This morning’s Gospel tells the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, a familiar tale – too familiar, perhaps, as it contains much that should inspire us as queer Christians, but which we can easily overlook in its over – familiarity.
The Household of Martha and Mary.
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair). (John 11: 1- 2)
These verses remind us of the nature of the household of Martha, Mary and Lazarus – three unmarried people living together in one house. What we easily overlook in the twenty-first century, is how very odd, even transgressive, this would have been to the Jews of Jesus’ day. There was overwhelming pressure on all, women and men alike, to marry and produce children. For women, there was scarcely any choice in the matter: their lives were governed by their menfolk before marriage (either fathers or brothers), and their husbands after. It is true that after a man’s death, his brother was expected to take over the care and control of his widow(s), but this scarcely seems to fit what we know of this household. Lazarus is not married himself, and there is nothing anywhere in the text to suggest that he is in command of the household – quite the reverse. In this household, it is the women who run things.
Although they are described as siblings, several scholars have noted that this could well have been a euphemism, hiding a lesbian relationship between the women, and masking the true status of the single man living with them. Whatever the precise details of the relationships, this is undoubtedly a queer (i.e. unconventional) household, which we should bear in mind as we consider the particular relationship between Jesus and Lazarus, the focus of the story.
“The Man Jesus Loves”
So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick. (John 11: 3).
The story is located in John’s Gospel, which is notable for its several references to the “beloved disciple”. Robert Goss notes that there is disagreement among scholars as to the precise identity of this person:
Scholars have long disputed whether the Beloved Disciple is John son of Zebedee, Thomas the Twin, Mary Magdalene, Lazarus, or a symbol of the community. For some queer writers, the evidence points to Lazarus (Williams, Wilson, Goss). Jennings does not rule out the possibility of Lazarus, but maintains that the evidence is inconclusive. Elizabeth Stuartunderstands that the Beloved Disciple to be representing perfect intimacy with Jesus.
– Goss, in The Queer Bible Commentary
Whoever the unspecified “beloved disciple ” is though, this verse is explicit that if it is not Lazarus, then he can also be so described. The next question of particular interest for gay Christians could be, “What is the nature of this love? Is it intimate, or simply platonic?”.
I cannot think of the raising of Lazarus without recalling a remarkably similar story in the non-canonical fragment known as Mark II, said to have been quoted in an epistle of Clement of Alexandria. This also tells of the raising of a young man (unidentified) from the dead. If this young man is indeed Lazarus, and if there is any basis in fact for the story, then the relationship is anything but platonic. This description of what happened next is about as explicit as it gets, without becoming x-rated:
“And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me.’ But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near, Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb, they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do, and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.” (emphasis added)
The Secret Gospel is non-canonical. We cannot evaluate its authenticity, but before dismissing it out of hand, we should also consider its similarity in referring to a naked young man wearing only a linen cloth, to the curious story in the canonical Gospel of Mark.
So, it is possible to read the passage as referring to an erotic relationship between Jesus and Lazarus, but even if we do not, there is an important message for us in the description of Lazarus as the one whom Jesus loved. For if it refers only to a platonic intimacy, then that can be said to apply also to all of humanity. It is fundamental to the Christian faith that God loves all his creatures (including us queer creatures), and we known from the writers on spirituality, and also (if we are fortunate) from personal experience, that it is possible for us, 200 years later, also to develop through prayer a personal, deep relationship with him. We too, can experience what it is to be “the man Jesus loves”.
Defying the Persecutors
So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”
“But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?”
It is easy to forget that in this passage, Jesus was not simply returning to the friends he had left behind. This episode occurs just a short while before the Passion. As the disciples knew, in returning to Judea, he was returning to those who wanted him out of the way, placing himself (and his associates) at substantial risk. As queer Christians, we are often persecuted by those in control of the churches, but this is not a reason for us to stay away.
It is not just we who have experienced death inside the church. By silencing or driving away some of its members, the Church itself has experienced a form of death. It is incumbent upon us too, to go where we are needed. This includes entering right into the belly of the beast, the institutional church, and restoring it to full, inclusive life.
The Resurrection and the Life
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. (v 25, 26)
Jesus’ promise of resurrection and life, so central to Christian faith, obviously refers to the resurrection after death – but also to more. It is also a promise of a fullness of life here on earth. Individually and collectively, gay men, lesbians and transmen and transwomen often feel that they have suffered a psychic death in the Church, ignored, silenced, and written out of the approved Church histories. However, by focussing our attention on Christ and the Gospels rather than on the man-made and disordered Vatican doctrines, we too can find a fullness of life that the Church attempts to deny us, a genuine human flourishing that is the real point of the concept of “natural law”.
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
Many commentators have noted the resonance of these words for modern gay men and lesbians. The modern sense, of coming out publicly in open acknowledgement of our sexual orientation, is obviously not what Jesus’ words mean, in any literal sense. However, there is nevertheless a powerful image here that is indeed applicable. In coming out of the tomb, Lazarus is emerging from darkness and death to light and life – and as metaphor, this is precisely how so many of us experience coming out. (For those of us who have come out to friends and family, but not in Church, the process is incomplete. Coming out in Church can represent a further stage in this process of moving from death to life, from darkness to life).
Most interpretations of this as a message about coming out do so with a focus on Lazarus and its obvious connections to gay men. Robert Goss quotes Mona West, who offers an interpretation from a lesbian perspective, by focussing on Martha, and her coming out as a disciple of Jesus:
She (Martha) is invited to move beyond a mere confession of faith and to accept the radical fullness of Jesus’ grace. Her conversation with him thus not only forms the theological heart of the story; it is also at the theological heart of the coming out process for Christian lesbians and gay men.
I am left with three overriding commands that I take away from the story of Lazarus, and Jesus’ renowned raising of him from death. Recognizing that like Lazarus, we are all beloved disciples of Jesus, we must follow Martha in accepting and reciprocating that love and grace. Doing so will give us the strength and courage to come out publicly even in the Church, and to face down those who oppose us in the name of misguided religion. This will contribute to our own healing and resurrection in a fuller life – but will also contribute new life to the Church itself.
Goss, Robert (ed): Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible
Guest, Deryn et al (eds): The Queer Bible Commentary
Jennings, Theodore: the man jesus loved
Stuart, Elisabeth: Just Good Friends: Towards a Lesbian and Gay Theology of Relationships
Williams, Robert: Just As I Am: A Practical Guide to Being Out, Proud, and Christian
Wilson, Nancy: Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible
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