The raising of Lazarus and the problem of evil

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5th Sunday of Lent, Year A: April 10, 2011
Ezek 37:12-14; Ps 130; Rom 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

This cry, which we hear from the lips of both Martha and Mary, is in essence the same cry that we hear from so many in our world—and even from ourselves. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Cried out when a loved one dies: especially a child; a baby; an adult who is still too young. When a freak accident takes away something forever. When a job is lost: suddenly, unfairly, that you needed. When some part of your body is broken or diseased: chronically, painfully. When someone you love gets lost on the path of life and makes a mistake that can never be undone.

“Lord, if you had been here”—this wouldn’t have happened; you could have stopped it; you could have saved me; he never would have…; I didn’t need to…; why didn’t you…?

From Martha, the plea comes in her usual organized and controlled way. We remember Martha, from the time when Jesus and his disciples visited her home, and she was busy, burdened with much serving. [Luke 10:40] And now, with her brother dead and buried, she’s the one with the stiff upper lip. She can go out to meet Jesus, very much in control: this man who didn’t come quickly enough to save her brother. And so she can deliver her rebuke, but quickly add, “But even now I know…” and to say exactly what she knew, precisely limited. It was admirable faith, as far as it went; but she would remain in control of it, not letting herself be drawn forward to the new places that Jesus wanted her to go. “Your brother will rise.” “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” “I am the resurrection…” But she wouldn’t go there. She would stay in control, with her tight respect, her cold assent. For what would happen if she ever let go? She couldn’t trust Jesus; she could only trust herself. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

With Mary, as always, her heart is on her sleeve. During Jesus’ earlier visit to Bethany, we saw her leaving all the work to her sister while she sat at Jesus’ feet, soaking in every bit of his teaching. But now, when she heard that Jesus was coming, she couldn’t even go out to meet him; she sat at home. How could she bear to face him? She had thought that he loved her, and Martha, and Lazarus; but now he had just let Lazarus die! Her heart was broken. Not until she heard he was asking for her did she go out; and then only to fall in a heap on the ground, weeping. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

What shall we say to them—to stiff-upper-lip Martha, to heart-on-her-sleeve Mary—who are both grieving the death of their brother, in front of the man who could have saved him but didn’t? What shall we say to the billions who face their own deaths, accidents, losses, sicknesses, and sorrows? What shall we say to ourselves?

Shall we offer them a theodicy? A theodicy is a philosophical explanation that defends God against the problem of evil.

  • For the problem of evil says that, if God exists, and is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good, then evil should not exist; and yet evil does exist. So therefore, the problem says, is God not really all-powerful; not really all-good; or perhaps he doesn’t really exist at all?
  • And in response some philosophers over the past 300 years have written “theodicies,” explanations of why it is okay that things are the way they are. Why it is okay that God allows a world with deaths and accidents and losses and sicknesses and all manner of sin.

Shall we propose this to Mary and Martha? Shall we tell them that this is the best that God can do? That death is really a natural part of life? That it really is a good thing that their brother has died? That it’s really okay?

But there is someone who will not give them a theodicy. The almighty and eternal God—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—did not think it was okay for sin and evil to mar his beautiful creation with death and accidents and sickness and loss. It is not okay. And so the Word was made flesh: God the Son took upon himself the fullness of our humanity, with its sufferings and its vulnerability. And so we see that he walks in. He does not stand aloof and phone in an explanation. He walks in, flesh and blood; and he weeps. And he raises Lazarus from the dead.

So, is that the solution? Is this his response to all the brokenness and sin in the world?—to undo individual acts of suffering? To return Lazarus to this earthly life, where he will suffer and die yet again? Is that Christ’s solution?

No, it is not! For if it were, then he would have simply come and healed Lazarus before he died. And we have to hear this, because otherwise we will be duped into making the Gospel one more do-good worldly ideology, and ourselves nothing more than social workers. And, like Mary and Martha in this reading, we will have no understanding of why anything continues to go wrong in our lives.

As much as Christ’s love inspires and enables us to reach out in works of corporal mercy to relieve suffering in this life—and always has, in the amazing history of the Church—as much as it does this, there is something even more important that it points to.

For the raising of Lazarus back to life was a sign. It was the miracle that it was—and it also was a sign pointing to an even more important message, a more important reality. And that is Christ’s real solution. “I am the resurrection and the life.” The Resurrection is the solution. Not just a raising back to this earthly life, to suffer and die again; but a raising and transformation into a body like Christ’s risen body that can never suffer and never die; when all creation will be transformed; when he will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order will have passed away. [Rev 21:4] That is the solution. Nothing less will do, for our loving God.

But the way to that solution is not what we would ever expect. Two weeks from today we will celebrate Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. But next week we will remember his Passion and death, which he went through to open the way to the Resurrection. It is a precious, costly gift that he gave to open this way for us. And it is our way too: through suffering and death like his, to a resurrection like his. Who could ever believe it? To go deeper into darkness, in order to reach the light?

And so he gave Mary and Martha, and us, this sign of the raising of Lazarus. Early in our Gospel reading we have this curious sentence: Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was. “So”; “therefore”; because he loved them, he delayed two days. Because he loved them, and he heard their prayer, he did not answer it: because he wanted to give them something even better.

  • Martha, in her tightly controlled faith, could not see his power; but when he raised Lazarus, then she beheld a truth that went far beyond what she knew before.
  • Mary, in her heartbreak, could not see his love; but when he raised her brother from the dead, then she knew the infinite love that overflowed beyond anything she had imagined.

And so we find, in the very next chapter of the Gospel of John, that when Jesus is back in Bethany, and Martha and Lazarus are at dinner with him, Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair [John 12:3]. In an outpouring of love and gratitude that responded to his. Finally, she knew. Finally, she really believed. And I bet she never doubted again, no matter what happened to her for the rest of her earthly life. Because she had learned enough of what goes on in the secret reasons of God to trust him completely. And to know that, even while those reasons are secret in this earthly life, when one day they are revealed, we too will be embracing him in gratitude and love for everything that he has permitted or given, far beyond all that we ask or imagine [Eph 3:20].

“O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them… Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.”

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