John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
The Fifth Sunday of Lent is the last occasion when the celebrant has a choice of two possible sets of readings: year A, which is always available, featuring the raising of Lazarus, or year C, centered on the woman caught in adultery. As in past weeks, I will focus on the former, especially since next Saturday’s readings (April 13) also pick up on Lazarus.
English has a saying: “seeing is believing.” The question today’s Gospel poses is whether that idiom gets it right: is seeing believing, or is believing necessary to see?
The late Slovak cardinal, Ján Chryzostom Korec, captured the paradox well. “People don’t want to believe what they don’t see. And yet Jesus says that we must believe in order to see!”
This was very apparent in last week’s Gospel about the healing of the man born blind. In the end, after the Sanhedrin interrogates him and his parents and throws them out, the paradox is clear: the ones who are truly blind have nothing wrong with their eyesight, but refuse to believe what they see. Unlike another blind man in the Gospels, their response is: “Lord, I don’t want to see.”
When Jesus arrives in Bethany and speaks with Martha, He asks her if she believes her brother will rise. Like many of the poor Jews of Jesus’ day, Martha and Mary seem to have come to an understanding of some kind of life after death. Life after death had been an unclear concept for most of the Old Testament, and even in Jesus’ day the main parties—the Pharisees and Sadducees, disputed whether there is a “resurrection of the dead” (see Acts 23:8; Matthew 22:23, etc.) The “resurrection of the dead” is tied up with the problem of suffering and divine reward/punishment, in this world or the next, which was introduced last week in the account of the healing of the man born blind, when Jesus’ disciples asked: “who sinned, him or his parents?”
Martha appears to take Jesus’ question as a theological question: yes, I believe that, on the last day, Lazarus will rise. But Jesus changes the question: resurrection is not a “what” but a “who.” Do you believe that I AM the Resurrection and the Life?” Jesus does not need a Last Day; the meaning of all history is standing right here.
Martha believes in Jesus, believes He is the “Christ, the Son of God.” Still, she has her doubts: “Lord, by now there will be a stench,” when Jesus instructs those in attendance to open the tomb. Still, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”
Last week, Jesus told His disciples that the blindness of the man born blind is neither his nor his parents’ sin, but that the “glory of God” might be revealed in him. Jesus’ act, His sign, requires faith to understand it: the blind man accepted it, the Pharisees rejected it.
The same thing happens this week in the account of raising Lazarus. Yes, Jesus could have sped up from “the place where he was” when told Lazarus was going downhill, but He didn’t. Yes, as a skeptic in the crowd put it, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind done something so this man would not have died?” Yes, He could have, but He didn’t. We so much want to fit God’s designs into our parameters.
Jesus takes His disciples so they can see and believe. But, for His beloved Martha and Mary, He wants them to believe and see.
And Jesus, who is Lord of the Living and the Dead, raises Lazarus.
What is really amazing—and what confirms the truth that seeing isn’t believing, is what happens next. Today’s Gospel concludes that “many who had … seen what He had done began to believe in Him.” One would think there is hardly more incontrovertible proof than restoring a dead man to life.
But human freedom can be perverse.
Today’s Gospel does not tell us, but next Saturday’s does: because people are “believing” in Him, Jesus’ fate is sealed. The Sanhedrin resolves He must die. At this point, the die is cast: “from that day on, they planned to kill him” (John 11:53). The restoration of life is repaid by the pushback of the culture of death.
And why? At least in the case of the man born blind, the Pharisees might try to blame their lack of belief on Jesus’ supposed non-compliance with the ceremonials of Sabbath rest. But, in the case of Lazarus, the Sanhedrin’s base motive becomes apparent: if everybody starts believing in Jesus, “the Romans will come and take away our temple and nation” (v. 48). Jesus’ fate is sealed out of utilitarian considerations. They will no longer be top dogs. The sealing of Jesus’ fate is justified out of utilitarian considerations: as Caiaphas puts it, it’s better for one man to die than many. No lynch mob could have put it better. Here, faith has nothing to do with the motives; pure self-interested calculus rules.
Which brings us back to the First Sunday of Lent, when Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread, prostrate Himself before the Devil, and—for Luke the ultimate temptation—jump off the Temple roof to make God prove His providential care. We want so much to make God in our image, to force Him into our ways, to think “my will be done” even as we piously pray for His, to claim that events that we do not understand – including suffering and death – are therefore devoid of meaning because of our lack of understanding, and thus “prove” that God is incapable of “stopping” or indifferent to what we don’t like, want or understand. So God has to die. He has to die in Jerusalem for raising Lazarus. And He has to be proclaimed dead today, because He doesn’t meet our expectations.
There is none so blind as he who won’t see, but one can’t see before believing.
Let’s close with a reflection from Cardinal Korec: “And what about me? Do I want to see everything first, in order to believe? Or do I believe in order to see more deeply? Have I seen anything deeply, of life or of the mystery of God, through my faith? And when I saw something in my life, when I saw miracles around me, did they lead me to a deeper faith? If God has helped me a hundred times, if He has forgiven my sins, did it bring me closer to Him?”
All views herein, as well as the translations from Rok na posolstvom (Bratislava: LUC, 2007), are exclusively those of the author.