Recently I watched a story about an American man in his twenties who’d died in an accident about a year ago. His main organs had been donated for transplantation, and many other parts and tissues of his body had been given for medical use. It was estimated that, thanks to the consent of his bereaved parents, up to a hundred people had had their lives saved. The programme showed the dead man’s parents meeting the female transplant patient who was the recipient of his pancreas. Her daughter, who was only ten, accompanied her. The dead man’s mother shared her grief with them both, grief which was eased by the realisation that her son’s death wasn’t in vain; that someone else had been given the gift of life because of it. The woman responded by sharing her gratitude for the parents’ magnanimity. The story concluded with the little girl sharing her fear that she could have lost her Mummy, who – at these words – wept.
‘If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.’ With these words, full of grief and pain, in today’s gospel Martha welcomes Jesus on his seemingly belated arrival. These words have echoed across the centuries and across the world every time people have suffered. Similar questions have been asked, loudly or muttered quietly, by those who lost their loved ones; those who suffered illness or debilitating conditions; those who faced insurmountable obstacles; those who couldn’t see any solution to their dire situations… For many people the very existence of suffering in its many forms is the main argument against God. ‘If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.’
We might be tempted to think that Jesus didn’t make it easy to believe in his love and compassion. In today’s gospel, upon receiving the news of his friend Lazarus’ grave illness, Jesus remained in the same place for another two days. We would expect him to rush to his friend’s aid, but he didn’t. Some mourners openly made their resentment known: ‘He opened the eyes of the blind man, could he not have prevented this man’s death?’ We could argue whether or not their opinions were justified. Lazarus had already been dead for four days when Jesus came to his house. On the other hand, Jesus managed to cure ‘remotely’ the dying son of a court official, as described by John in chapter 4 of his gospel. Jesus gave us an insight into what motivated him, when he said: ‘This sickness will not end in death but in God’s glory.’ And yet, Lazarus’ sickness ended in death. Even after Jesus brought him back to life, he eventually died again. So, what’s the point of the whole story?
Firstly, Jesus uses this situation to show that physical death is not the end of life itself; death is indeed an important step, but it’s one towards eternal life. Secondly, Jesus shows us that this earthly life is made up of a mosaic of events, happenings and occurrences; problems, adversity and suffering are unavoidable parts of it. Some of these are of our own making; some of them are the result of someone else’s actions, and some of them are coincidental. Thirdly, Jesus shows us how to make sense of, and to add value to, unavoidable suffering. He offered himself on the cross so we may have eternal life. The bereaved family of the American young man offered his body to save others. The authenticity of love is tested when life is not plain sailing. The authenticity of love is tested when we are braving the headwinds of adversity and life’s stormy weather. Genuine love always make sense, even of the senseless.