It’s the shortest verse of the Bible, and simply for that reason I remember it being treated as a meme when I was in Sunday School. “Which verse will you memorize today?” “John 11:35” followed by he he he ho ho ho.
Maybe it’s because of that innocent childhood irreverence for this verse that makes it hit me so much harder after revisiting it today. The brief context here is that Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had died. Jesus arrived when the sisters were both mourning their brother’s death. Martha accused Jesus of arriving too late, but she quickly followed it with an affirmation of her faith in the Son of God. She was able to rise above her grief to remember who Jesus is. Mary had the same accusation for Jesus, but didn’t follow it up with any affirmations of faith like Martha. She was only able to weep. The difference in how Jesus responded to these two distinct sisters illustrates the core point of this verse, and the story as whole, for me: Jesus’s empathy.
When Mary fell at Jesus’s feet and bitterly lamented that his late arrival has led to her brother’s death, Jesus didn’t rebuke her for her lack of faith, he didn’t take the opportunity to proselytize about his divinity and power over death, nor did he compare her to her sister Martha. Like he said in the beginning of the chapter, he knew that he would raise Lazarus from the dead. In fact, he chose to stay an extra two days before going to Bethany in order to raise Lazarus. When it would have made sense for him to expose Mary’s foolishness, he instead chose empathy.
“When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.”
His only response is to ask to see the body, which brings us to our original verse:
Do you remember the last time you wept? I know a lot of us are easy criers, but try to remember the last time your heart truly broke and you were wracked with sincere weeping. Maybe you were embarrassed by how your nose filled with snot and your eyes got all red. Then try to imagine Christ the Son of God, only a short while before he would bear the cross and ultimately conquer death itself, wholeheartedly weeping over the death of one man, Lazarus.
So much significance exists in the shortest verse of the Bible, of which I wanted to touch on two points. First, with joy, Jesus sacrificed oneness with God the Father to experience perfect empathy with this broken creation. It was only by completely humbling himself by taking a human form was Jesus able to fully understand our suffering, so that he could then conquer the root: sin. Therefore, we can find peace in a savior who doesn’t cast judgement on us from some divine plane, but knows and understands us intimately. As recipients of his grace, we turn to him first when we seek comfort, knowing that this gift was free for us but so costly for him.
Second, in our lifelong journey to be more like Christ, we should never forget to emulate this quality of empathy. Today’s climate is one of constant sorrow, whether it is injustice, natural disaster, war, and hunger. When we struggle to empathize with and care about the suffering of a difference race, or communities in a different city or country, or a socioeconomic class far from our own, I hope we can reflect on how Jesus, the divine Son of God sent to triumph over death and suffering forever, was moved to weeping by the sorrow of mere humans over one man. Just as he overcame sin to love us, we should strive to prevail over whatever boundaries in order to mourn with those who are mourning.