This morning’s Gospel reading is John 11:1–45:
Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to Jesus saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” 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. Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away. And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.” As soon as she heard this, she rose quickly and went to him. For Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still where Martha had met him. So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her saw Mary get up quickly and go out, they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?”
So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.” And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”
Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Why do bad things happen to good people? Of all the questions that can shake our faith, this one strikes hardest. We know from scripture that God is love, who promises justice and mercy to His children. Yet every single one of us can name one or more family members or friends on whom profound misfortune has descended at some point despite their obvious goodness and lack of malice. How can a loving God be possible if these good people suffer and mourn even more than the rest of us?
Throughout scripture, we find people of faith struggling with this question. The Book of Job, perhaps among the oldest writing in the Bible, focuses almost entirely on this question of the suffering of the righteous. Job becomes cursed with a number of afflictions and laments his suffering. His three friends, attempting to reconcile the contradiction, assume Job must have greatly sinned and urge him to repent — a judgment for which God demands repentance in the end, and only through Job as an intercessor (Job 42:7-9). His wife urges Job to “curse God, and die,” to give up his faith in the Lord. Job refuses to either admit to sin he has not committed or to reject God.
The issue recurs throughout the scriptures, right into the Gospels. The authorities of that time had assumed that illnesses were God’s justice meted out on sinners — and that view was not just held by those in power. In last week’s reading (John 9:1-41), Jesus and the disciples came across a man who had been blind from birth, and the disciples assumed that his affliction was a curse from God for someone’s sins. They asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus responds, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”
Job gets a similar answer from the Lord, albeit less directly; God tells Job, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” In today’s parlance, that’s as good as saying, “It’s above your pay grade.” The Lord has unfolded the universe across great epochs of time according to His plan for ultimate salvation of all from our own choice to push Him away. Justice and mercy in this life can never be perfected because we are the stewards of this world, and are imperfect. Jesus reminds us of this in Matthew 5:45, when He urges us to pray even for those who persecute us in order to become the children of God. “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”
We see Jesus experiencing the sorrow of this plight most especially when it comes to the death of his friend Lazarus. Jesus sees this death in much the same light as the blind man He healed, or of Job’s suffering — the will of God and an opportunity to strengthen the faith of His people and prepare for Jesus’ own sacrifice. He tells the disciples, “I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.”
But Jesus is far from glad at the suffering of his friends in Bethany. Mary and Martha mourn for Lazarus, and both offer a mild rebuke in their grief: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” That echoes the refrain in our hearts when confronted with irreconcilable evil and suffering in the world, and it echoes even more as the suffering grows closer to us. If God was real, these tragedies would not exist.
Still, both Mary and Martha express their faith in Jesus in their grief. Martha tells Jesus that she understands that Lazarus will rise on the last day, and testifies to His true nature as the Messiah. But rather than the somewhat distant God we see in the Book of Job, instead we see a very personal Christ who mourns at the suffering with us. Jesus becomes visibly “perturbed and troubled,” and then weeps at the sight of the mourning friends and family of His friend — despite knowing that Lazarus will shortly arise and joy will return to their faces. Jesus then calls Lazarus out from the dead, exclaiming out loud that He does this in the name of the Father, fulfilling the promise in our first reading from Ezekiel 37. “Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people!”
This is not a distant and imperious God; this passage reveals God as personal as friends and family. Jesus weeps for us in our mourning, in our fallen state and fallen world. The Word of God came to free us of our sin and suffering, and Jesus experiences it personally even before the Passion. After He weeps, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb as His last miracle before coming to Jerusalem, a portent of what will come for all of us who believe — when weeping and mourning will cease, and we come to everlasting life with the Lord.
We may not get a complete answer from this why bad things happen to good people, but Paul’s letter to the Romans suggests that the question itself is irrelevant. “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God,” he writes, “[b]ut you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” We are called to live life in the spirit, rather than the flesh, which is why we pray for our enemies as well as our neighbors, and remain in faith through persecutions and plagues. Job lived in the spirit and persevered in faith even while his friends urged him to confess to sins he had not committed and his wife demanded that he commit apostasy in his suffering. Both Mary and Martha lived in the spirit and persevered in faith even while struggling with the shocking death of their brother. And the disciples lived in the spirit and persevered in faith even through the Passion that would shortly unfold after this episode, which produced a church that would spread the salvation of the Gospel to all nations.
As children of God, we must also weep at suffering and mourning, and do what we can to ease it, especially when it seems most senseless. But we can persevere in faith by living in the spirit, knowing that this world will eventually pass for another, and put our trust in the Lord to raise us to true joy in it.
The front page image is a detail from “Raising of Lazarus,” by Jacopo Tintoretto, c. 1558.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.