Gospel does not explain Jesus' anger
Is Jesus angry with the crowd's lack of faith or the pain of sin and death?
March 9, 2008 -- Fifth Sunday of Lent
By Fr. Mike Stubbs
When someone we love dies, we can experience a variety of emotions. We might feel relief that their struggle has ended. We might feel sorrow at our loss. We might feel anger.
L e n t
We might direct that anger at ourselves: Why did we not notice warning signs of worsening health? We might direct that anger at the person who died: Why did they not take better care of themselves? We might direct that anger at the doctors: Why did they not work the miracles we expect of modern medicine? We might even direct that anger at God: Why did God allow this to happen?
In Sunday's Gospel reading, John 11:1-45, Jesus reacts with anger at the death of his friend Lazarus. "He became perturbed and deeply troubled." (v. 33) In case we overlook that detail, it is repeated a few verses later. "So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb." (v. 38)
While the Gospel reading clearly underlines the fact of Jesus' anger, it does not attempt to explain it. It does not say why Jesus is angry, nor does it indicate against whom Jesus
directed that anger.
Is Jesus angry with the crowd, and their lack of faith? If they really trusted in God, then they would not have let the death of Lazarus devastate them so thoroughly. If they truly believed in God, then they would have realized that death would not mean the end for Lazarus.
If we understand Jesus' anger this way, then we can interpret the miracle that Jesus then performs, the raising of Lazarus, as a response to the crowd's lack of faith, to spur them to belief. Several times Jesus mentions moving others to faith as his purpose for action. "And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe." (v.15) "Because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me." (v. 42) Jesus is upset with the crowd's lack of faith, and wants to rectify that.
On the other hand, it is possible to understand Jesus' anger in a more diffused way, as not directed at the crowd, but directed at the tragedies of sin and death which have caused the crowd so much pain. Jesus realizes that humanity has borne the burden of sin and death for centuries. Lazarus' death is only the latest example in a long series of suffering occasioned by sin and death. In that case, Jesus is angry, not at the crowd, but rather, on behalf of the crowd, and on behalf of all of us.
The Gospel adds another indication of Jesus' emotion, "And Jesus wept." We should understand those tears as tears not only for Lazarus, but for all of us. Similarly, we can understand the raising of Lazarus as a blessing not only for him, but for all of us. It is a sign to us of God's power. It reveals to us Jesus as the resurrection and the life, in a way that goes beyond words.
(Fr. Stubbs, a priest of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kan., has a master's degree in theology from Harvard.)