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The Gospels are amazing. Not only do they tell rich stories in sparse terms, they do so while answering key questions we have about our lives. Here are some of the questions this Sunday’s Gospel (Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A) about the raising of Lazarus answers.
Why did God let my loved one die?
This is what Martha, Lazarus’ sister, wants to know. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she says.
Jesus answers by telling her (and then showing her, at Lazarus’ tomb) that death is not the end. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.” Those who experience death are firmly in his power, still.
Well, then maybe we should not consider death that big a deal?
If God has death under control, then another question arises: Why should people of faith worry about death at all? The Gospel answers this one with the briefest verse in Scripture, the two words: “Jesus wept.”
While death is not the final victor in any life, the separation of body and soul is evil and sad, because death was never meant to be. It was brought by sin — by human beings turning away from God and handing their futures to Satan. When Jesus sees death, he never simply accepts it. It hurts every time.
So 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 did not. “I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.”
We might think that a world where everything goes right, and Jesus makes problems disappear before they happen, 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.
That is all well and good for Christians. What about others? Why does Jesus only give the gift of faith to certain people?
This is another good question that the text answers. The Gospel starts out by referencing Mary, Lazarus’ sister, the woman who had “anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair.” That was the anointing at Bethany where Jesus told his apostles “she did it to prepare me for burial.”
Mary, apparently, understood that Jesus would die — and understood that life is a preparation for death. She did not keep the knowledge to herself; in fact, Jesus says “wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be spoken of, in memory of her.”
We can see Martha and Mary’s apostolic zeal in today’s Gospel. “Many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother,” it says. The two sisters are the center of a community of authentic friendship.
Why does Jesus give the faith to certain people? Because he wants those people to build communities with those who do not have the faith, and by example provoke them to seek out what they have found.
We do it the way Martha and Mary did: By being on familiar terms with Jesus, making him a family friend, then by adding many other friends along with him, and in their presence relentlessly pursuing Jesus with the questions we have.
He tends to answer them fully and well.
A version of this essay first appeared in the National Catholic Register.