Mary peeked into the room. “Is he any better?”
“He’s the same as half an hour ago,” Martha whispered, “I thought you were going to get some sleep. It’s not even sunrise yet.”
“How can I sleep when my brother is so sick?” Mary forgot to be quiet. “What can we do? We’ve called three different doctors. We’ve tried every conventional treatment. We’ve sent offerings to the temple. He’s only getting worse! What else can we do?” Her voice rose in pitch with each sentence.
Martha sighed as Mary collapsed on the floor beside the bed. After a heartbeat of desperate silence, their eyes met across Lazarus’ restless body. Then, in that way only sisters can do, they both said, “Jesus” at the same time. Mary’s eyes widened in delight. Martha’s eyes darted back and forth, a plan already formulating behind them.
Lord, the one you love is sick.
Calling their most trusted servant, the three devised a brief message that would surely prompt Jesus to act quickly. “You’ll need to cross the Jordan,” Martha told him. “I heard Jesus is staying over there since they tried to stone him in Jerusalem” (John 10:22-42).
Within the hour, the two sisters watched their servant walk purposefully down the road, disappearing as the road bent to the east. “How long do you think it will take Jesus to get here?” Mary asked.
Martha allowed just the smallest
pinch of hope to color her words.
“If he’s still in the same place, he could arrive as soon as tomorrow evening.” Martha allowed just the smallest pinch of hope to color her words. Mary practically skipped back into the house.
Lord, the one you love is sick.
Martha wandered into the kitchen to brew some tea, the words of their message repeating in her mind.
Mary’s shriek shattered her momentary calm just before her cup shattered on the floor. “Come quickly!” Two servants appeared in the kitchen at the same moment. She knew before they spoke. “It’s Lazarus.”
Martha left the pieces of her cup on the floor.
Mary had thrown her body across the bed, wailing. Martha blinked back her tears and took command, as usual. She would grieve later.
They weren’t prepared for a funeral. Martha gathered everyone in the household and delegated assignments. Two servants went to purchase burial cloths and spices. Another left to inform family and friends two miles away in Jerusalem. A few prepared the guest rooms.
Lord, the one you love is…
People were already arriving when Mary and Martha prepared the body: the strips of cloth, the myrrh, the aloe…the lifting, the tucking…the eyes. Martha had done it for others while they grieved, but never with her own tears dampening the linen wrappings.
The funeral that evening was huge. Besides the Bethany folks, many came from Jerusalem and other nearby villages. Lazarus had been well-known and well-respected. After the procession to the family tomb, they tried to greet everyone, to say the requisite “thank you”s and receive the customary laudatory comments about Lazarus.
If only they had sent for him
earlier…if only Jesus hadn’t
gone so far away.
But in her mind, Martha followed the servant sent to Jesus. He should be across the Jordan by now. There was no way to withdraw him, to stretch ahead and tell Jesus not to risk his own safety by venturing so close to Jerusalem. If only they had sent for him earlier…if only Jesus hadn’t gone so far away.
The next day stretched long. More friends and extended family appeared. The house was crowded. In the stress of guests mixed with grief, Martha struggled to hold onto Jesus’ words from his first visit and choose what was most important (Luke 10:38-42).
Mary flitted among the groups, disappearing at times for an hour or so. She and Martha finally caught a whispered moment behind the house.
“Do you think Jesus will still come?” Mary’s breath stuttered between words, her eyes red and swollen.
Martha pursed her lips. “Of course he will. He cares for Lazarus, for all of us. He has no way of knowing it’s too late.” She looked her sister up and down. “I guess I’ll be the one to tell him.”
Lord, the one you love is …
As the sun sank quietly in the west, both sisters glanced more often toward the road to the east. Both found excuses to pass the front window or step outside.
Lighting candles, Martha passed Mary at the door. “He could still come. It’s not that late.”
The sisters slept little. Every noise held the potential to be Jesus at the gate.
The sun arrived, but Jesus didn’t.
At lunch, the roads held only the usual traffic.
In the late afternoon, Mary and Martha visited the tomb. Jesus wasn’t there.
At sunset, the road into town remained quiet.
As they went to bed again, neither spoke. Finally, in the darkness, Mary’s weak voice pierced both their hearts. “If only Jesus had been here…”
Martha woke the next morning with the same thought, half-heartedly glancing out the window on her way to the kitchen.
If only Jesus had been here…
Why hadn’t Jesus been here
to heal her brother?
How many people had Jesus healed? She couldn’t count the stories she’d heard, and sometimes he wasn’t even near the sick person (e.g. Matthew 8:5-13). One of the disciples said Jesus raised a twelve-year-old girl from the dead (Luke 8:40-56). So why hadn’t Jesus been here to heal her brother? Didn’t he love them as much as they thought? Even now, Martha longed for Jesus’ presence—for the peace that surrounded him. He would know exactly what to say, know exactly how to comfort Mary… okay, and herself, though it was hard to admit.
If only Jesus was here…
When everyone went to rest after lunch, Martha sat by the window, her eyes drawn to that bend in the road heading east.
It was mid-afternoon when her servant trotted around the bend, a crowd of people following him. Martha threw her apron to the ground and rushed through the gate.
You know the next part of the story. Both Mary and Martha say to Jesus, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus answers each of them in the way best suited to their personalities. Then he shares in their grief, weeping with them before he raises Lazarus, who was already on his fourth day of decay (John 11:17-44). You can dig into the “meat” of this story in these posts: But Lord, This Stinketh… and A Girl’s Gotta Eat (and So Does Everyone Else): In Defense of Martha. Also, get more “food for thought” in the Bible Study I wrote, Dwell: Mary, Martha & Lazarus when it’s published.
I’ve put words in everyone’s mouths here. Do you think my words fit with their personalities as revealed in the Bible? Is there a small point from the story that stands out to you? I’d love to hear what’s on your mind. Just leave a comment below.
Information about burial practices in New Testament times was taken from this Bible Odyssey article.