Where is God when things don’t go as planned, when your life feels out of control, and you find yourself wondering whether God might not even care? Martha and Mary might have been asking themselves questions something like these when their brother Lazarus fell gravely ill and Jesus, their beloved friend, wouldn’t come. These four loved each other — and deeply so. John emphasizes this: Jesus “loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” we’re told, (Jn. 11:5) and Lazarus is identified as the one “whom Jesus loved,” (Jn. 11:3). Even some of the Pharisees from Jerusalem are moved at seeing how much the grieving Jesus loved his dearest friend. (Jn. 11:36)
There’s a reason why love is so emphasized here. For John, this is the story above all others that describes how much Jesus loves those who love him. In effect, he tells his readers: ‘It is not just Martha, Mary and Lazarus who are loved so; this is how you are loved when things don’t go as planned and your life feels out of control and you find yourself wondering whether God even cares. Jesus loved like this at Bethany and loves in this same way even now. Watch, and see what happens.’
And what happens, at first, is nothing. Lazarus was deathly ill, but Jesus delayed coming home. This is a story for everyone who has ever felt like saying to God, ‘If you really loved me, Lord, you wouldn’t abandon me like this, not now, not when I need you so much. Is there any one of us who hasn’t felt at a particular time in their lives like crying out, “I can do a better job at being God then you are doing right now, Lord! St. Theresa of Avila once prayed “If this is how you treat your friends, dear Lord, it’s no surprise you have so few of them!”
There are times in our lives when we want to cry with Martha and Mary, “How long, O Lord?” and the only answer that comes back is “Not yet, my beloved.” It is so difficult “to be content with the unexplained,” as spiritual writer Amy Carmichael put it, (Rose from Brier, chapter 3). When we are going through things, it’s very hard to see the wisdom in the wait, to find the promise in the pain. It is only afterwards, sometimes, that we can look back and say, “Oh, that’s why! That’s what I needed, that’s what God was doing with me when I didn’t think that I could take it any more.
So, Jesus delays and Lazarus dies — the Gospel makes that abundantly clear. Jesus arrives on the fourth day after Lazarus’s death. The common Jewish belief was that the spirit of the departed was surely gone after the third day. And, as if that were not enough, there is the tragi-comic touch of Martha and everyone around her being worried that the beautiful scents of the burial anointments will surely have fadedafter so much time had passed. The stench of death would be too much. So Lazarus, as Jesus starkly put it to the disciples, is dead. (John 11:14)
And this is important: the Gospel reminds us that Jesus does not prevent Lazarus from dying. Because Martha and Mary loved Jesus, because we love God, does not mean that bad things don’t happen. And, from Martha and Mary’s view, what happened was very bad. The sisters are engulfed in profound grief and it looked to them like their beloved Jesus had stayed away in heartless indifference. So, when Jesus finally arrives, they greet him with all their built-up anger and disappointment. He has to field all their “if only’s’ and ‘you should have’s.’ Isn’t that the way of love in families? The one you love the most gets all your flak because you need someone safe in your anger and disappointment.
I take great comfort in seeing how these two women who loved Jesus so deeply beat up on him so freely! Mary and Martha feel no compulsions about this, nor should we. You should feel free to rage at God, especially when it feels like there’s nothing else you can do. I think God is fine when we do that because when we do, it means that we are taking God seriously, even in the most difficult times of our lives. And don’t worry, the Lord can take it. The Gospel shows us that, too. See how Jesus seems to accept and understand the sisters’ anger, letting each of them take it out on him.
But he does much more than simply letting his loved ones vent — Jesus shares their devastation. He’s there for them, he is one with them in their loss and pain. That’s how our Lord loves: Jesus at Bethany shows us that the Lord of our lives will never be indifferent to our heartache and our pain. Jesus meets Mary’s wailing with his own tears. He stands there with the grief-torn sisters and with all who face heart-wrenching loss, and he weeps. He weeps with them, and with us. The Gospel makes much of this: the Greek of the biblical text says that Jesus actually shuddered, (embrimasthai), shuddered with the deepest emotions, and that he is, not just troubled by the situation, he is angered and offended by the havoc that death can wreak in the lives of those he loves. This is how Jesus loves us in those times when life goes all wrong and we are not in control. He not only is there beside us, he goes through it with us.
Let me illustrate this remarkable characteristic of Jesus by sharing a moment from my own life when I was completely out of control. One summer day when I was nine years old, I went swimming with my older cousin at a park near my grandmother’s home in Massachusetts. The swimming pool, unfamiliar to me, was crowded with children that hot afternoon. At one point, I carelessly jumped into what I thought was the pool’s shallow end. It was, in fact, the deep end. Instead of touching bottom quickly as I expected, I began to sink. In my surprise, I opened my mouth and ingested a large amount of water. Panicking, I flailed my way to the surface, my head emerging above the water for just a brief moment.
In that split second, which I can still see in my mind’s eye, I caught a glimpse of many children standing along the side of the pool. They were watching me struggle, but they seemed frozen, paralyzed, unable to help. I couldn’t keep my head above the surface any longer and I began to sink down to the bottom of the pool. Suddenly, I sensed a rushing motion behind me. Someone was in the water with me. I felt a strong support under my arms. In one swift action, I was lifted up and out of the water. In a moment I was lying on the rough cement by the side of the pool.
I must have passed out for a moment because I have only the vaguest memory of what happened next. I remember finally opening my eyes and the lifeguard asking me if I were all right. I don’t recall whether, in my dazed condition, I was able to find the words to thank him for saving my life. I do remember thinking, he was in the water with me; he was there for me, and I didn’t die. And ever since, I’ve always connected what I learned from almost drowning that day with the meaning of Jesus for my life — for our lives — especially in those times when nothing is going according to plan. Jesus is the Man of Love who plunged into life’s waters for us all.
Jesus knew what it was to suffer deeply and he is there for us even now when we feel helpless and overwhelmed in life. He stands at the grave for us as he did at Lazarus’ tomb, a living promise that nothing — no death or danger, no cruelty or defeat can ever separate us from a Love that will always be there for us. In their time of great need, Martha and Mary and Lazarus discovered that precious love. And so, in our times also, please God, may we.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2017