Pastoral Perspectives

The Life Opposed To Death

The raising of Lazarus in the Gospel of John is one of the most significant stories of Jesus’ ministry, not least because it reveals the heart of God for us. While Jesus was in Bethany of Perea, he received news that his dear friend Lazarus in Bethany of Judea was seriously ill. He knew he would not get there on time to heal him because as soon as the message arrived, Lazarus had already departed (it was two days’ travel between the two places).

What Jesus did next was inexplicable to his disciples, for he tarried another two days before journeying to Bethany of Judea. Why delay to go to Lazarus if he truly loved him? Unbeknownst to his disciples, the delay was deliberate as the miracle he would soon perform would also be his last; it would trigger an irreversible chain of events that would inexorably lead to his crucifixion, the timing of which must be dictated by God rather than by the contingencies of man. Put simply, Jesus waited another two days because was working according to divine schedule rather than human urgency.

No sooner had Jesus arrived at the village than he was greeted by the sorrowful lamentations of Martha, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Then Mary also ran to him and fell at his feet in an uncontrollable outburst of grief, weeping and lamenting, “Lord, if you had been here…” Following close behind were her mourning family and friends.

Even though Jesus knew what he was about to do would render all these grieving pointless, he was, nevertheless, deeply affected by the scene before him. Anyone who has been to a funeral would experience how moving the grief of others can be. While one might barely know the deceased and not feel much at his passing, the sight of mourning family and friends is enough to move one to sadness. Moreover, Lazarus, Mary, and Martha were close friends of Jesus whom he loved dearly. How could he not be moved? Yet, what Jesus felt was not merely sorrow. The language used connotes a degree of anger, which some commentators posit to be a strong feeling of indignation. Witnessing the pain felt by Mary and Martha, and surrounded by all their grieving family and friends, sadness and anger swelled up within him like a tempest, and Jesus wept along with them.

On seeing him weep, the crowd exclaimed, “See how he loved him!” Their utterance was certainly true, but they were ignorant of its greater significance, for they rightly understood Jesus’ love but failed to comprehend the extent of it. The Church Father Cyril of Alexandria reckoned that Jesus wept because he saw “the man made in His own image marred by corruption … He wept out of compassion for all humanity, not bewailing Lazarus only, but understanding that which happens to all, that the whole of humanity is made subject to death.” John 11.35 may be the shortest verse in the entire Bible, but behind it lies the immense love God has for a humanity gone awry. No, Jesus did not weep out of love for Lazarus only, but also for a humanity sore oppressed by the tyranny of suffering and death.

This was a cause of indignation for Jesus because suffering and death are alien intrusions into God’s creation and not part of God’s will for his creatures. Since God is all-good (1Jn 1.5) and created the world out of nothing (Jn 1.3), it follows that what is made must possess the properties of its Maker – “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen. 1.31). Evil – or the lack (privation) of goodness according to Augustine of Hippo – has nothing to do with who God is nor with who we are created to be. When Jesus witnessed the anguish of Lazarus’ mourners, he perceived not the face of God but the face of evil, hence his indignation.

Since God never intended suffering and death to be part of his creation, they have no ultimate value or meaning in and of themselves. A good God neither brings about evil nor has any need for it. It was only with the assent of Adam to the Tempter that sin entered the world, and creation became corrupted by evil. Suffering and death became an inextricable part of the human condition only as we became beholden to sin (as the narrative from Gen. 4 onwards seeks to tell). Due to creation’s fall from its original goodness, God then works to make evil serve his good ends, overturning it to bring about his Kingdom on earth. As Jesus declared to his disciples that Lazarus’ illness was “for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it,” so in his resuscitation of Lazarus he was indeed glorified as the Resurrection and the Life such that many of those present believed in him. Evil may do its worst, but God is able to make it serve his good purposes and bring meaning to what is meaningless.

Of course, to speak of something happening apart of God’s will seems to imply that creation possesses some autonomy from God. This may disturb those anxious to preserve God’s sovereignty: surely, God controls everything like how Shakespeare dictates the life of King Lear? Yet, it is the testimony of the New Testament that there are autonomous “powers and principalities” in creation antagonistic to God and his Kingdom. Jesus himself regarded the Tempter – Satan – as the chief of these, the “ruler of this world” (Jn 16.11). It was Satan who tempted Judas to betray Jesus, not God. When Peter rebuked Jesus for predicting his passion, Jesus attributed his action to Satan and not to God. Sinful creatures can choose to rebel against God and cause each other harm, and virulent microorganisms can emerge from natural processes to wreak havoc on humanity. God permits these within creation’s autonomy.

Why then does God sustain the autonomy of creation when evil may result? Because God desires for humanity to freely give of themselves to him in love. Yes, the genuine autonomy of creation makes room for Lazarus to fall ill and die. Yet, it also gives room for the witnesses of his miraculous resuscitation the true freedom to believe in Jesus and love him. None of this impugns the sovereignty of God. As he is utterly transcendent above all creation, God can allow creation its autonomy and still eventually bring about his “Kingdom on earth, as it is in Heaven.” Nothing in his run-away creation will confound his goal to “reconcile to himself all things” (Col. 1.20) for the happiness of his creatures, and for his glory.

Perhaps apprehending this might be cold comfort for a world embattled by the SARS-COV2 pandemic, but in a time when manifold theological answers are sought and given, we should not be muddled like Thomas (in Jn 11.16). God did not send the pandemic as if he synthesized the virus, directed it into the bodies of the hundreds of thousands infected, and killed the tens of thousands who succumbed. In human history, pandemics have come and gone, and that is purely an outcome of the primordial fall. God has, by his inscrutable will, allowed them to happen but is in no way the cause of them. Nor is it appropriate for us to deem it his judgment on the world. If the canon of Scripture has closed, and God’s will is inscrutable, which of his finite creatures can make such a claim with certitude, as if they were privy to his innermost thoughts? On the contrary, Jesus foreclosed such speculations for us when he bade his followers not to presume that tragic circumstances are God’s judgment on sinners (Lk. 13.1-5; Jn 9.1-3).

No, God did not bring us the pandemic; he meets us in the pandemic. Like Mary and Martha in the wake of their brother’s illness and death, we are experiencing the tyranny of natural evil more than ever. Amidst strict social distancing measures, stay-home notices, quarantines, and even the suspension of church services, we may wonder what God is doing. We do not know. Yet, one thing is certain: he truly loves us and is at the threshold of Bethany coming to us. We remember how Mary and Martha were driven by their grief to Jesus with tears and lamentations, “Lord, if you had been here!” Now too, he is awaiting us to run to him, “Lord, if you had stilled the pandemic!” In his compassion he will listen to every lamentation we have, and weep with us, for his steadfast love never ceases and his mercies never come to an end. Then he will gently whisper to us, “Take courage, the ruler of this world has been condemned, and I have conquered the world.”

Pr Png Eng Keat

April 5, 2020