Scripture: John 11:17-44
Last week Disney made a surprise announcement that Onward, the most recent Pixar movie, was coming out for digital release and Disney+ early. Given that no one can go to movie theaters right now, that made a lot of sense. We have Disney+ and if my kids have not already watched it on that platform, they will soon. However, I most likely will not. For the most part, I have given up on watching Pixar movies. It is not because they are bad movies or anything like that, but it is because I have a rule I follow. I do not watch movies that are made to intentionally make me cry. Pixar animated movies, it turns out, are terrible about this. I noticed this trend really started with Up. If you have not seen it, the first eight minutes is a better love story than most romance movies, and it is more or less guaranteed to reduce everyone to sobbing mess. Toy Story 3 then had moments that could make people tear up, and Brave went right for the heart strings of anyone who had a rocky relationship with a parent. Even the fairly calm, Monsters University could hit a little too close to home for anyone who ever had the experience of realizing they were not ever going to accomplish a dream of theirs. Then Inside Out was released. The conflict in this movie arises from a child moving with her family to a new community, and as someone who moved a lot as a child, it was a bit too real. Next came The Good Dinosaur. I figured I like dinosaurs, so this should be fine. Nope. Tragedy strikes within the first few minutes. I have skipped several of the more recent Pixar releases because at this point I assume they have been designed to intentionally elicit tears and I assume Onward is no different.
The reason why I avoid tear jerkers is not because I hold some sort of macho “real men don’t cry” belief. Rather there are two reasons. First I do not like being emotionally manipulated. It feels like in a lot of movies that elicit tears the writers and directors put in scenes for that purpose alone. Second, I personally do not like crying. The vast majority of times in my life that I have cried have been because I was in real pain, overwhelmed with anxiety, or in the depths of grief. Crying has generally not been a positive experience in my life, so I generally seek to avoid it. I am not going to go and purposely watch Old Yeller, but this morning’s scripture is a reminder to me that shedding tears is part of the human experience. After all, Jesus wept. The question for us to consider is, why did Jesus weep? What exactly made Jesus shed tears? Digging down and finding answers to these questions can reveal us to more about who Jesus is and how we can better follow him.
Jesus wept is infamously known for being the shortest verse in the bible. However, this is a verse that has caused some amount of controversy. There are multiple opinions as to why Jesus cried. The initial thought we might have is the very one that is found in the scripture. In verse 36, “Then the Jews said, see how he loved him!” Jesus shedding tears communicated the sorrow and grief he personally felt over the death of Lazarus. However, the scripture itself makes it clear that is not the reason why Jesus wept.
Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, both essentially accused Jesus of letting Lazarus die, and they are not wrong. We began this morning’s scripture at verse seventeen but if you peak back to the first verse of chapter 11 we can see the story begins there. Martha and Mary sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick and asked Jesus to come and heal him. However, Jesus intentionally takes his time. Verse 17 of this morning’s scripture tells us that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. It was the popular Jewish belief at the time that the soul stayed close to the body in the grave for three days after death, in hopes that it could reenter the body. Only when the soul sees the inevitable decay of the body does it leave for good. By waiting until after four days had passed, it ensured that Lazarus was just not mostly dead, he was truly dead and gone. This explains Martha and Mary’s attitude towards Jesus in this scripture. They had hoped Jesus would make it in time and after he did not they held out hope that Jesus would make it before it was too late. It was only when their hope was gone that Jesus finally showed up.
Yet, Jesus knew that the power of God was greater than the power of the grave. He knew that when he arrived that he would raise Lazarus from the dead. He said so himself in 11:4: “Jesus said, ‘This sickness will not end in death. Not, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.’ “ Jesus came to Bethany knowing that Lazarus was going to walk out of his tomb, so it could not have been out of his own personal sorrow that he wept.
So why then did Jesus weep? There are some commentators who think Jesus did weep out of sympathy but rather out of frustration and anger. I am not so sure about this though. F.F. Bruce, a 20th century biblical scholar, wrote a highly regarded commentary on the gospel of John, and I closely agree with his words. On why Jesus wept Bruce wrote, “Some commentators have found it difficult to suppose that he who is presented in this gospel as the incarnate Word knowing what he was supposed to do, should be genuinely moved by sorrow and sympathy (as others might at the graveside), and have put his tears down to some other cause-anger and frustration, perhaps at the blindness and lack of faith which he saw in those who were around at the time. . . It was in sympathy with those who wept that Jesus also wept. He is no automaton, but a real human being.”
Jesus wept because the people around him wept. Jesus might have known that Lazarus was walking out of the tomb that day, but that does not mean everyone else did. Even if he told them, they were unable to see that possibility through the lens of grief and loss. They wept, so Jesus wept. The reason why Jesus wept was out of empathy. Often when someone is grieving or going through a hard time we are fast to express our sympathy. Empathy though, goes a level beyond just sympathy. Sympathy is where we acknowledge that someone is going through a hard time and out of sympathy we might even try to comfort them. Sympathy is not bad or wrong, but it is done from a distance. When we are sympathetic we are acknowledging someone else’s problem. Empathy though is close and personal. We do not just acknowledge someone else’s problem we feel it. Empathy allows us to relate to life from someone else’s shoes. It is empathy that allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Empathy allows us to get a more accurate experience of someone else’s pain. Jesus was being empathetic in this morning’s scripture. That is why Jesus wept. Knowing this should impact our actions as well and it can change how we understand Jesus at work in our world today.
Jesus displayed empathy, which means he got down in the dirt and lives with people. He did not keep himself above it all, and neither should we. There is an old story that illustrates how we can be empathetic to those around us. The story goes that a farmer had some puppies to sell, and so he put a sign out advertising as such. One morning, while getting his morning coffee the farmer looked outside and saw a young boy by the for sale sign, his face pressed up against the fence. The farmer walked out to the boy, and the boy said, “Sir, I would like to buy one of your puppies.” The farmer rolled his eyes for it was too early to deal with this. The puppies, you see, came from two purebred parents and were of a higher value than he knew a boy could afford. He more or less told this to the young boy. The boy dug into his pockets and produced a couple of waded up bills. “I’ve got two dollars and two cents. Is that enough to at least see the puppies.” The farmer rolled his eyes again, but nodded and let out a high pitched whistle. Out of the doghouse came the mother followed by four energetic little balls of fur. The boys eyes lit up at the sight of the bouncing puppies. Well behind the four puppies another shape slowly emerged out of the dog house. This ball of fur was much smaller than the others and it hobbled with a lame leg trying to keep up. The boy pointed to the runt of the liter and asked, “Sir, how much for that one?” The farmer shook his head and said, “Son, you do not want that one. It will not be able to run and play like other puppies ever will.” At that, the young boy limped back away from the fence and pulled up his pants leg to show the steel brace underneath, running down both sides of his leg. The boy replied, “I know sir, but I do not run so well myself and the puppy will need someone who understands and moves at his speed.” The farmer had high hopes of selling his purebred puppies for a pretty penny, but that morning he sold the first one for two dollars and two cents.
The boy in the story was able to have empathy for the runt of the litter, the boy was going to be able to come alongside him, and understand what he was going through. All of us have enough life experience that we can be the one who has empathy and comes alongside someone else. When we have insight into the problem, the loss, or the uncertainty that someone else is experiencing we should not present ourselves as a distant expert but we should come alongside them, we should weep when they weep. We should do this because that is the example Jesus gives us in this morning’s scripture.
This scripture can also impact how we see Jesus. I like how cartoonist R.K. Milholland put it in his webcomic Something Positive: “The shortest verse in the bible is Jesus wept. The only thing wrong with it is the past tense.” Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus, and Jesus still weeps with us today. Jesus empathizes with us today. That does not mean Jesus is afraid for what the future holds like we are, because he is not. But it means that we can have confidence that our Lord and Savior understands us. It means that we can trust that when we are overwhelmed and we full out ugly cry, Jesus is right there with us. We never have to feel silly or inadequate taking our concerns to our savior in prayer because we can have confidence that from him we will find empathy and understanding.
I probably should not be so dismissive of movies that our tear jerkers, just like all of us should not be dismissive of the pain, anxiety, and fear that others are experiencing. Instead of offering worthless advice like “calm down” or “be thankful because others have it worse”, may we instead come alongside people who are suffering and may we show them empathy. Friends, all of us are suffering a little bit right now. We are all tired of being isolated, some of us already do not know when our next paycheck is coming, and others of us have real anxiety that the worst is yet to come. All of us need someone’s empathy right now. All of us need someone to come alongside us. So is it you can come alongside? I challenge you to prayerfully consider that. Right now, you cannot literally come alongside them (we do need to maintain six feet after all), but we can still have empathy. We can still take the initiative and reach out. I encourage you to be like Jesus, pick up the phone and do that this week. This week for someone else may we be the listening ear of Jesus, the reassuring voice of Jesus, and if necessary may we be willing to weep because after all Jesus wept.