When Jesus threatens to open up the tomb where his beloved friend, Lazarus, had been placed, the dead man’s sister, Martha, objects.
She had pleaded for Jesus to come to their home in Bethany while brother Lazarus still clung to life, but Jesus had dithered away his time and arrived four days late – four days after Lazarus had died.
Now Jesus, seeing the sorrow of all who had gathered, and deeply saddened himself, proposes to roll the stone of the tomb away and revive his dead friend.
No way, the sister insists, because the stench would be overwhelming after four days. Better, she seems to think, that whatever life might yet be in store for his brother be assigned to the resurrection promised for the end of time.
But Jesus proceeds over the objections and risks raising a real stink.
So they roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. Jesus appeals to God for assistance, not just for the sake of raising his friend but also for persuading the gathered crowd that he, Jesus, is sent from God. And then he shouts into the cavern: “Lazarus, come out!”
Nothing in the text records anything about Lazarus’ body odor. It simply says that “the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.”
Then Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
In my home state of Illinois, democracy is a lot like Lazarus.
It’s been ill in Illinois for a long time. And almost all of it has to do with what, in Illinois, we call “pay to play” – or buying political influence (and elections) with campaign contributions. Various emergency remedies have been tried, particularly when it was gasping for breath earlier this year.
Previously, a number of former governors and other elected officials around the state had been sent to prison for diseasing our body politic with “pay to play.” But that didn’t seem to have any long-lasting effect.
The appalling actions of the then-current governor led to his criminal indictment and impeachment from office and to still more calls for reform. But the legislature – in Illinois it’s called the General Assembly – thought it could fake a revived democracy by passing only half-measures of political reform. That didn’t work either, as the new governor vetoed the measure.
Valiantly, a group of citizens rallied together to push still one more time: It demanded that, across the board, the direct influence of money on political elections and decision-making (the disease causing democracy’s death) be eradicated. The virus, it stated, had to be eliminated if the patient was to survive.
It almost worked.
But one single strain of the disease persisted. It didn’t mind that limits on money in politics be placed on other parts of the system, but it refused those limits on itself. That virus went by the name of Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives and chairman of the state’s Democratic Party, Michael Madigan, who believed there should be no limits on how much a political party’s leadership should be able to “transfer” to any one of its officeholders or candidates. None.
So the patient became a victim of that unrestrained disease, that uncontrolled strain of the virus. Democracy died in Illinois.
Most everyone is sad. Those closest to the patient are particularly sorrowful. They wished a savior had come in time, but they recognize it’s too late. The victim, they realize, is beyond revival. Better to wait for its reincarnation in some idealized time of the future.
Besides, if anyone opened up the tomb, it would cause a terrible stench.
But what would happen if some chosen – even anointed – people in Illinois and in other states, where the strain is virulent, insisted that something sacred about our life as a free people was at stake? They would call for divine assistance and order the stone to be rolled away from the tomb – even if it caused a stink.
Who knows what would happen if those chosen and anointed people yelled into the tomb: “Democracy, emerge from that tomb of death here in Illinois and across the nation!”
Surely the body of democracy would struggle at first, having had its hands and feet and even its head bound for a while with the cloths of death still in evidence.
But maybe those same people who demanded the stone be removed and risked the stench would also be the ones to say: “Unbind democracy, let it get back to life. And even more importantly, to work.”
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.