Fifth Sunday of Lent

Reflection: Does God allow bad things to happen?


As John the Evangelist shows us how he understood Jesus, we run into some disconcerting ideas.

Last week, we heard that the blind man’s disability was not a result of anyone’s sin, but the occasion for seeing the glory of God. This week, Jesus explains that Lazarus’ illness “is for the glory of God that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

That could sound a bit like my scrupulous Irish ancestors’ belief that God sends suffering to purify us or, that afflictions make up for sin. That raises the question, “Does God cause or allow bad things happen to good people for God’s own sake? To balance the divine scales?”

That’s one oft-preached way of understanding of Jesus’ mission. In this perspective, it was God’s plan and will that Jesus suffer and die because there was no other way to atone for human sin.

Of course, when we think about that, we might begin to wonder why God’s power would be so limited, why God would have to follow a strict law of retaliation. Might that theology be blasphemous?

Scripture scholar Jesuit Father Silvano Fausti says that the Gospel of John has no Transfiguration scene because John’s whole Gospel gradually reveals Jesus’ glory, God’s presence in human flesh and history. John’s entire Gospel is an unfolding Epiphany.

From that perspective, we see Jesus constantly confronting evil: the natural evil of sickness and death and the human-caused evil of betraying or thwarting the human vocation to love. In each case, Jesus’ response is life-giving. Jesus reveals that the essence of God’s being and glory is life-giving love. Jesus constantly offers us the invitation to enter into the dynamic of that love.

Using this perspective on this week’s Liturgy of the Word ushers us into an experience of epiphany, into scenes of God’s self-revelation.

Our selection from Ezekiel comes from the latter third of his writings, the section in which he begins to comfort the people who have brought destruction on themselves. While the people consider themselves as good as dead, Ezekiel speaks in the name of God who wants to bring them back to life, give them a new heart (36:26) and allow them to be enlivened by the divine spirit (39:29).

This promise of the divine spirit leads us directly to our selection from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul’s talk of flesh and spirit has nothing to do with denigrating the human body or history. Paul is talking about two fundamental orientations in life.

One is caught up in the zero-sum perspective that proclaims, “Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, it’s everyone for themselves and there is no free lunch.” That is “the flesh,” a fear and avoidance of vulnerability that makes self-protection the No. 1 priority.

In contrast, the perspective of the spirit realizes that no one is either alone or self-sufficient. Instead of being motivated by fear, people who are in the spirit live with the courage-generating assurance that life is a gift and a promise.

Probably the least-noticed words in today’s Gospel come from Thomas, who says, “Let us go to die with him.” With those words, Thomas proclaimed the very same faith that Mary and Martha professed about Jesus as the resurrection and the life. Thomas was telling his companions that living in fear was truly a dead end.

That awareness opened them to new dimensions of life, to the Spirit of Christ who would lead them beyond their greatest imaginings. Thomas’ decision to accompany Jesus put into action the faith described in all the dialogue that was to come about the resurrection and the life.

When we pay attention to Thomas in this Gospel scene, we get the idea that he had received new life just as did Lazarus. Jesus raised Lazarus and comforted his sisters. In doing so, he confronted and thoroughly undermined the powers of death. When Thomas said that he would follow Jesus in spite of the danger of death, he made the same declaration that we make each time we say, “Lord, by your cross and resurrection, you have set us free.”

Today’s Scriptures urge us to practice living faith, to allow the Spirit of Christ to free us from any fear that focuses us on our own well-being as if it could be separated from that of others. Through the power of Christ’s Spirit working in us, we are called to confront and undermine the powers of sin and death.

Being caught up in the dynamic of loving, we can witness to the glory of our life-giving God who does not send suffering but accompanies us in it through one another.

Let us strive to be with Thomas and keep saying, “Let us go with him.”

Reading I

Ezekiel 37: 12-14

Thus says the Lord GOD: 
O my people, I will open your graves 
and have you rise from them, 
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD, 
when I open your graves and have you rise from them, 
O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live, 
and I will settle you upon your land; 
thus you shall know that I am the LORD.
I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.

Responsorial psalm

(Psalm 130: 1-8)

R. With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to my voice in supplication. 
R. With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.

If you, O LORD, mark iniquities,
LORD, who can stand?
But with you is forgiveness,
that you may be revered. 
R. With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.

I trust in the LORD;
my soul trusts in his word.
More than sentinels wait for the dawn,
let Israel wait for the LORD.
R. With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.

For with the LORD is kindness
and with him is plenteous redemption;
And he will redeem Israel
from all their iniquities.
R. With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.

Reading II

(Romans 8: 8-11)

Brothers and sisters:
Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; 
on the contrary, you are in the spirit, 
if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.
Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
But if Christ is in you, 
although the body is dead because of sin, 
the spirit is alive because of righteousness.
If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, 
the one who raised Christ from the dead 
will give life to your mortal bodies also, 
through his Spirit dwelling in you.


(John 11: 1-45)

Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, 
the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil 
and dried his feet with her hair; 
it was her brother Lazarus who was ill.
So the sisters sent word to him saying, 
“Master, the one you love is ill.”
When Jesus heard this he said,
“This illness is not to end in death, 
but is for the glory of God, 
that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
So when he heard that he was ill, 
he remained for two days in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to his disciples, 
“Let us go back to Judea.”
The disciples said to him, 
“Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, 
and you want to go back there?”
Jesus answered,
“Are there not twelve hours in a day?
If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, 
because he sees the light of this world.
But if one walks at night, he stumbles, 
because the light is not in him.” 
He said this, and then told them,
“Our friend Lazarus is asleep,
but I am going to awaken him.”
So the disciples said to him,
“Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.”
But Jesus was talking about his death, 
while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. 
So then Jesus said to them clearly,
“Lazarus has died.
And I am glad for you that I was not there,
that you may believe. 
Let us go to him.”
So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, 
“Let us also go to die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus 
had already been in the tomb for four days.
Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away.
And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary 
to comfort them about their brother.
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming,
she went to meet him;
but Mary sat at home.
Martha said to Jesus, 
“Lord, if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.
But even now I know that whatever you ask of God,
God will give you.”
Jesus said to her,
“Your brother will rise.”
Martha said to him,
“I know he will rise,
in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told 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.
Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord.
I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world.”

When she had said this, 
she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, 
“The teacher is here and is asking for you.”
As soon as she heard this,
she rose quickly and went to him.
For Jesus had not yet come into the village, 
but was still where Martha had met him.
So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her 
saw Mary get up quickly and go out,
they followed her, 
presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, 
she fell at his feet and said to him, 
“Lord, if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, 
he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, 
“Where have you laid him?”
They said to him, “Sir, come and see.”
And Jesus wept.
So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.”
But some of them said, 
“Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man 
have done something so that this man would not have died?”

So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb.
It was a cave, and a stone lay across it.
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, 
“Lord, by now there will be a stench; 
he has been dead for four days.”
Jesus said to her,
“Did I not tell you that if you believe 
you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone.
And Jesus raised his eyes and said,
“Father, I thank you for hearing me.
I know that you always hear me; 
but because of the crowd here I have said this, 
that they may believe that you sent me.”
And when he had said this,
He cried out in a loud voice, 
“Lazarus, come out!”
The dead man came out,
tied hand and foot with burial bands, 
and his face was wrapped in a cloth.
So Jesus said to them,
“Untie him and let him go.”

Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary
and seen what he had done began to believe in him.