John Bennison Words and Ways | Down and Out: On the Inconsequence of a Bodily Resurrection

Down and Out: On the Inconsequence of a Bodily Resurrection

[A pdf version to read and/or print can be found here. Note: This Commentary on the raising of Lazarus corresponded with the Fifth Week of the Lenten Season, 2011. For context it will be helpful to be familiar with the Common Lectionary Texts found at the end of this pdf version.]

Raising of Lazarus, a mid-12th century fresco, Cappella Palatina di Palermo, Italy.

Down and Out: On the Inconsequence of a Bodily Resurrection

 
Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to Jesus, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”  … Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” 

John 11:39, 45

 
 
 But when you get back up on your feet again,
Everybody wants to be your old long-lost friend.
It’s mighty strange, without a doubt,
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.

         Depression-era songwriter, Jimmy Cox

 

When the catastrophic tsunami swept ashore along Japan’s north coast in March, 2011, it swept so much flotsam and jetsam back out to sea it is anticipated some of the floating debris will reach all the way across the Pacific to U.S. beaches in the coming days.

But two weeks after the initial destruction — once rescue efforts had shifted to recovery mode for the thousands upon thousands of bodies to be dug out from the mud tombs, or retrieved from the sea, a helicopter twenty three miles offshore spotted a dog pacing back and forth on what was once the roof of someone’s home.

The rescue workers winched the mutt to safety, with the entire operation caught on videotape, just in time for the evening news broadcast.  The dog’s owner spotted what once was lost, but now was found on the television screen.  The tearful, tongue-lapping, tail-wagging reunion provided one little story with a happy ending, in the face of so much death and destruction.  Going by the name of Ban, the mutt was clearly down, but not out.

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago in Tacoma, Washington, Tiffany Kauth had taken her dog, Sugar, to Ron Pace’s Saturday morning dog obedience class.  Once there, the dog suddenly collapsed with a seizure.  It’s eyes rolled back in its head, and it stopped breathing.  The trainer first tried chest compressions for a couple minutes on the animal. When that didn’t do the trick, he resorted to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.  With his own lips covering those slobbery jowls and wet nostrils, he forced oxygen into the dog’s lungs.

Seconds later the dog revived!  It appeared to be a little frightened and bewildered at having returned from the dead, but was otherwise okay.  Holding back the tears, Tiffany later told reporters, “I was absolutely certain that I was losing my dog.”  But as it happened, Sugar was only down, but not out.

But the best shaggy dog story recently occurred when a cage with six pups was found dumped outside an animal control shelter in a small town near Oklahoma City. The vet determined the critters were too sick to survive, and the decision was made to euthanize them all.  Each dog was given two lethal doses of a sedative, one injected into the foreleg and the other into the heart. Either dose was more than enough to kill a dog.

But the next morning animal control officer Scott Prall found one of the pups alive and well, peering out of a dumpster used to dispose of the animal remains. “He was just prancin’ around,” Scott said. “He heard me drive up, and he just looked up and saw me!”

When a young girl in town (the name of the town, by the way, is Sulphur, OK … hey, you can’t make up stuff this good) heard the news, she named the dog Wall-e, and posted his story on Facebook.  It went viral, of course, and before long thousands of people wanted to adopt the death-defying miracle mutt who nobody wanted before.  Even with the fresh stench of death all about him, Wall-e had more than beat the odds, to dance on his own grave.

If I’d been there to hear Wall-e a-howlin’, dollars to donuts I just betcha he’d be singin’ the blues:

But when you get back up on your feet again,
Everybody wants to be your old long-lost friend.
Said it’s mighty strange, without a doubt,
Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.

 

Now, John’s gospel offers a detailed account of what certainly sounds like a newsworthy story; about a character named Jesus, bringing his friend Lazarus back from the grave.  While Lazarus gets a mention in some of the earlier synoptic gospels, John’s account develops a highly stylized Christological and cultural statement of belief by this particular early Christian community.

As such, they were a generation or two removed from any eyewitness accounts of what might have been an original version of a common human circumstance that later evolved into this wonderful mythic tale; meant to convey some profound gospel truths, over against any unbelievable supernatural feats of magic.

In John’s telling of this story, this Jesus is not just a miracle worker who (previously) heals the sick and restores sight to the blind.  Reading back into this story from what was a post-resurrection experience of faith, this Jesus now professes to be the living, breathing reality of God that once dwelt among us; and still remains among his subsequent believers in fresh and transformative new ways.  “I am resurrection, and I am life,” is the claim attributed to him.

It is this Jesus who has forged the new frontier and crossed the great divide for those who will have to decide whether or not they believe he is the messiah of God.  Is this Jesus the Christ?  Is he the one through whom we too can find something more than merely forestalling the inconsequential inevitability of our own mortal death?

If so, then what would such believing entail?  What is the consequence of such belief?  Is it merely some false comfort and cold assent, which simply leaves one stiff as a corpse, awaiting such childish fantasies as the grim reaper, St. Peter’s interrogation, pearly gates, harps and angel’s wings?  Or does it raise up the believer — even here, even now — to a new life of grace; where the feet start to tap a different tune, as the heart can’t help but leap for joy?

Is he the one through whom we too can find something more than merely forestalling the inconsequential inevitability of our own mortal death?  If so, then what would such believing entail?  And … does it raise up the believer … to a new life of grace; where the feet start to tap a different tune, as the heart can’t help but leap for joy?

This story ends with that unanswered question, when Jesus turns to the crowd of onlookers and delivers that wonderful line, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Let him go to do what?

Whatever becomes of Lazarus?  What will Lazarus do in the meantime – the days to follow, between his premature death and his eventual demise – with this emancipation act Jesus has declared, and the new life given him?

It seems to me that is the question for each of us to figure out; if we would believe in the transformative power of God’s truth and grace, made manifest in the way of life Jesus embodies for us.

Again, don’t get hung up on the believe-ability or un-believe-ability of the too-good-to-be-true part of this story, which temporarily reverses and delays the inevitability of Lazarus’ death. I say this with some understanding and appreciation of the fear and pain, the grief and loss and suffering that can almost overwhelm those who grieve.

“If only you’d been here,” Martha plaintively says to Jesus, when he finally shows up a day late and a dollar short.  I suspect this is the cleaned up version of the original, which was probably closer to, “where the hell have you been?”

There is not one of us who would not have wished the death of a loved one — and our own painful loss — could not have somehow been avoided or reversed; when in our grief, the lingering phantom presence of the one who is dead and gone was sometimes as palpable as our own breath between two heartbeats.

But if you have any inclination to want to hang everything you believe to be true on a literal reading of this story, the other scripture story we read about Ezekiel’s vision of an entire valley of dry bones getting reconstituted with flesh and sinew can test the limits of this approach. (Ezekiel 37:1-14)  All but the most diehard literalist would understand the old prophet’s descriptive story is not to be taken as an objective reporter describing a factually verifiable event.  It should more than suffice to convince us of the inconsequential importance of a physical resurrection.

Similarly, the Lazarus story is not meant to convince us of an extraordinary rescue from the clutches of what could otherwise be considered certain death (like Ban the dog).

Nor should we feel the need to domesticate what may seem miraculous as a medically explainable near-death experience (like the dog trainer performing canine CPR).

And neither should we simply be expected to stand dumbfounded before an inexplicable, death-defying feat, beating all the odds (like Wall-e the miracle mutt).

The gospel tale not only wants to point out to everyone that Jesus could have intervened earlier, when there was still time; but that the great divide between the living and the dead had already been traversed in the case of Lazarus.  That includes anyone who could be a Lazarus.

Jesus doesn’t wait until it’s almost too late, when the body’s still warm and somehow salvageable.  By the time he gets to Bethany, Lazarus is long dead and buried. He wasn’t almost dead, playing dead or quaintly slumbering.  The storyteller goes out of his way to emphasize this point; first with Jesus’ intentional post-mortem arrival, and then the two sister’s repeated “if-only” regrets.  Lazarus was really, really dead; and decomposition of the corpse had already set in.

The body that once held the life of someone near and dear to them had already begun its journey back to the elements from which it was formed.  And, more than just a graphic detail for the sake of emphasis, there is almost a throwaway line that, if retrieved, can lead us to understanding the deeper message in this story; and to which the miraculous raising of the one who is dead and gone only points us.  Namely, the stench of death had already taken over.

And, whereas everybody but Jesus had already moved on to the important and painful process of grieving the loss of what was no more, the other fact of the matter was this: No one was too keen on getting too close to what had become of Lazarus.

 Talk about down and out!

And, whereas everybody but Jesus had already moved on … the fact of the matter was this: No one was too keen on getting too close to what had become of Lazarus. Talk about down and out! 

Blues singer Bessie Smith first recorded Jimmy Cox’s Nobody knows you when you’re down and out in 1923, but it did not reach popularity until the Great Depression.  Its wider acceptance was not due to its use as a lively dance step, but rather a common experience that would suggest a boom-to- bust kind of a life with which a whole generation of people would identify.

Of course everyone hadn’t gone from riches to rags.  There were already plenty of folks would have been singing Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime had it been written before the Crash of ‘29. But if you listen to old timers still talk about an era that was defined as not having two nickels to rub together, you can still hear a sense of fear and loss behind those lessons on frugality and self-sufficiency.

Similarly, during these more recent days of the Great Recession, you’ll sometimes hear some tight-fisted fair-weather friends who are not only on the other side of a widening chasm between the rich and the poor; but are more than ready to give up on the lost and forsaken, as well.  In the end, it’s simply hubris and self-interest masquerading as sensible austerity and fiscal responsibility.

But it’s also interesting to note that Bessie Smith not only recorded Jimmy Cox’s song in 1923, long before the Great Depression; but that she wasn’t the last to find the song worth singing.  In every decade since, numerous musical artists have re-recorded their own version of that song.

Among them some of the more familiar names you might recognize include Count Basie, Leadbelly, Otis Redding and Odetta, José Feliciano, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Janis Joplin and Liza Minnelli, John Lennon, BB King, the Allman brothers, Rod Stewart, Billy Joel, Don McLean, and Eric Clapton.

In fact, Nobody knows ‘ya was one of the first songs I myself learned to play on the guitar in my youth, while attending a prestigious boarding school.  What could I possibly know about being so down and out, so lost and forsaken, so beyond the pale?  All I can say is that sometimes it takes a little while to really learn how to sing the blues.

Every one of those musicians (with the exception of myself, of course) achieved some degree of fame and stardom; and in most cases above average material wealth.  Again, what could they know about being down and out?  Sure the entertainment business reportedly has more than it’s share of cutthroats and fair-weather friends.  But I’d suggest the broad appeal of the song just may extend to something more universal in all of us.

Who, or what, will be there if, and when, one is ever irretrievably lost, and no one can see any reasonable, practical point in rolling back to the stone when one is deemed to be as good as dead and gone?

I’d suggest the broad appeal of the song just may extend to something more universal in all of us. Who, or what, will be there if, and when, one is ever irretrievably lost, and no one can see any reasonable, practical point in rolling back to the stone when one is deemed to be as good as dead and gone?

Looking back once more at this gospel tale, the false distinction sometimes made between what becomes of Lazarus’ empty tomb in this story and the one found Easter morning in the garden, is sometimes portrayed as the difference between resuscitation and something beyond the pale, called resurrection.

But now I see with new eyes.  It’s all resurrection, whether it’s a second chance with what was once one’s former life, or the inexplicable mystery about a deeper truth to be told; and, which only such mythic tales can try to tell us about.

To be honest, I have little practical use for any notion of a resurrection — or any such belief in the hereafter, for that matter — if I can’t have a glimpse of it this side of the grave.

Here and now, the resurrected life has flesh and bone, with hands to strum and feet to dance to a different tune; with the belief that – by the grace of God – one will still want to know me when I’m down and out.

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

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1 Comment

  1. The hard truth is that many of us are already “long dead and buried.” New life escapes us because we are still lost in the old life of sin and death. Easter calls us out of the tombs we have made for ourselves into a fresh understanding of discipleship and freedom in Christ. It is a pathway open to all.

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