I never thought I would come across Lazarus in a television crime feature. But last month there he was, a deranged, calculating serial killer in The Mentalist, nothing at all like the biblical character of that name. Lazarus must have some pull in the popular imagination to pop up in this bizarre way.
These days the name is usually used of someone who springs back from the death of political, business or career oblivion - like Malcolm Turnbull, dumped as Australian Liberal Party leader in 2009, now back heading the party as prime minister.
In churches, Lazarus is raised to different effect. I have been at a cathedral funeral where Lazarus was ingeniously invoked to promise that the deceased wasn’t dead in any final way, only on “pause” before he’s resurrected.
Even that is worlds away from what the story of Lazarus in John’s gospel is all about. There it’s not history. It’s not a miracle of supernatural power. It’s no guarantor of life after death. It is a “sign”. And you don’t believe signs, you interpret them.
In his recent book The Fourth Gospel: Tales of a Jewish Mystic, American Episcopal Bishop John Spong shows how this gospel reflects the circumstances of John’s Christian community in the latter years of the 1st century AD, when it was written. In fact, seeing it in that light is the key to making sense of it.
Those years had been rough for the Jewish followers of Jesus. For decades they had worshipped alongside fellow-Jews in their synagogues. They had even produced readings at key festivals to complement the Jewish scriptures, aiming to show how Jesus had fulfilled those scriptures.
Not surprisingly, tension grew between the revisionists who wanted to graft Jesus into their worship, and conservatives who were determined to maintain the old traditions intact. To the conservatives, the idea that Jesus was the prophet promised by Moses 1400 years earlier was anathema. Finally, around 88AD, the rabbis had had enough. They turfed the Christians out.
Jesus’ followers felt angry and frustrated, and expressed it in the Lazarus story: the death of Lazarus signals that final split with the Jewish religious establishment, while his resurrection becomes the “sign” of the opening of a new consciousness - and a new way of being - centred on Jesus. For the community that produced this parable, the old Israel had been tried and found wanting and a new Israel, building on the old but no longer constrained by it, was beginning to take its place.
In the story Jesus is some distance from Lazarus’s village when he gets word that Lazarus (the old Israel) is gravely ill. He might have hurried to reach him, but he doesn’t. He takes his time, so that when he arrives Lazarus has been dead four days and is already in his tomb. Lazarus’s sisters tick Jesus off for his tardiness: “Already he stinketh,” they tell him.
Mourners are still present, however, including “Jews from Jerusalem”. When John talks of Jews, he means the Jewish authorities, Jesus’ enemies.
Still Jesus is in no hurry. He speaks about resurrection, an idea that Jews have been debating for over 200 years: some Jews believed in it, others did not. Jesus takes the notion into new territory, saying “I am the resurrection and the life.”
This is a full-frontal challenge to the decaying corpse of the old Israel (as John and his community saw it). Jesus then asserts himself to bring new life out of the old. “Lazarus, come out,” he says:
And out of the tomb shuffles Lazarus, wrapped in his burial cloths, legs bound together, but alive. The resurrected Lazarus is now symbolic of the community that has formed around the memory of Jesus. Even some of “the Jews” present are won over. The old Israel has given way to a new Israel, the Christian community.
In the popular imagination the story ends there. But not in John. Other Jews report back to the synagogue leaders in Jerusalem. Highly displeased, they call a ruling council. It agrees these upstarts have become a threat to Jewish identity: “It is expedient that one man should die for the people.” Jesus must be eliminated in the national interest.
He was - yet somehow he lived on in communities like John’s, which by this time had spread all round the Mediterranean. For them, Jesus’ meaning went way beyond the Jewish nation. It was about a new quality of life in human oneness that everyone could share, across all boundaries and across the ages.