“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32.) Mary’s words to Jesus when he finally arrives in Bethany, three days later than requested and four days after Lazarus has been put in the tomb, carry all the pain and disappointment of one who feels that the Lord has completely let her down. Martha manages to retain some hope in Jesus’ ability to do something for her brother, though she doesn’t seem to know what, exactly (11:21-24); Mary, though, voices no such hope: We called you, you didn’t turn up, and now it’s too late.
What Mary and Martha don’t know, however, is why Jesus didn’t come earlier, as soon as they sent word to him of Lazarus’s illness. It wasn’t, as they might imagine, due to distraction, or procrastination, or laziness; it was in fact, paradoxically, due to love: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.” (11:5-6.) Notice carefully what is being said there – it’s not despite the fact that Jesus loved them that he waited (though some translations, most notably the NRSV, render it this way); it’s specifically because he loved them that he waited. Out of his love for this family, Jesus didn’t come immediately, arriving in time to heal Lazarus’s sickness. Rather, he hung back longer where he was, on the other side of the Jordan, so as to allow Lazarus to die.
And this raises the obvious question of how that could possibly have been the more loving course to take. Surely the more compassionate response would have been to act immediately on Mary and Martha’s message, spare them from grief and spare Lazarus from death. What kind of love would stand back and allow this horrible thing to take place? The answer is given to us by Jesus himself: it is a love that intends to display a greater glory. When he is informed of Lazarus’s illness, right before John tells us that love motivated his delay, Jesus says “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory, so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (11:4). Jesus will love Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, not by keeping them from such a painful event, but by letting it come, because he deems that they will more clearly see who he is as he rescues them from the midst of the mess, than if he keeps the mess from overwhelming them in the first place. And giving them a clearer view of who he is – that is the most loving thing he can do for them, or for anyone.
Of course, as Jesus arrives in Bethany, all this is hidden from Mary. Jesus doesn’t explain his purposes to her. She doesn’t see someone acting out of love towards her and her family, she only sees a Lord who apparently shelved her request, neglected to show up when he was needed, and failed her brother. But in a few moments she will accompany him to the tomb, and as he calls the dead man out, she will see the fuller glory of the one whose word can not only heal the sick, but can give life to the dead – the word of the one who has life in himself (5:25-26).
Now at this point, it would be tempting to draw a simplistic theodicy from all of this – to see tragedy as something purposed by God in a straightforward way for his glory, and therefore as something which, while we might not recognise it at the time, is essentially good. We ought to resist that temptation. The fact that Jesus weeps and feels rage in the face of death (11:33, 35) shows that death remains in itself an unqualified evil, even as Jesus uses it as the occasion of his glory. Rather, as Jesus allows Lazarus to die and then raises him, that death comes to magnify the Son’s glory, not as we might – as a willing and obedient servant with a positive place in the Father’s purposes – but rather as, in those purposes, it is entirely trampled down. It is only in its defeat and negation that death serves the glory of the Son. And indeed, the defeat which begins beside the tomb of Lazarus will be concluded in several chapter’s time, after the Father has glorified his Son in his death, and he himself emerges from the tomb – this time with the bands of death left behind (cp. 11:44; 20:6-7), and its power definitively broken.