“The one you love is ill”
When Jesus learns Lazarus is sick, he does not rush to heal him. Instead, he spends two more days where he is before departing with his disciples to go to Lazarus in the town of Bethany. As they depart for Bethany, Jesus tells his disciples Lazarus is dead and says, “I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.”
“Believe in what?” you might ask. By this time, the disciples have seen Jesus heal the sick, multiply the loaves and walk on water. What is there left to believe about Jesus? Was Jesus’ delay in going to Lazarus insensitive? Was he waiting around so he could show off later? Some people might interpret Jesus’ actions negatively and even use this Scripture passage as a reason to hate God. “What kind of God allows innocent people to suffer?” they might ask.
When Jesus arrives in Bethany, he is approached by Martha and Mary who tell him if he had been there, their brother would not have died. Lazarus’ friends and family weep. Jesus is “perturbed” by the situation (“snorted” or “groaned in spirit,” or was “disturbed” or “troubled”). The original Greek word is tarassō which means to agitate, to disquiet, to make restless, to make anxious or distressed. The commentaries say this word is associated with anger. And then Jesus weeps.
At this point, Jesus has delayed his travel to Bethany to come to Lazarus’ aid and when he finally arrives and sees the mourners weeping he becomes agitated, even angry, and then he weeps before raising Lazarus from the dead. What is happening?
First, we know that God’s ways are not our ways. God acts or doesn’t act in time according to his plans, which we cannot fully understand (a finite human being cannot fully understand an infinite God). Jesus delays his travel to Bethany because he is obedient to his Father. The right time for him to go to Bethany is part of God’s plan. Following this miracle, Jesus’ enemies are more determined than ever to arrest and kill him. We know this is what they eventually do, and we also know what happens on Easter Sunday and what Christ’s resurrection means for us.
Second, Lazarus’ resurrection is a sign of Jesus’ resurrection and our own resurrection at the end of time and shows his disciples that Jesus conquers death. Though Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead in order that the disciples would “believe,” they all abandon him at the cross later on. It is only when the risen Christ appears to the disciples that this seed of belief planted through Lazarus’ resurrection, this tiny seed of faith, can grow into a solid tree of faith in Jesus, the Son of God.
Third, Jesus is perturbed and weeps. Jesus is not angry at the mourners, he is angry at death. He is agitated by the situation, that the one he loves is ill (Jn 11:3) and that the people who love Lazarus suffer over his death. Jesus is disturbed that we suffer in this fallen world, but he carries out his mission ever-trusting in and ever-obedient to God.
Finally, Lazarus’ death caused great suffering to his family and friends, but his death and their suffering had a greater purpose (just as the blind man’s blindness had a greater purpose in last Sunday’s Gospel). Just think of the countless number of souls who have grown in faith in Jesus Christ beginning with Lazarus and his family and friends, Jesus’ disciples, the other witnesses to Lazarus’ resurrection, and all of the faithful over the ages (who have not seen, but have believed) who have been strengthened by the miracle memorialized in John’s Gospel, including the faithful who hear this Gospel this very day.
God’s ways are not our ways, but we can be faithful that God’s ways always produce an abundance of goodness and grace, even in the darkest of times.
Aguilar Chiu, Jose Enrique, Richard J. Clifford, Carol J. Dempsey, Eileen M. Schuller, Thomas D. Stegman, Ronald D. Witherup, eds. The Paulist Biblical Commentary. New York: Paulist Press, 2018.
Casciaro, Jose Maria., ed. The Navarre Bible: New Testament. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2008.
Cole, Jeffrey, ed. Daily Roman Missal. 7th ed. Woodridge: Midwest Theological Forum, Inc., 2012.
Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. Saint Joseph Edition of The New American Bible. personal size ed. New Jersey: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 2011.
Harrelson, Walter J., ed. The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003.