Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and Divine Agendas
The story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead is striking on many levels, but as I have pondered it recently, I have been wrestling with the idea that Lazarus had to die and the women had to mourn “for the glory of God.”
In the story, we are told that Jesus purposefully delays his return to Jerusalem. When Lazarus falls ill, Jesus is sent for, but he doesn’t come. The author of John makes it very clear that Jesus knows what will happen if he doesn’t go immediately to his friend.
When Jesus heard that [Lazarus was sick], he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby ….
Then said Jesus unto them plainly, Lazarus is dead.
And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, to the intent ye may believe … (John 11: 4, 14-15)
According to John’s gospel, Jesus had a bigger plan. Despite the fact that it would cause his dear friends Mary and Martha (not to mention Lazarus!) very real pain in the present, he withheld his healing power so that God’s glory would be magnified.
That to me is a huge problem. Let me illustrate with a personal example.
My wife and I have lived with the dull ache that is infertility for almost 10 years now. As a consequence of not being able to have children by traditional means, we have been foster parents for the last 3 years or so, and very recently we were able to adopt a little boy who has lived with us for most of that period. Our son is the best thing that has ever happened to us, and it was an incredibly special day for us and our extended family to gather in the temple and be sealed together.
The sealer (my wife’s grandfather) was familiar with the situation and the lengthy process that led up to the adoption. In his preambulatory remarks, he expressed his belief that God had a hand in bringing our little boy into our lives. This is a sweet sentiment and many, many others have made similar comments to us, but every time I hear a version of this “providence” argument, it makes me cringe a little. Actually, it is more than cringe. I can’t help but want to scream: “IF GOD WANTED THIS, WHY THE HELL DIDN’T HE DO IT DIFFERENTLY?!”
God knows we prayed for some tiny shred of divine intervention earlier in the process. Why would God need for my little boy to be born an addict to a young mother who was overwhelmed by the world? Why would he need for an innocent child to be neglected to the point that he was removed from the only people he’d ever known and loved? Why not just intercede a little earlier? Why not spare us all the pain? So that we might “believe”? So that he might be “glorified”? If that is the “glory of God,” count me out.
… alright, rant over.
The most poignant part of this story for me is found in verse 35:
After seeing the pain that this whole object lesson in divine power has caused his friends, he weeps.
Part of me wants to think that these are tears of regret. I know there are times when I had a great idea for something that would be really memorable/funny/awesome in theory, but the execution didn’t come across quite right. I’ll always remember an amazing “dirt cake” (a birthday cake made with an Oreo crumb topping designed to look like dirt) that my stepmother made for my little sister’s birthday years and years ago. To top it all off, she put the whole thing into a ceramic flowerpot. My little sister was so excited for her birthday (she was probably turning 4 or 5), but her little heart was broken by that cake. When she saw the flowerpot she must have thought that we didn’t get her a cake after all, and big tears welled up in her eyes. The subsequent tantrum should have probably been anticipated, but my stepmother was trying to do her best.
That’s probably not what is going on when scripture says, “Jesus wept,” but sometimes I wish it were.
The great poet, Langston Hughes, penned the following verses (titled simply, “God”):
I am God—Without one friend,Alone in my purityWorld without end.
Below me young loversTread the sweet ground—But I am God—I cannot come down.
Spring!Life is love!Love is life only!Better to be humanThan God—and lonely.
The casual Son of God who seems to minimize his friends’ pain at the beginning of the story feels like the lonely and pure divinity described by Hughes, but it is the weeping Jesus who seems glorious to me.