Today’s meditation on the Raising of Lazarus (John 11) is the last post in my series on the scrutinies, which began with the Third Sunday of Lent. I recommend reading the first post in the series, “What are the scrutinies?” before reading this one.
Meditation for the Fifth Sunday of Lent: the Third Scrutiny
Over the last two weeks, you were invited to place yourself in the shoes of a beloved soul, who had a unique encounter with Christ: two weeks ago, it was the Samaritan Woman at the Well; last week, the Man Born Blind. It is possible for you to do this, because you are the beloved soul in Christ’s eyes. It is he who invites you to this encounter.
Take the time now to place yourself on the scene with Jesus’ Apostles and his other followers in the dusty, hilly landscape of Bethany in Judea, and perceive the events taking place through their eyes. Identify with these characters as much as you can. Engage with Christ interacting with them as though he were interacting with you. Hear his words as if he were speaking to you. For in today’s Gospel he says that his words are “for your sake,” and his miraculous deeds, “that you may believe.” (John 11:15)
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 him saying,
“Master, the one you love is ill.”
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are ill. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) In order to have this encounter with Christ, you need not merely accept the reality of your situation, you must embrace it. The reality of your situation is, Yes, that you are ill and in need of a physician, and Yes, Jesus loves you. You may think of the people you love in your life who are ill and suffering. Jesus loves them too. The hard reality may be difficult to accept, but Jesus wants you to embrace it with your faith: in this story, the one he loves is you.
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.
These are hard words to accept. You almost have to read these lines backwards to understand them. Why did Jesus remain where he was for two days? The answer is that he “loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” That does not make any sense, unless you keep reading upward where it reveals that God sees what we don’t see. Jesus could see that death was not the end, that there was a higher purpose yet to be unveiled. When things are hard and don’t make sense, it is okay to ask God “Why?” Ask like a child asking their mother of father, with trust and love. Sometimes the parent’s response still does not make sense to the child, but it is still good for the child, and in time, the child may come to see it.
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?”
“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.
Initially, the disciples were content staying where they were. They thought the plan was to play it safe, but now it seems to them like Jesus wants to poke the hornets’ nest. So they try to reason with him. Their question seems reasonable and honest. Their concerns and fears are reasonable. Why won’t he listen to reason? The answer is that Jesus is not the one who needs to adjust his way of seeing things. When you look at a situation from only one perspective – that perspective being your own – you are only going to see things your own way. God is asking you to see things his way. To be honest, that is a hard thing to do, when we are accustomed to using our own minds to solve problems and make decisions, which after all, is what God intended for us to do. Right?
Here is the problem. If we don’t spend time in prayer, getting to know God, listening to his voice, and learning to see things from his perspective, our sense of right and wrong, left to its own design, can develop into rationalism and self-righteousness, and we may run the risk of justifying our behavior when the motives behind that behavior are not pure. For example, the motive behind the Apostles’ desire to hold back isn’t to know and do God’s will, but rather the fear of death. They don’t want to mess with the status quo. Their intentions happen to be just the opposite of what God wants, which is to conquer fear and death and to upend the status quo.
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.”
Jesus knows his follower. He knows your strengths and your weaknesses better than you do. He knows your desires and your fears, and he understands them. He who calls you knows the one he calls. He knows you have what it takes to follow him even when it seems difficult. Here he lays it out to his disciples: simply put, they lack faith. They may think they have it, but they have a lot of growing to do. He says this clearly and firmly knowing that they have at least a modicum of faith, the size of a mustard seed perhaps, and that is all he needs.
We see the faith of Christ’s follower emblematized in the courage of St. Thomas. Courage is not lack of fear. Rather it is having the strength to do the difficult thing when it is hard and you are afraid to do it, yet you do it anyway. This admirable quality we see in St. Thomas requires faith. It requires conviction that it is the right thing to do, when you may still have your doubts; trust that it will work out for the best, when the outcome is uncertain; faith that God is with you, and so nothing can stop you. That courageous act of faith is all God needs to work his miracles in your life, and through you, in the life of others too.
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.”
Here we witness growth in faith through the example of Martha. Martha has the right to grieve. She believes that Jesus could have healed her brother, yet here he is now and her brother has been dead, in the tomb, for four days. She boldly points this out to Jesus, but not as a reprimand. She’s sharing her weighted heart, beautifully opening up to Jesus, showing him her emotional wound, and letting him know how she feels let down. But though hurt and confused, she isn’t bitter or angry. Instead, she does something beautiful, by humbly enacting her faith, saying, “even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”
How can God not be moved by this?
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.”
Because she opened up to the Lord in faith, the Lord will increase her faith. This is what happens in prayer. To grow in faith, you need to spend time in prayer with God. Share your thoughts and your heart with him and humbly ask him what your heart deeply desires. He may reassure you that your heartfelt thoughts and desires are unselfish, like Martha’s. He may invite you to stretch your faith beyond its conceivable limits. He may draw things out of you that you never knew you had inside, and reveal things to you that you would know could not have come from you, they could only come from God. You will come to believe in the way Christ wants you to believe. And then, he may answer your prayer in unexpected ways, confirming your belief and strengthening your faith beyond what you knew was possible. This spiritual growth only comes about by spending time dialoguing with God, like Martha, in prayer.
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.
There are times in our lives when tremendous loss and the grief we suffer from it are unbearable. Our body aches with emotion, our hearts feel inconsolable. In those times, all we can do is cry and ask God “Why?”
Jesus wept too. Jesus cries, because he loves with a human heart. He feels pain when you are in pain and suffers when you suffer. Offer your tears to God, don’t hold them back. Like Mary, your tears move Jesus.
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?”
People will always grapple over the ways of God. Each person naturally sees things from their own perspective, until given a reason to see things otherwise, unless they have developed the habit of trying to see things from other points of view. Our default way of seeing things is not God’s way of seeing things, yet this is what God wants to show us: that our way of seeing things falls short of what he wants us to see.
That is why in the next line, the Evangelist says that Jesus was perturbed. We’re stuck. This whole story that we are considering is about the lengths to which Jesus will go to get us unstuck. When Jesus heard the Jews saying “See how he loved him,” and couldn’t he have “done something?” he would have acknowledged that everyone there recognized at least a part of the truth. But they did not see the whole picture. Jesus wants you to see the whole picture, not just part of it.
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.
Even Martha doubts. It is as though she forgot about the conversation she just had with the man she called “the Son of God,” and what she asked of him. His authoritative command, “Take away the stone,” is literally abhorrent to her, because it seems literally disgusting. It also had allegorical meaning that she was not keen to, yet. “Take away the stone,” means remove all obstacles, so that she may believe.
Jesus knows you want to believe. You’ve come this far. You’ve asked for the gift of faith, perhaps through the gift of baptism if you are coming into the Church this year. You asked God for this grace and he promised that he will give it to you. God asks us to exercise our faith and to stretch ourselves beyond the limits. He also knows that we have limits, impeding our faith. “Take away the stone,” means let God do for you what you cannot do without him: let him do the work. Is it awesome? Is it scary? Is it natural to think, what awful things are in that tomb? “Take away the stone,” and do not be afraid.
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.”
Whoever you are, wherever you’re at, whatever your circumstances may be, God wants this for you: Faith without limits.
Now look at Jesus who shows us how to do it. Resolute, undaunted with a rattled crowd gawking at him in disbelief, he prays. By his example he teaches you how to pray, how to find your strength, how to witness the conviction of your faith to others who need it. Follow his example: turn to God, ask for what you need, and believe it will happen, as God wants it.
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.
What can Jesus do for you? What can’t he do? Fear cannot stop him. Death cannot stop him. The Lord of life has power over death. He not only saves a dead soul from the clutches of the tomb, he draws more people to himself by means of this “lost cause,” in the eyes of the world.
If God can work wonders with a dead man, why can’t he use you? The answer is that he can and he will, if you want him to. Do you believe this?
To conclude our Gospel contemplation for this Sunday’s Scrutinies, take time to pray and reflect on as many of the following questions as you find helpful.
- Which one of the characters do you relate to more in this Gospel?
- How has your faith grown since you began your faith journey?
- Are you experiencing “spiritual combat” in your life? Are any circumstances or situations in your life right now causing you to struggle with your faith?
- Have you taken these struggles to God and discussed them with him in prayer?
- Have you examined your intentions, even when you believe you are thinking and acting reasonably, to see if your motives are in line with doing God’s will?
- Do you often ask God to reveal his will to you?
- Do you struggle with fear? Do you express your fears to God and work through them with him in prayer?
- Do you ask for the courage to do what you know God wants you to do?
- Do you believe that God is with you in times of difficulty?
- Who in your life is an example of faith and closeness to God?
- Do you believe God hears your prayers?
- Are you willing to let God remove the obstacles to your spiritual growth?
- Are you ready to let God do with you whatever he wants? Have you asked him to do this for you?