April 10 is the Fifth Sunday of Lent.
Ezekiel 37:12-14, Psalm 130:1-8, Romans 8:8-11, John 11:1-45 or 11:3-7, 17, 20-27, 33-45
This Sunday’s Gospel is the story of Lazarus, which is a linchpin in the story of the Passion. It’s an important step on the way to the cross for Jesus. It is also a prefigurement of the Resurrection.
That Jesus rose Lazarus from the dead — thus attracting even more believers — was a kind of “last straw” that pushed the Pharisees to such distraction that the plan to kill Jesus hardened in their minds. There is great irony in the fact that Jesus’ success in gaining converts from Lazarus’ resurrection inspires the Pharisees to kill him. Aristotle would call it peripeteia (reversal of intention) — because killing Jesus leads to a greater resurrection, and far more belief.
But Gospel stories have a unique way of transcending their own stories. They are not just filled with interest and significance on their own terms; they answer key questions about our lives. Here are some of the questions the raising of Lazarus answers.
Why did God let my loved one die?
This is what Martha and Mary want to know. Mary challenges Jesus: If he had been there, her brother would not be dead. Jesus answers by challenging her frame of reference.
“Your brother will rise,” he says. “I am the resurrection and the life.”
Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.” Jesus teaches her (and then shows her) that death does not have the final word in his presence. Those who experience death are firmly in his power, still.
So, then, maybe we shouldn’t consider death that big a deal?
If God’s got death under control, then another question arises: Shouldn’t people of faith not worry about death at all? Today’s Gospel answers this one with two words: “Jesus wept.”
While death is not the final victor in any life, it is still something evil and sad. That is because death was never meant to be. It was brought by Satan and sin — by human beings turning away from God and handing their futures to sin. When Jesus sees death, he never simply accepts it. It hurts every time.
Why does God allow evil things like death if he dislikes them and he will reverse them anyway?
When Jesus announces the death of Lazarus, he says he could have (and would have) prevented it, but didn’t: “I am glad for your benefit that I wasn’t there, so that you will believe.”
God knows that the only way for us to be happy is to know, love and serve him. To have the capacity to do so, we need to know and love other goods.
We might think that a world where everything goes right, and Jesus makes problems disappear, would be better. But Jesus is “glad” that some bad things happen. Why? Because by allowing evil in our lives while giving us the ability to overcome it, he allows us to know and love the good more than our limited minds could without this help.
Why does Jesus only give the gift of faith to certain people?
This is another good question that the text answers. It is clear in the passage that the literal death of Lazarus stands for the “spiritual” death so many experience. If we think a family member is too far gone to be brought back, then we need to realize that the God who gave life to the body of Lazarus is perfectly capable of bringing life to the spirits of our family members.
We just need to be close friends of his, like Mary and Martha were, and keep asking him with faith.
Tom and April Hoopes write from Atchison, Kansas,
where Tom is writer in residence at Benedictine College.