One of the beautiful things we see in the gospels is that Jesus shows deep respect for boundaries.

Yesterday we started looking at the story of Martha, Mary, Lazarus, and Jesus and got as far as Lazarus’s death, and Jesus’ failure to arrive. You might like to read that one first if you haven’t seen it already.

Meanwhile – the story continues:

Back in Bethany, by the time Jesus finally turned up, Lazarus had been dead and in the tomb for four days. 1

Martha hears he is about to arrive and goes out to meet him. She seems deeper, stronger than when we first met her. She is perhaps best known for not imitating Mary in taking the position of a disciple at Jesus’ feet.2 Yet we are about to see her, like Peter, name Jesus as the Messiah.3 And unlike Peter, she does not go on to deny him. She is impressive.

She reminds me of a psalmist in her honesty:

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 4

We don’t know her tone. She sounds fairly reasonable on paper… but her brother has just died, and she’s talking to the one person she believed could, and would, save him. Who did not.

I believe it is fair to assume their relationship is at a key point. So how is Jesus going to respond?

Often, too often, in the church, our response to those who suffer is to point to heaven. But without undermining the wonder of that future: does God care about our present suffering? Enough to do anything about it? Should we care? About our own suffering, or that of others?


Jesus’ response to grief

Martha does not show any sign that she expects Jesus to help with Lazarus. In fact, when he states that Lazarus will rise again, she jumps to the interpretation that Jesus is offering a much more distant comfort.5 So the question remains: did Jesus really care? About them? Was his ministry too important to make space for them?

Jesus tells her:

Your brother will rise again.6

Right after she tells him that she believes he can do anything. The idea that Jesus might mean Lazarus is going to be up and running around again is completely foreign to her. As if he could possibly mean that!

And what of Mary? She is still at home, surrounded by friends and family. Why didn’t she come out with Martha?

Martha tells her Jesus is asking for her, and her rapid exit spikes her friends’ concern. 7 That rush to his feet doesn’t seem consistent with the idea that Mary wasn’t interested in seeing him. It makes more sense if she stayed at home because she didn’t know if he wanted to see her.

We can’t tell for sure if Mary was already weeping at home, but certainly by the time she talks to Jesus she is weeping aloud. 8  So when she says,

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,9

she is either talking through sobs, or bursts into tears afterwards.

She is not the only one crying – her friends and family, who had come with her, were also weeping out loud.

Jesus was deeply moved, and troubled.10 Like all stirred up inside.


Jesus shows deep respect for boundaries

I believe what happens next is the crucial moment of the story. Here is the question: while Jesus was away, busy in his ministry, and when others have changed their plans to come and be present with this family in their turmoil, does he care?

So, he asks for permission to enter into their world, their grief. Jesus shows deep respect for boundaries. This is beautiful:

Where have you laid him? 11

he asks.

Come and see, Lord 12

they reply. Like opening up the door and inviting him in.

And now, at last, in this moment, he cries. Not loudly: more like silent tears running down his cheeks.13

And now, those watching can see the truth:

See how he loved him. 14

(Well, to be honest, some are still doubtful 15, and that doubt could have many reasons. But that deserves its own examination. Enough to say the people here are individuals.)

So where does this leave us? The story is not yet over. But what I love here is the restoration of these relationships. Jesus did not push back at Martha or Mary when they accused him. Neither did he push himself on them. He made his motives clear and asked for permission to share in their grief. He respected them, their grief, their anger, and their boundaries. (Abusers don’t do that.) He was a safe person: the same old Jesus they knew from before. Too late to help, but still now welcome in their pain. A friend.

Steve Wade

One of the beautiful things we see in the story of Mary and Martha’s grief over Lazarus is the way Jesus shows deep respect for boundaries. Click To Tweet



  1. John 11:17
  2. Luke 10:38-42; With thanks to Marg Mowczko
  3. John 11:27
  4. John 11:21
  5. John 11:23-24
  6. John 11:23
  7. John 11:28-31
  8. John 11:33; Greek: klaió
  9. John 11:32
  10. John 11:33; Greek: Embrimaomai and tarassó
  11. John 11:34
  12. John 11:34
  13. John 11:34-35; Greek: Dakruó
  14. John 11:36
  15. John 11:37


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