Bethany is indeed two miles east of Jerusalem on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, on the road to Jericho. Traveling to Galilee from Jerusalem or the other way, one goes through Bethany as the Jordan River valley route is the best alternative to avoid going through Samaria, which today is in the West Bank. But the major attraction in Bethany is of course, The Tomb of Lazarus, the testimony to the Gospel Reading for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (John 11:1-45)
This miracle when Jesus brought Lazarus back to life after being dead for four days is not recorded in the Synoptic Gospels. In fact John uses the term “sign” where the synoptics would say “miracle”, and in John’s style, this was a sign.
The two sisters – Mary and Martha – say to Jesus, separately: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” I wonder about that!
But then in his prayer Jesus prays: “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I know that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me”. This miracle then, or the sign, was for the sake of the crowd, not Lazarus or his sisters.
Indeed, Jesus proclaims the central message of this miracle when he said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die”. He is contrasting between two deaths: physical death and spiritual death.
In fact, the Epistle Reading for this Fifth Sunday in Lent (Romans 8:6-11) affirms it: “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace…If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin…he who raised Christ from the dead, will give life to your mortal bodies…”
That is the same message in the First Reading from Ezekiel 37:1-14. The dead dry bones come alive after God’s breath enters them. That is the life Jesus is talking about. That is the meaning behind the sign or miracle of Lazarus being brought back to life. It is not for Lazarus’ sake – well, not for his sake alone – but for our sake.
As John J. English put it: “For Christians, the ultimate meaning of life is Jesus Christ. The events of our personal and collective lives can only be understood in relationship to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ” (quoted from Spiritual Freedom).