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This Sunday’s Gospel (the Fifth Sunday of Lent: Year A) 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.
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?
Sunday’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.”
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.
There is another question answered here, too:
Did Jesus only like Mary, and not Martha?
A favorite story of Jesus life is from Luke 10:38-42. It is the story of Jesus eating dinner with the same friends he interacts with here: Martha, Mary and Lazarus.
The story is used to show how the contemplative life — symbolized by Mary at Jesus’s feet — is superior to the active life — symbolized by Martha who is “anxious about many things” as she serves Jesus.
Today’s Gospel fills out the portrait even more. First, it shows just how truly exalted Mary is.
But it also makes a powerful point about the importance of Marthas in the world.
I love this line from today’s Gospel: “When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home.”
Martha needs no invitation. Knowing that Jesus is near is enough. She is off, bringing him her concerns and provoking one of the most comforting lines in all of Scripture — “I am the Resurrection and the Life” — and answering with one of the great professions of faith in the Gospel: “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
Marthas aren’t so bad after all!
Photo: Andrea Kirkby, Flickr Creative Commons