Learning from Lazarus: what this Bible story can teach us about preparing for death
By Mark Schmidt
Director of Respect Life/Social Justice
In this Sunday’s Gospel we hear the story of a man named Lazarus, sick and dying. This story is familiar to me, because in many ways I have experienced it in my own life with family and friends who were diagnosed with a terminal illness and were approaching the end of this life. When I think about the many people in the story of Lazarus I can see myself in many of them and can see my loved ones there as well.
Have we ever been like Martha and Mary, tending to a sick loved one wondering where everyone else is? “Why have others not come to relieve us, to help care for our Lazarus? Do they not know he is sick and dying? Do they not care?”
Or, have we ever been like the disciples, who were hesitant to let Jesus leave for a place, where, last time he was there, he was rejected, harassed and nearly killed? Have we ever thought to ourselves “What good is it for me to go? No one wants me there. Me being there will only make things worse.”
Have we ever been the bystanders, those near the sick but not quite present to them? Not sure what to do, not sure how to help. “I’m not family, I want to be supportive, but how? I just don’t know what to do or say.” Or when we see someone come who has not been around at all “oh, now she comes. If he was a true friend he would have been here already. Here comes the big shot to save the day.”
Have we ever felt like Jesus, showing up when we can but only to face frustration or blame for not having made it sooner? Coming to be present, to mourn, to comfort, to love, only to have it thrown back at us, being held accountable for the illness that was not of our doing.
Or have we been Lazarus, the man who we do not hear directly from in this story? The story seems to be about everyone else and only secondarily about his illness and death. Whose needs are being met? Might Lazarus feel neglected? Might he prefer everyone was getting along? Or might he feel the same way as Martha and Mary?
This story is one that reflects the complexity, struggle, sorrow and strain on relationships that can often come when a loved one enters the last stages of life. With suffering comes emotions that will most likely bring discomfort to one another. Both Martha and Mary seem to hold it against Jesus that he had taken so long to get there. Jesus himself is said to be “perturbed and deeply troubled” at his reception. Many of the Jews, who had previously threatened to stone Jesus were filled with the same harshness. “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” While others had softened towards him upon seeing his tears: “See how he loved him.”
Perhaps, in addition to the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead, what this story offers us is the realization that Christ comes to us in our time of need and responds to each of us in a unique way, according to our own need. To the disciples, wary of returning to Bethany, he offers an explanation, so that they respond to him, in spite of their own fears: “Let us also go to die with him.” Willing to not only face the death of Lazarus, but potentially their own.
He comforts Martha with the promise of resurrection and his loving presence. To Mary, who does not immediately go out to meet Christ, perhaps not ready to face him, he does not give words of encouragement; neither does he do so to the bystanders. Perhaps he knew his words would not be enough for them. Instead, he shows them what they needed to see with the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. Christ himself is not without the need for comfort and companionship as he calls out to God. And Lazarus, Christ serves by bringing out of the tomb, alive.
It is important for us to be reminded that God came to us in Jesus Christ to live with us, share our suffering, our pain. Christ felt pain, anger, fear, doubt, sadness, loneliness and judgments that we ourselves may experience as we, or our loved ones, approach death. He also offered us the hope of resurrection and his presence to us that we may be comforted and find joy in such times. Being ready for all of these emotions can aid us and our loved ones when death nears that we may be more empathetic and understanding of one another so that we may support one another in such difficult times.
I invite you to participate in our Formation for All program this Lent on end of life issues.
It can be accessed on our website at dbqarch.org/rlsj/formation. Click on the appropriate age/group icon and then go to the icon on End of Life, Hospice Care, Physician Assisted Suicide for Lent 2017.