According to the Gospel of John, Lazarus of Bethany, the brother of Martha and Mary, was ill, and his sisters sent word to inform Jesus. “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus,” the gospel tells us. Still, Jesus stayed where he was for two days before journeying with his disciples to Bethany. By the time Jesus arrived, Lazarus was already dead and buried. Martha went out to meet Jesus and, in her grief (and perhaps with a hint of anger), said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Soon afterward, Mary came to Jesus and, falling at his feet weeping, said the same thing: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” In Jesus’ response to the grieving sisters and to their dead brother Lazarus, all of whom he loved, we can recognize the ways in which Jesus shows his love for us when we are sick or dying or are stricken with grief and sorrow.
Jesus responds to Martha by telling her, “Your brother will rise.” Then, to clarify exactly what he means, he says to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” He asks, “Do you believe this?” to which Martha replies, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
To Mary, Jesus says nothing. Instead, “When Jesus saw her weeping… he became perturbed and deeply troubled.” What follows is the shortest verse in the Bible: “And Jesus wept.”
Jesus’ response to Lazarus is well known. “Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone’ … And when he had said this, he cried out in a load voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ [And] the dead man came out.”
In each of Jesus’ responses to the siblings in Bethany, we can recognize a corresponding dimension of Jesus’ consoling love for the sick and sorrowful.
Let us first consider the response of Jesus to His friend Lazarus. Jesus raised him from the dead. This might strike someone who has lost a loved one as being anything but consoling. After all, Jesus does not ordinarily bring our loved ones back to life. Why, one might ask, did Jesus, who had the power to raise Lazarus, not raise up my husband or wife or father or mother? Does Jesus not love that person like he loved Lazarus?
Jesus certainly does love us and our loved ones as he loved his friend Lazarus. To recognize this, there are two things we might consider. One is that the raising of Lazarus, unlike the resurrection of Jesus, was temporary. Lazarus was restored to life, but he would die again. Jesus permitted Lazarus to die just as he permits us and our loved ones to die. Another thing to consider is that Jesus seemed to be unconcerned about Lazarus’ illness. He waited two days before setting out for Bethany to visit Lazarus. However, as Jesus said to his disciples at the time, his delay was not out of unconcern, but “for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through [Lazarus’ illness].”
These considerations show us that Jesus had a loving purpose for Lazarus and what might have seemed like unconcern to Lazarus and his sisters was actually for their good and for the glory of God. Jesus demonstrated through them that he is indeed “the resurrection and the life.” As a result, the Gospel tell us, “Many of the Jews … began to believe in [Jesus]” (John 11:45).
This brings us to Jesus’ response to Martha. Jesus exhorts her to believe that her brother will rise, that he will rise not only on the last day, but that because of his belief in Jesus, he will never die. Jesus tells Martha to believe this even before he raises Lazarus. In saying this, Jesus is asking Martha to trust him. His message to us is the same. We can trust in Jesus even when he seems to have been absent. We can trust in Jesus even in the face of death, believing that death is not the end because Jesus is “the resurrection and the life.”
Now we come to Jesus’ response to Mary. “Jesus wept.” He wept even though he knew he was about to raise Lazarus from the dead and that Lazarus would share in his resurrected life forever. He wept because he loved Lazarus and the death of his friend made Him sad. He wept because Mary was weeping. Jesus loved Mary and in his love he shared in her grief. Jesus weeps with us too. He loves us as he loved Mary. Jesus is fully human. He loves us with a human love and shares in our human grief. Jesus sympathizes with us in every way (see Heb. 4:15). He is a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (see Isa. 53:3). In his tears, we know the consolation of his love.