Lazarus, Harm Reduction, and the Gospel


In the midst of the global pandemic of COVID-19, this story takes on a different tone. Jesus comes to mourn for a friend who has died of illness, something so many people are tragically doing in our world today. Indeed, many of us know people who have been personally affected by this pandemic. And with this heaviness in our world, this story seems very relevant. But maybe not in the way that I first thought.

You see, this story is meaningful to me not only as a pastor but also, as someone who works amongst people experiencing addiction. As someone who is a proponent of harm reduction, this story has a deep connection to this work. There is a drug called naloxone (commonly called Narcan) which is also known as the Lazarus drug. This drug has the ability to quickly reverse an opioid overdose, and it is something I always carry with me and we always have on hand. And I have seen the very real effects of Narcan, as I know people who have basically died be brought back to life.

Each time I read this story, I am further reminded that the Jesus we see in the Gospels was very much a proponent of harm reduction. Throughout his life and teaching, we see him embody values and practices that would come to define the harm reduction practices in the 20th century: Centering people not their behavior, preaching against the stigma associated with one’s choices and behavior, and engaging the systems of oppression that de-humanize people and lead to further marginalization.

So I would like to engage this idea today because I think that the lens of harm reduction can help us — as the church and as followers of Jesus — can be present to our world during this unprecedented season of life.

In our story, Lazarus is sick and has been sick for long enough to send word to Jesus. Jesus, in the middle of whatever he was doing, does not make it in time, and by the time he arrives Lazarus has been dead 4 days.

Mary and Martha and Lazarus’ family are grieving, and there is some not unexpected anger at Jesus. “Where were you?!” Martha asked him, saying that had Jesus been there, Lazarus might not have died. Mary expresses similar sentiments, grieving that Jesus might have been able to help stave off this tragedy. Jesus doesn’t offer excuses or long-winded theological reasoning, but rather asked them to lead him to Lazarus’ grave, and reminds them of the idea of resurrection that is deeply woven into their tradition. And his connection to this tradition.

Jesus, overcome with grief, begins to weep as they are on the way to where Lazarus is buried. Jesus felt genuine grief at the loss of his friend and joins in the public lament. Jesus is truly present to the pain and suffering being experienced here. He weeps. He feels what is happening. Jesus here is a human being who has lost a friend.

When we encounter pain and suffering and injustice in our world, this is a perfectly acceptable response. Because it is easy to see the weight of what the gospel of Jesus called us to and want to act right away. To take on the pain and suffering and alleviate it as fast as possible.

Now, in some instances — where the cause of oppression or pain is easily identified and there are tangible things to do — this makes sense, and we can grieve and fight against injustice at the same time.

But there are times — like we are experiencing now with this pandemic — that it is not so easy to engage. Pain and suffering are present all over our world. And sometimes the best response we can have is to grieve. To join in lament things happening that should not happen. To join with others in seeing pain and suffering that is not fair, and it sucks, and how we wish our world didn’t have to be this way. Sometimes, our best Christain response to someone who is hurting is to sit down next to them and say, ‘This is shitty.”

Not only is this a good response, but it can also help us be present to those who are hurting, who are most connecting to grief and sadness. It can help us practice the solidarity we are called to as followers of Jesus. To grieve isn’t to say there is nothing to be done, but rather to grieve is to acknowledge — to another person or collectively — that harm has happened and pain is present and this is NOT the way things are supposed to be in our world.

This is a central idea of harm reduction, a philosophy that is not only central to my work at Aurora Commons, but also one that has deeply informed my faith. To practice harm reduction is to center a person, not a problem. It starts with a person who has experienced harm and says, “How can we be present to this individual?” It doesn’t start with all these external issues and ideas about harm or theories about how we fix this harm, but with a person experiencing harm. Because they are the experts on their own experiences, and if we are to combat the harm, we will need them and their expertise.

But harm reduction doesn’t end there. Once you are present to someone in the midst of grief or harm, space can open up to begin to ask, “How can we lessen this harm?”

Isn’t this what Jesus is doing here? Isn’t Jesus practicing a form of harm reduction here?

When Martha and Mary critique his lateness and even imply it’s his fault Lazarus died, he doesn’t respond with defensiveness or excuses. Jesus is present with them, simply saying that if we look closely, maybe God is here somewhere. But Jesus doesn’t stop there, he asks to go to the tomb, and openly weeps on the way. Jesus is present to their pain. And then Jesus calls out Lazarus. Jesus didn’t ask anything of them. He didn’t even say they needed faith! (And the text doesn’t say they had it at that moment.) Jesus just calls out to Lazarus, and they witness a resurrection.

I cannot read this story without thinking of my friends who experience addiction. When they share about the reality of their addiction with others, our society — including people who are supposed to help them — often push back, saying, “What are you talking about. This is YOUR fault. You should do X, Y, and Z.” Like Jesus, to practice harm reduction here is to simply say, “I hear you. I am with you. If you want to share about what is hurting, this is a safe place to do so.”

And once someone is willing to lead us into their pain and fear and what is causing them harm (something that can take YEARS if we are truly centering this person), we still don’t try to fix anyone. We start by weeping with them. We see them. We see the injustice at the situation. We communicate that even though we have no idea what they are going through, we are present with them.

And then — and only then — can begin to work together to mitigate the harm. To lessen the pain and suffering. Then we can begin to hope in and work toward seeing resurrection happen in our world today.

But what might this resurrection look like? I wish — WISH — that this resurrection would look like the Lazarus story, with people not only coming back from the dead but being healed and made whole from whatever is afflicting them. I have prayed for this literal resurrection many times.

But this story is not about how we make literal resurrection happen. Indeed, that is not the point of this story. Jesus does not call us to literally raise people from the dead. The story of Lazarus rising from the dead is not a blueprint. It is a story. And by leaning into this story, we can see that if we are willing to live out the good news of God’s love and justice in our world, we might not see tombs open up, but we very well might see resurrection in unexpected places.

I can still remember the first friend I had die from an overdose when I began doing this work in the Seattle area. Her name was Stacy, and she brightened up any room she was in with her attitude and hopefulness. We had spent a great deal of time getting to know here and listening to her and withholding judgment in order to remind her that she mattered. That she was not the sum of her addiction. She even began a journey of healing to leave her addiction behind and get her kids back. But then, right when there was a glimmer of hope that she had healthier days ahead, we got the news of her death. She had overdosed in a friend’s backyard.

And I was devastated. I kept thinking over and over about what else we could have done. What else I could have done. Maybe if I had pushed her harder to get treatment. Maybe if I had argued with her or manipulated her in some way to get into a program, she might still be with us. Maybe I should have practiced that tough love I see so many people proclaiming. I may have lost some of our friendship, but I would have saved a life.

But a few days later, I had a God moment. A moment of clarity. A realization that we were doing exactly what we were called to do. I was doing what I was called to do as a follower of Jesus.

You see, doing whatever we can to get the desired outcome sounds good in moments like this. When someone’s life is on the line. But the truth is, we can be so focused on who we want someone to be, that we aren’t seeing the person. We can so want to be the savior of someone that we fail to be their friend.

Jesus does not call us to be the savior. But he does call us to be friends. He does call us to stand in solidarity with people at the present. We are not called to meet people where we hope they will be, but where they are at.

It was never my job — our job — to save Stacy. It was our job to do exactly what we did, to walk with her those last few months, and let her know that she was loved. That her life mattered. That her identity was not in her addiction or other circumstance, but in the fact that she was a beautiful human being that brought life and joy to this world.

This is harm reduction. This is the way of Jesus.

As Christians we have a unique call, to be present to the pain and suffering and injustice in our world. But the reality is, we can’t fix everything, And indeed, there are situations where we can fix anything. But we are still called to be present. To stand with those who are hurting. To stand up for justice even when injustice seems to be winning.

And we are called to a gospel of harm reduction, where people are seen and loved and have agency and power over their own lives. To center people in this way may seem like a radical act in our culture today, but we follow a radical God who calls us to a radical love.

May we be people of this radical love and we journey from where we are today.



Pastor — Queen Anne Christian Church

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