The Gospel for Sunday declares that “Jesus loved Martha and Mary her sister and their brother Lazarus,” who lived in Bethany.
This is a golden statement. It tells us so much about Jesus and his personal friendships. But it also emphasizes how very odd it was that, while Lazarus was sick unto death, Jesus camped out a fairly short distance from Bethany and would not go to heal his friend. Messages arrived calling for him. It was an easy journey, but no. His reason? “This illness is not going to end in death,” he says.
The illness of Lazarus did lead directly to his death!
After the death had happened, Jesus did go down to Bethany. But by that time Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days! Martha ran out to Jesus and quickly sent back for Mary, who was so grieved she could not leave home. We are told that when they see Jesus each sister cried out, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died!” Mary was crying.
Jesus saw her tears and those of the friends who had gathered, and we behold a touching revelation of Jesus’ love for them. The famous words are unlike any others in the Gospels:
“And Jesus wept.”
Jesus’ tears sharpen their question: “You love us and you loved him; why did you not come and cure him while he was still alive?” I think many of us ask God that question when a loved one dies. Jesus asked it from the cross: “God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Pretend that you yourself are asking that question directly to Jesus right now. Listen to whatever answer comes. Take your time. If what you hear is fruitful, please stay with it.
For my part, I hear Jesus saying approximately the following:
Friend, I know that life, death, and love are hard for you to comprehend. I am revealing to you what they mean in the flesh, but of course even my example can be confusing.
Not only life but even sorrow and even death are given by God’s gentle love. All three are like flowers pushing up from the earth. The ground from which they grow is God’s kind love. Human love gets its life from God’s love. Even life itself gets its being from God’s love. Even death gets its life from God’s love.
At this point you and I, startled, interrupt and say, but how can death beget life? Death is the very end of life. What are you talking about?
Jesus replies that there are many beautiful “plants and trees” that come forth from God’s love. Life is one of them, he says. But, look, death is one too, and suffering.
Let me show you, he says.
He calls out in a loud voice, calls unto God-love where Lazarus’ soul is buried. From God’s womb of love, Lazarus’s death wakes unto life. Out of the tomb he walks. Jesus sums it up:
You always think of love as something you can have because you are alive. But the opposite is true. Life is something you can have because you are rooted in love. Death does not erase love, it brings you more deeply back to it, to the place you came from—love’s rich loam.
Pray about it, Jesus says, because that is the reason I delayed going to Bethany.