The curtain rises on a quiet Judean village, the sanctuary of three holy hearts. Each of the inmates have some strongly-marked traits of individual character. These have been so often delicately and truthfully drawn that it is the less necessary to dwell minutely upon them here. There is abundant material in the narrative to discover to us, in the sisters, two characters -- both interesting in themselves, both beloved by Jesus, both needful in the Church of God, but at the same time widely different, preparing by a diverse education for heaven -- requiring, as we shall find, from Him who best knew their diversity, a separate and peculiar treatment.
Martha, the elder (probably the eldest of the family), has been accurately represented as the type of activity; bustling, energetic, impulsive, well qualified to be the head of the household, and to grapple with the stern realities and routine of actual life; quick in apprehension, strong and vigorous in intellect, anxious to give a reason for all she did, and requiring a reason for the conduct of others; a useful if not a noble character, combining diligence in business with fervency in spirit.
Mary, again, was the type of reflection; calm, meek, devotional, contemplative, sensitive in feeling, ill suited to battle with the cares and sorrows, the strifes and griefs of an engrossing and encumbering world; one of those gentle flowers that pine and bend under the rough blasts of life, easily battered down by hail and storm, but as ready to raise its drooping leaves under heavenly influences. Her position was at her Lord's feet, drinking in those living waters which came welling up fresh from the great Fountain of life; asking no questions, declining all arguments, gentle and submissive, a beautiful impersonation of the childlike faith which |beareth all things, hopeth all things, believeth all things.| While her sister can so command her feelings as to be able to rush forth to meet her Lord outside the village, calm and self-possessed, to unbosom to Him all her hopes and fears, and even to interrogate Him about death and the resurrection, Mary can only meet Him buried in her all-absorbing grief. The crushed leaves of that flower of paradise are bathed and saturated with dewy tears. She has not a word of remonstrance. Jesus speaks to Martha -- chides her -- reasons with her; with Mary, He knew that the heart was too full, the wound too deep, to bear the probing of word or argument; He speaks, therefore, in the touching pathos of her own silent grief. Her melting emotion has its response in His own. In one word, Martha was one of those meteor spirits rushing to and fro amid the ceaseless activities of life, softened and saddened, but not prostrated and crushed by the sudden inroads of sorrow. Mary, again, we think of as one of those angel forms which now and then seem to walk the earth from the spirit-land; a quiet evening star, shedding its mellowed radiance among deepening twilight shadows, as if her home was in a brighter sphere, and her choice, as we know it was, |a better part, that never could be taken from her.| Beautifully and delicately has a Christian poet thus drawn her loving character: --
|Oh, blest beyond all daughters of the East!
What were the Orient thrones to that low seat,
Where thy hush'd spirit drew celestial birth!
Mary! meek listener at the Saviour's feet,
No feverish cares to that divine retreat
Thy woman's heart of silent worship brought,
But a fresh childhood, heavenly truth to meet
With love and wonder and submissive thought.
Oh! for the holy quiet of thy breast,
Midst the world's eager tones and footsteps flying, Thou whose calm soul was like a well-spring, lying
So deep and still in its transparent rest,
That e'en when noontide burns upon the hills,
Some one bright solemn star all its lone mirror fills.|
Of Lazarus, around whom the main interest of the narrative gathers, we have fewer incidental touches to guide us in giving individuality to his character. This, however, we may infer, from the poignant sorrow of the twin hearts that were so unexpectedly broken, that he was a loved and lamented only brother, a sacred prop around which their tenderest affections were entwined. Included too, as he was, in the love which the Divine Saviour bore to the household (for |Jesus loved Lazarus|), is it presumptuous to imagine that his spirit had been cast into much the same human mould as that of his beloved Lord, and that the friendship of Jesus for him had been formed on the same principles on which friendships are formed still -- a similarity of disposition, some mental and moral resemblances and idiosyncrasies? They were like-minded, so far as a fallible nature and the nature of a stainless humanity could be assimilated. We can think of him as gentle, retiring, amiable, forgiving, heavenly-minded; an imperfect and shadowy, it may be, but still a faithful reflection and transcript of incarnate loveliness. May we not venture to use regarding him his Lord's eulogy on another, |Behold an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile!|
Nor must we forget, in this rapid sketch, what a precious unfolding we have in this home portraiture of the humanity of the Saviour! |The Man Christ Jesus| stands in softened majesty and tenderness before our view. He who had a heart capacious enough to take in all mankind, had yet His likings (sinless partialities) for individuals and minds which were more than others congenial and kindred with His own. As there are some heart sanctuaries where we can more readily rush to bury the tale of our sorrows or unburden our perplexities, so had He. |Jesus wept!| -- this speaks of Him as the human Sympathiser. |Jesus loved Lazarus| -- this speaks of Him as the human Friend! He had an ardent affection for all His disciples, but even among them there was an inner circle of holier attachments -- a Peter, and James, and John; and out of this sacred trio again there was one pre-eminently |Beloved.| So, amid the hallowed haunts of Palestine, the homes of Judea, the cities of Galilee, there was but one Bethany. It is delightful thus to think of the heart of Jesus in all but sin as purely human, identical and identified with our own. He was no hermit-spirit dwelling in mysterious solitariness apart from His fellows, but open to the charities of life; -- in all His refined and hallowed sensibilities |made like unto His brethren.| Friendship is itself a holy thing. The bright intelligences in the upper sanctuary know it and experience it. They |cry one to another.| Theirs is no solitary strain -- no isolated existence. Unlike the planets in the material firmament, shining distant and apart, they are rather clustering constellations, whose gravitation-law is unity and love, this binding them to one another, and all to God. Nay -- with reverence we say it -- may not the archetype of all friendship be found shadowed forth in what is higher still, those mystic and ineffable communings subsisting between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a past eternity? We can thus regard the friendship of Jesus on earth -- like all ennobled, purified affections -- as an emanation from the Divine; a sacred and holy rill, flowing direct from the Fountain of infinite love. How our adorable Lord in the days of His flesh fondly clung even to hearts that grew faithless when fidelity was most needed! What was it but a noble and touching tribute to the longings and susceptibilities of His holy soul for human friendship, when, on entering the precincts of Gethsemane, He thus sought to mitigate the untold sorrows of that awful hour -- |Tarry ye here and watch with Me!|
But to return. Such was the home around which the memories of its inmates and our own love to linger.
Mary, Martha, and Lazarus -- all three partakers of the same grace, fellow-pilgrims Zionward, and that journey sanctified and hallowed by a sacred fellowship with the Lord of pilgrims. The Saviour's own precious promise seems under that roof of lowly unobtrusive love to receive a living fulfilment: |Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.| Though many a gorgeous palace was at that era adorning the earth, where was the spot, what the dwelling, half so consecrated as this? Solomon had a thousand years before, two miles distant, in presence of assembled Israel, uttered the exclamation, |But will God in very deed dwell with men upon earth?| He was now verily dwelling! Nor was it under any gorgeous canopy or august temple. He had selected Three Human Souls as the shrines He most loved. He had sought their holy, heavenly converse as the sweetest incense and costliest sacrifice. How or where they first saw Jesus we cannot tell. They had probably been among the number of those pious Jews who had prayerfully waited for the |consolation of Israel,| and who had lived to see their fondest wishes and hopes realised. The Evangelist gives no information regarding their previous history. The narrative all at once, with an abruptness of surpassing beauty, leaves us in no doubt that the Divine Redeemer had been for long a well-known guest in that sunlit home, and that, when the calls and duties of His public ministry were suspended, many an hour was spent in the enjoyment of its peaceful seclusion.
We can fancy, and no more, these oft happy meetings, when the Pilgrim Saviour, weary and worn, was seen descending the rocky footpath of Olivet, -- Lazarus or his sisters, from the flat roof of their dwelling, or under the spreading fig-tree, eager to catch the first glimpse of His approach.
When seated in the house, we may picture their converse: Themes of sublime and heavenly import, unchronicled by the inspired penmen, which sunk deep into those listening spirits, and nerved two of them for an after-hour of unexpected sorrow. If there be bliss in the interchange of communion between Christian and Christian, what must it have been to have had the presence and fellowship of the Lord Himself! Not seeing Him, as we see Him, |behind the lattice,| but seated underneath His shadow, drinking in the living tones of His living voice. These |children of Zion| must, indeed, have been |joyful in their King.|
One of these hallowed seasons is that referred to in the 10th of St Luke, where Martha the ministering spirit, and Mary the lowly disciple, are first introduced to our notice. That visit is conjectured to have occurred when Jesus was returning to the country from the Feast of Tabernacles. The Bethany circle dreamt not then of their impending trial. But, foreseen as it was by Him who knows the end from the beginning, may we not well believe one reason (the main reason) for His going thither was to soothe them in the prospect of a saddened home? So that, when the stroke did descend, they might be cheered and consoled with the remembrances of His visit, and of the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth.
And is not this still the way Jesus deals with His people? He visits them often by some precious love-tokens -- some special manifestations of His grace and presence before the hour of trial. So that, when that hour does come, they may not be altogether prostrated or overwhelmed with it. Like Elijah of old, they have their miraculous food provided before they encounter the sterile desert. When they come to speak of their crushed hearts, they have solaces to tell of too. Their language is, |I will sing of mercy and judgment!|
* * * * *
We may be led to inquire why a character so lovely as that of Lazarus was not enlisted along with the other disciples in the active service of the Apostleship. Why should Peter and Andrew, John and James, be summoned from their boats and nets on Gennesaret to follow Jesus, and this other, imbued with the same spirit and honoured with the same regard, be left alone and undisturbed in his village home?
|To every man there is a work.| Some are more peculiarly called to active duty, and better fitted for it; others for passive obedience and suffering. Some are selected as bold standard-bearers of the cross, others to give their testimony in the quiet seclusion of domestic life. Some are specially gifted, as Paul, to appear in the halls of Nero or on the heights of Mars' Hill, and, confronting face to face the world's boasted wisdom, maintain intact the honour of their Lord. Others are required to glorify Him on beds of sickness, or in homes of sorrow, or in the holy consistent tenor of their everyday walk. Some are called as Levites to temple service; others to give the uncostly cup of cold water, or the widow's mite; others to manifest the meek, gentle, unselfish, resigned, forgiving heart, when there is no cup or mite to offer!
Believer! rejoice that your path is marked out for you. Your lot in life, with all its |accidents,| is your Lord's appointing. Dream not, in your own short-sighted wisdom, that, had you occupied some other or more prominent position -- had your talents been greater, or your worldly influence more extensive -- you might have glorified your God in a way which is at present denied to you. He can be served in the lowliest as well as in the most exalted stations. As the tiniest leaf or smallest star in the world of nature reflects His glory as well as the giant mountain or blazing sun, so does He graciously own and recognise the humblest effort of lowly love no less than the most lavish gifts which splendid munificence and costly devotion can cast into His treasury. Let it be your great aim and ambition to honour Him just in the position He has seen meet to assign you. |Let every man,| says the Apostle, |wherein he is called, therein abide with God.| However limited your sphere, you may become a centre of holy influences to the little world around you. Your heart may be an incense-altar of love and affection, kindness and gentleness to man -- your life a perpetual hymn of praise to your Father in Heaven; glorifying Him, like Martha, by active service; like Mary, by sitting at His feet; or, like Lazarus, by holy living and happy dying, and leaving behind you |the Memory of the Just| which is |blessed.|