Fifth Sunday of Lent (A)
Have you ever wondered why God allows us to suffer?
The Gospel today can help us understand why we experience pain, hurt, anxiety, discomfort, and even despair in our lives. Jesus never stated that he would take all of our pain away. He actually stated that his desire was for us to be fruitful and live fruitful lives. But in order for something to be fruitful, it often needs to be pruned from time to time. We know this is evident in fruit trees and for grape vines but this Pruning also occurs in our lives, and is what enables us to become fruitful as well.
I can remember not too long ago speaking to one of the monks at the monastery in Vina, Near Chico. His name is Brother Raphael and he is the caretaker of the vines. He decribed to me how he purposely stresses the vines by withholding water from them. He stated that when he limits their water, it makes the plant dig deeper into the soil with its roots, and while searching for water, the whole vine becomes stronger. I couldn’t help but think that there was a similarity with regard to how God from time to time also withholds his grace and power from us. By allowing life’s events to stress us we are forced to dig deep and we ultimately grow stronger as well. I don’t know about you, but the times in my life when I have experienced crisis and endured great pain and even heartache, are exactly the same times when I grew closer to God and my spirituality deepened.
At my home, in our backyard we have a few huge oak trees. One in particular, must be at least 100 years old. During our most recent storm I watched the enormous oak sway back and forth in the wind. I did contemplate the potential damage that could result if the tree fell on our home, but then realized that the tree had withstood hundreds of similar storms and the odds were that it wouldn’t fall on that particular day. I began to realize that what I was watching with this tree was somewhat similar to the twists and turns of our lives as Christians. Unknowingly, certain events, like a storm come upon us and pull at us, pressure us, twist us around, and might even break a limb or two from time to time. But these trials, as we endure them and persevere, only make us stronger and more resilient. They especially help us develop virtue and character.
In the gospel today, Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was ill. When Jesus received the message he stated “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God…” But what did Jesus then do? He did nothing. He remained where he was for the next two days before setting off to Judea. And by the time he made the journey and arrived in Judea, Lazarus had been dead for four days. Once he finally arrived, Martha stated to Jesus “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She knew that Jesus had the power and ability to save her brother and also to prevent their pain from occurring. And when he didn’t respond, she must have felt angry and hurt that he didn’t intervene. How many of us have felt some degree of anger or hurt when we felt that God didn’t intervene in our lives? But what does Jesus say “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.” Then Jesus asked to see where Lazarus was laid, and he looked upon the site and he wept. Now - why would he have wept? Especially, when he knew that he was about to bring Lazarus back to life. He wept because he felt the pain experienced by Mary and Martha, Just like how he feels our pain when we hurt. The Jews realized this and even responded by stating “See how he loved him.”
Yet there were still some who doubted, as evident by their statement “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died? How many of us have also doubted when we felt that our prayers were not heard or answered? Then Jesus stated, “Take away the stone.” And Martha responded “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” It wasn’t that Martha doubted Jesus; she just didn’t understand what he was doing or why he was doing it. How many of us question God just because we don’t understand why certain things occur in our lives. Haven’t we been told over and over again that “God’s ways are not our Ways?” Yet - we still feel that we should be capable of understanding God. Isn’t “faith” believing in something that you don’t completely understand, something that we can not prove but believe to be true anyway?
And what does Jesus say “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God.” Doesn’t this same message speak to us today? If we only believe, we will also see the glory of God in our lives. Jesus then raises 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….” Are we willing to see and acknowledge God’s hand in the workings of our lives? Or are we like the people of Jesus’ time and have such little faith that we need to actually see miracles to believe?
In closing, I would like to point out that the message today helps us understand our times of dryness, desolation, and even despair. It helps us understand that God hasn’t abandoned us during those times, but that he actually uses those difficult times to help strengthen us. It is during those times of struggle that allow us to grow deeper roots of faith, and stimulate the growth of virtue in our lives. It helps us to understand that our ultimate reward is not to be obtained in this world, but rather as Jesus states: “Who even believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me, will never die.”
In this time of Lent, this time of dryness, and often a time of quiet, we must ask our selves if we are embracing the struggles in our lives, and if we are looking for God’s hand in these events. And we must ask ourselves if we are growing in virtue, the virtue that we enable our lives to become more fruitful. God’s ways are not our ways….. And Faith means believing in what you can’t see …but also knowing in your heart and your soul that it is real. So when we struggle, when we suffer, we are to be assured that God has not forsaken us, but just the opposite. He has found us worthy to endure the trial and grow in holiness. He loves us and is always near to those who love him. He truly loves us! And like a good Father, He knows that through times of struggle, pain, and even darkness, We will emerge stronger, wiser, more humble, more forgiving, and especially……. more loving!