facing an open crypt that contained the body of a beloved friend. So, yes, of course, Jesus wept.
Weeping statue photo by Marek Studzinski, cemetery photo by K. Mitch Hodge, both on UNSPLASH