When my mum died I couldn’t bear the Lazarus story and I ran out of church when they read it a few Sundays after and I didn’t come back for a few weeks. I growled at God through angry tears about the injustice and stupidity of holding this story up to taunt those of us who mourn just as much as Mary and Martha (and perhaps Jesus) but don’t get the magical happy ending of our loved one coming back to life. I can’t say I have made much progress in understanding this story since that day a decade ago. I have heard so many pious readings about Jesus’ power and the need for faith and all that jazz. To me it is a painful story to consider when my mother (and now my brother) are never coming out of their respective caves.
Why does Jesus cry in the story? If Jesus’ connection to God and unswerving faith hold so much power, why does he need to grieve? I’ve heard pious (and unconvincing) arguments about that too! I will attempt to look beyond the magical to the metaphor of “coming out” and being “unbound” to go free…which then makes it a story about the living that we love not the dead.
For example, could we read Jesus’ tears here as being for a beloved but judged gay son who gets entombed in family and social expectations? A lesbian daughter who ought not get married but dies to her true God-given identity (or is intentionally thwarted by some families). A person who is entombed within a gender they cannot own, bound into an unhealthy reification of a body they did not choose to express themselves by.
How will this metaphor help me to gain something from the story? What happens when I think of Lazarus as gay or trans (or in some way socially unacceptable) and “his” good and caring sisters cry because they have lost their beloved brother to this lifestyle (many Christian families feel that way, equating the queer identity with hellfire). Jesus is invited into the intimacy of their grief and fear and when he sees the repression of his friend he is moved to tears. All this unnecessary suffering!
Jesus gets judged for not having tried harder to befriend Lazarus and help “him” have a strong male role model and turn out straight, Lazarus is seen as feminized because he has been left to be with just sisters. These sorts of clichés are demeaning and insulting to everybody involved. When communities (often churches) portion out blame for an individual’s queer identity, families rip themselves apart with unacknowledgable guilt and are blocked from loving and celebrating what is.
Jesus tells them to remove the stone, to get rid of the blockage from the truth of the situation. Martha quite rightly is alarmed about publically allowing the taint of this family shame to fuel the rumour and gossip mill. She equates the family secret to a festering smell that is in her community rightly bottled up. Jesus tells her off, tells off all the families that do not have enough faith in God to accept their own child, their own brother, their own kin. If we had faith we would be inclusive and brave and supportive and allow God to act in people.
He invites Lazarus to “come out” (yes those were the words that prompted this reflection). Lazarus tentatively takes the first steps to be “out” among his own family and friends. Jesus demands that they “unbind him”. Jesus is not calling the families of queer folk to acceptance/tolerance only but to full and enthusiastic inclusion. Lazarus must be unbound to follow his heart and bring his boyfriend to meet the folks. He must be unbound for a fullness of life and love in God and his family must see this happen instead of burying his true identity and mourning him as if he were dead.
Feast begins soon and I thank God for my late in life call to “come out” and to become “unbound”. I acknowledge my family who came to quickly see and understand the reality and non-negotiable quality of this part of my identity. With Jesus I cry with my whole heart for those whose families bury them, attempt to repress, change or deny them and their partners. Unbind your rainbow loved ones and let them go free!