For All Saints Day, it seems appropriate to chip in on the exchange a few days ago about the story of Lazarus and other incidents in the Gospels. Jerry described them as awful stories. Chris was soothing, suggesting that literal interpretations are not edifying. In the case of Lazarus, Chris assured us that it was a resuscitation, not a resurrection.
It seems to me that one very clear lesson stands out from 4000 years of stories about relationships between our God and those God calls His own. Being God’s friend is tough. Not just because of the way others treat you when you put God first – though almost every prophet, almost every saint, has been scorned and persecuted at some time and in some way. But also because of the extras that God loads on those closest to Him. Physical illness. Lost opportunities. Rejection. Separation from the certainty of his presence. A call to serve where they least want to go.
A good God, we are told (by implication, at least), wouldn’t want us to suffer. I think that’s twaddle. Our good God wants us to spend eternity with God, and God’ll do whatever necessary to make that happen.
I have little patience for the idea that anything uncomfortable in Scripture must have been misinterpreted right up until the new filters applied by the clever clogs of the last fifty years. It is hard to see how John could have intended his Lazarus story to be read allegorically given the details he included: such as the corpse stinking.
And, while I get the tragedy of the whole story, I don’t agree with Jerry as to what the tragedy was. He suggests several ways in which the raising of Lazarus was horrible: that he was raised and others weren’t; that his family had been mourning him; that he now had to die again. To me, the greatest tragedy is that Lazarus was safely on the other side of death and he was dragged back. And Jesus thought it was a tragedy, too. He wept at the thought. And just over a week later, he was himself tortured and killed (which, when you think about it, might explain why the focus of the story didn’t stay with Lazarus). So he didn’t ask his friends to do anything he wasn’t prepared to do himself.
It seems to me Jerry wants a bob each way: On the one hand, if there is no God and no eternal life, then Lazarus wasn’t raised. On the other hand, if there is a God and is an eternal life, a few days here or there are pretty irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. If death is the end, there is no story. If death is not the end, then the story isn’t awful (though it is certainly aweful).
Does God’s approach to God’s friends mean God is not good? I don’t think so. God has a different time scale and a different perspective. A child, sent to bed so that they can be fresh for a party coming up the next day, or deprived of cake because it contains an ingredient that will make them ill, may well accuse the parent of being ‘bad’. But the parent has a broader perspective. Even then; both parent and child are human. How can we timebound, finite, creatures judge the behaviour of the infinite creator? We accept quite freely that each species has its own standards by which it is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. When we say God is ‘good’, we expect God’s moral values to be at least as ‘good’ as ours; but we’re daft if we think that means we’ll always understand them.
Being God’s friend is a tough job. St Teresa of Avila, one of my favourite saints, is reported to have shaken her fist at heaven and declaimed: “If this is how you treat your friends, I’m not surprised you have so few.” Nonetheless, she thought it was worth it. She also said:
Let nothing trouble you,
let nothing frighten you.
All things are passing;
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who possesses God lacks nothing:
God alone suffices.
St Paul says something similar:
As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.