John 12:12-19 is an enthralling Gospel reading - a possible alternative to the Markan one for tomorrow, Palm Sunday. Intriguingly it has a 'sandwich' - a pattern familiar to readers of Mark's Gospel - which makes me wonder whether John is, oh so subtly, telling his readers, 'see, I know Mark's Gospel too'. The sandwich is actually in the greater passage, John 12:9-19 and goes Lazarus - procession into Jerusalem - Lazarus.
Naturally that makes us think a bit about Lazarus. Why is he not mentioned in the other gospels? An especially pertinent question when we think about how John explains why there is a crowd to cheer Jesus on - the folk who witnessed Lazarus' resurrection had spread the word so there were, literally, 'crowds' there (see vv. 17-18). Richard Bauckham suggests that the other gospels, being composed earlier than John's Gospel may have omitted Lazarus because he was still a 'wanted' man - something John alludes to in 12:10 - even a decade or two beyond the event of the crucifixion of Jesus.*
We will never know exactly what happened to Lazarus both in real time and in the omission/inclusion of his story in the gospels, but we can see how John puts Lazarus to use in his report of the first Palm Sunday procession. The crowd have seen something amazing with the resurrection of Lazarus. They are excited about Jesus and his potential as The Next Great Leader of Israel. If you can raise a good Jew from the dead, must you not have the power to do the opposite to a bad Roman? Even the disciples do not understand exactly what is going on - only later, as John notes in 12:16, does the penny drop for the disciples. In keeping with all of John's Gospel seeing yet not understanding is entrenched in most human responses to Jesus. In John 12:12-19 Lazarus serves to explain the presence of the crowds as well as their excitement. John uses him to make the point that some people can come close to Jesus and nearly understand who he is and why he came while failing to properly understand Jesus.
John's lessons for us, his readers then tumble out of the reading. Disciples are those who do understand Jesus. Initially there may be a lack of comprehension, but one day, unlike 'the crowds', understanding comes. John's Gospel is written precisely to aid understanding, so that we may 'believe'. Understanding Jesus deepens when the implications of the details of his life are carefully discerned.
The donkey, for example, should lead the inquirer to Zechariah (though John does the actual work by providing the citation from Zechariah 9:9), and that should reveal that Jesus on a donkey is not The Next Great Leader of Israel. He comes in peace, not to make war. The problem of human life is not Roman hegemony but the rule of darkness and the power of sin. Light must destroy the darkness and the Lamb must take away sin's power.
The transformation of life, signified in water becoming wine, a blind man receiving sight, dead Lazarus made alive, and in other signs, is 'eternal life'. The crowds are right to be excited by Jesus the Raiser of the Dead, but for reasons other than those they have. The disciples are yet to understand; Zechariah had foreseen this day; we the readers have been granted the miracle of hindsight.
I wonder whether Obama and the G-20 leaders understand what they are up against? They want to change the world. We, the world, need change. But a trillion here and there will transform no one's heart, change nobody's mindset, and break no hearts filled with the love of money.
The saga of sin continues in the world Jesus came to save. The donkey bore the Saviour on that far off day; 'the donkey' in the story we read bears the secret of salvation today.
Don't shoot the donkey!
*[Noted later] Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John, Baker Academic, 2007, pp. 181-189.