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Why did Jesus let Lazarus die?

KUL Heschel Center / 26.03.2023
Photo credit: KUL Heschel Center
Photo credit: KUL Heschel Center

Jesus, standing at the tomb of Lazarus, weeps, or rather, as St. John says, becomes deeply agitated. The Greek terms used by the evangelist mean emotional agitation, not necessarily mourning and sadness, but indignation. Jesus is outraged at the thought of death, which so easily destroys our human life. At the tomb of Lazarus, the Scriptures are fulfilled. Finally, the awaited Messiah comes and brings resurrection, which is the destiny of every believer –Fr. dr. Marcin Kowalski, a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, said in the commentary to the Sunday Gospel.

In the context of the Gospel of the fifth Sunday of Lent, the biblical scholar writes about why Jesus did not hurry up to heal his friend but delayed, and let him die, and about the meanings hidden in his dialogues with Martha and Mary.

The complete commentary follows:

This Sunday, we read the beautiful Gospel about the resurrection of Lazarus, which happens in three places. The first is Judea, where Jesus teaches and receives the news that his friend Lazarus is sick. Despite this, Jesus does not rush to help him; he delays. His disciples are surprised by this. Martha and Mary are also surprised that Jesus was not there, even though He could have done so much for His friend. When Jesus learns that Lazarus is dead, he sets out. He explains that this delay is needed to reveal great things of God, to reveal the glory of God. Jesus also wants to manifest Who He Is, that He is the true Messiah who reigns over death.

The second place where the Gospel of the resurrection of Lazarus happens is Bethany. Bethany is not far from Jerusalem, about three kilometers to the east, and it is there that Jesus meets Martha and Mary, and here the dramatic dialogues between him and the two sisters take place. Martha confesses: if you had been here, it would have been different. If you had been here, my brother would be alive, but even now, Martha says, God will do whatever you ask of Him. Martha’s faith is extraordinary, and it is this faith that pushes Jesus to action. Jesus announces: your brother will rise again. Martha’s knowledge of the faith is perfect. She knows that the resurrection is the destiny of every believing Jew, but it will only happen at the end of time. It does nothing to heal her heart, which has lost her brother. The situation is still dramatic. Jesus was simply not where he should have been, and here the Lord, in keeping with Martha’s faith, asks her to take the next step of faith and asks her to believe in Him as the resurrection. I am the resurrection and the life, Martha, your brother will not be resurrected at the end of time but just in a moment. Thanks to me. Do you believe that? Martha’s traditional faith is put to the test because Jesus, instead of formulas and knowledge, asks for a living faith, faith in Him, who is the resurrection.

And finally, the third part of the Gospel passage takes place at the tomb of Lazarus, where Jesus, raising his eyes upwards, asks the Father, in fact, he thanks Him for this miracle that is about to happen. This extraordinary trust of Jesus is the same trust with which he will die on the cross. It is the same trust, which will open the way to the resurrection for him. This trust and faith in the Father also draw us all to the resurrection at the tomb of Lazarus. Jesus also weeps, or rather, as John says, he is deeply agitated. He was agitated there: the Greek embrimaomai and tarasso in Jn 11:33 may also suggest some emotional agitation, not necessarily mourning and sadness but indignation.

Jesus may be agitated at the thought of death, which so easily destroys our human life, and takes away what is most precious from us. He is upset at the thought that this most precious of gifts is falling apart in our hands. He agitates, perhaps because he sees many people weeping, while life and resurrection stand before them. All they have to do is ask Him. At the tomb of Lazarus, the Scriptures are fulfilled. Finally, we see the Messiah for whom the whole world has been waiting. Jewish tradition has been waiting. The Jewish Scriptures of the Old Testament are fulfilled because here comes the One who finally, as St. Paul says, will draw us to the resurrection, which is the destiny of every believer.


About the author

Fr. Dr. Marcin Kowalski, professor of the Catholic University of Lublin, doctor of biblical sciences, member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, earned his doctorate at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, lecturer on Scripture at the Theology Seminary in Kielce and Lublin, assistant professor at the Department of Biblical Theology and Proto-Theology at the Institute of Biblical Studies of the Catholic University of Lublin, editor-in-chief of the quarterly biblical journal The Biblical Annals, secretary of the Association of Polish Biblical Scholars for the third term. His scholarly and pastoral passion is the Bible, especially the letters of St. Paul.


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