Jesus knew Lazarus was going to die, why did He let Lazarus die? St. Thomas Aquinas finds a variety of reasons.

Lazarus’ sisters send messengers to Jesus: “The one whom You love is ill” (Jn 11:3). Thomas observes that even the friends of God have difficulties: “The friends of God are sometimes afflicted with bodily illness; thus, if someone has a bodily illness, this is not a sign that the person is not a friend of God: ‘For the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights’ (Proverbs 3:12) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1475).

Thomas notes that if a friend wills the good of his friend, “This is especially true of the one who most truly loves: as the Psalm says: ‘The Lord preserves all who love him’ (Ps 145:20).”

Lazarus’ illness brings out the fact everything is in God’s providence, as Thomas comments: “Now all things that are from God are ordered… Once the miracle had been performed, people would believe in Christ and escape real death… so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1477).

Similar to the healing of the blind man, God’s glory is manifested: "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him" (Jn 9:3). Jesus declares that the reason for the death is that “The Son of God may be glorified by it” (Jn 11:4).

When the disciples caution Jesus that He might be stoned if He returned to Judea, Jesus assures them that if one walks in the day, he will not stumble. The day for Jesus is doing the will of His Father: "We must work the works of Him who sent Me, while it is day" (9:4), and "As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (Jn. 9:5). One who walks in the night stumbles.

In raising Lazarus, Jesus will show that He is the one who will raise the dead: "The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God" (Jn 5:28).

Jesus tells the disciples: “I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe” (Jn 11:15). Thomas Aquinas affirms that, through this experience, they would realize Jesus’ divinity.

This would not be the beginning of the disciples’ faith in Him but a strengthening: “So that you may believe not as though they were to believe for the first time, but in order that they might believe more firmly and more strongly, in the sense of ‘I believe; help my unbelief’ (Mk 9:23) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1502). The miracle of raising a dead person would strengthen their faith more than preventing a person from dying.

Thomas reminds us: “We can learn from this that evils are sometimes a reason for joy, insofar as they are directed to some good: ‘We know that everything works for good with those who love him’ (Rom 8:28) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1502).  

In considering this passage, Thomas not only reflects upon Jesus’ power to raise the dead but also makes applications to the forgiveness of sin. For Thomas, Lazarus’ tomb can represent our experience of sin.

Jesus’ going to Lazarus is similar to the way that God reaches out to those in sin: “Here we see God's mercy, for in His mercy He takes the initiative and draws to Himself those living in sin, who are dead and unable of themselves to come to Him: ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore have I drawn you, taking pity on you’ [Jer 31:3]’ (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1503).  

Thomas compares the four days that Lazarus was in the tomb with the progressive stages of sin.

  • The first is in the heart ‘Remove the evil of your thoughts from before my eyes’               (Is 1:16).
  • The second day is the sin of speech: ‘Let no evil talk come out of your mouths’         (Eph 4:29).
  • The third day is the sin of deeds: "Cease to do evil" (Is 1:16).
  • The fourth day is customary sin arising from evil habit: "You can do good who    are accustomed to do evil" (Jer 13:23).

Jesus can call us out of the tomb of sin at any point.

Thomas recalls Jesus’ words to Martha, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things" (Lk 10:41). Thomas draws upon the traditional identification of the two sisters with two types of service, “Martha and Mary represent two ways of life, the active and the contemplative” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1510).  

Thomas reflects: “Mystically, these events signify the active life, which is signified by Martha, who went to meet Christ in order to serve his members; and the contemplative life, which is signified by Mary, who sat at home dedicating herself to the repose of contemplation and to purity of conscience” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1510).  

Thomas considers that Martha’s faith is still imperfect because she thinks that Jesus would have to be present to save her brother and because she thinks that only through prayer could He save her brother, similar to Elisha.

Jesus asserts that “His power is life-giving; thus he says, I am the resurrection and the life. Now Christ is the total cause of our resurrection, both of bodies and souls… The entire fact that everyone will rise in their souls and in their bodies will be due to Me: ‘For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead’ (1 Cor 15:21)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1516).

Jesus is the Resurrection because He is the “Life”: ‘… just as it is because of fire that something aflame which has been extinguished is rekindled: ‘In Him was life, and the life was the light of men’ (Jn 1:4) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1516).

Jesus declares, “He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (Jn 11:25). According to Thomas, Jesus is teaching Martha: “By believing he has Me within himself – ‘that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith’ (Eph 3:17) – ‘The righteous shall live by his faith’ (Hab 2:4). And one who has Me has the cause of the resurrection. Therefore, he who believes in Me shall live. ‘For this is the will of my Father, that every one who sees the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day’ (Jn 6:40) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1517).

Thomas compares the resurrection of the body with rising from sin: “Some will rise through faith: ‘The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live," (Jn 5:25) … with a spiritual life, by rising from the death of sin” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1517).  

Thomas points out that Jesus asks Martha to make her faith in Him explicit:

“Jesus requires faith so He can bring her to perfection: thus He says, Do you believe this? Our Lord does not ask this out of ignorance, because He knew her faith. Indeed, it was He who had infused the faith into her: for the act of faith is from God. But He asks this question in order that she might profess outwardly the faith she had in her heart: as we read, ‘For man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved’ (Rom 10:10)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1518).  

Although Jesus asks Martha if she believes that He is the Resurrection and the Life, she answers by saying: “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God. Thomas agrees with Augustine that Martha is declaring: “I believe it all; because I believe something more, which is the root of all these things: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1519).

"Christ" means "anointed." The kings and priests were anointed: “Christ is king and priest. Furthermore, he is a ‘Christ’ in a unique way, for others are anointed with a visible oil, but he is anointed with an invisible oil, that is, with the Holy Spirit, and more abundantly than others: ‘for it is not by measure that He gives the Spirit’ (Jn 3:34)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1520).  

In affirming that Christ is “the Son of the Living God,” Martha professes Jesus’ divinity: "That we may be in His true Son, Christ. ‘This is the true God and eternal life’" (1 Jn 5:20). Martha also professes the Incarnation: “She professes the mystery of his mission when she says, ‘He who is coming into the world,’ by assuming flesh” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1520).    

Martha calls Mary quietly. Thomas notes: “As for the mystical sense, we may understand that one more efficaciously calls upon Christ in quiet or in private: ‘In quietness and in trust shall be your strength’ (Is 30:15)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1522).     

The Gospel tells us “She [Mary] rose quickly and went to Him.” Thomas reflects:

“This furnishes us with the example that we are not to delay when called to Christ: ‘Do not delay to turn to the Lord, nor postpone it from day to day’ (Sir 5:7). When we wish to have the advantage of Christ we should go to meet Him, and not wait until He accommodates Himself to us; rather, we should accommodate ourselves to Him” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1525).     

The Gospel tells us that when Jesus saw Mary weeping, “He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (Jn 11:33). Thomas considers Jesus’ humanity:

“We should note here that Christ is truly divine and truly human. And so in His actions we find almost everywhere that the divine is mingled with the human, and the human with the divine. And if at times something human is mentioned about Christ, something divine is immediately added. Indeed, we read of no weakness of Christ greater than His passion. We have a similar situation here: for Christ experiences a certain weakness in His human affections, becoming disturbed over the death of Lazarus” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1532).     

 Thomas comments: “There is compassion for a right reason, for one is rightly troubled by the sadness and the evils which afflict others” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1533):     

Christ willed to be troubled and to feel sadness … to show the condition and the truth of His human nature. Secondly, so that by controlling His own sadness, He might teach us to moderate our own sadness: Ephesians (4:23): ‘Be renewed in the spirit of your minds.’

Now our Lord willed to be sad in order to teach us that there are times when we should be sad, which is contrary to the opinion of the Stoics; and He preserved a certain moderation in His sadness, which is contrary to the excessively sad type. Thus the Apostle says: ‘But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope’ (1 Thess 4:13).

The third reason is to tell us that we should be sad and weep for those who physically die (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1535).     

Thomas returns to the interpretation that the “tomb” represents the sins that bind us: “They said to Him, Lord, ‘come and see.’ Come, by showing mercy; and see, by giving Your attention: "Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins" (Ps 25:18) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1536).     

The Gospel informs us, “Jesus wept” (Jn 11:35). Thomas reflects: “Christ was a well-spring of compassion, and He wept in order to show us that it is not blameworthy to weep out of compassion: ‘My son, let your tears fall for the dead’ (Sir 38:16). He wept with a purpose, which was to teach us that we should weep because of sin” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1537).

Seeing Jesus weep, the people said, “See how He loved him!” (Jn 11:36). Thomas comments: “As for the mystical sense, we understand by this that God loves us even when we are sinners, for if He did not love us He would not have said: ‘For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (Matt 9:13). So we read in Jeremiah (31:3): ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued My faithfulness to you’" (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1538).

As Jesus drew closer to the tomb, He was “deeply moved again.” Thomas points out  the Evangelist’s efforts to show us the two natures of Christ:

“Christ experienced the weaker and humbler marks of our nature so that we do not doubt the reality of His human nature. And just as John shows His divine nature and power more explicitly than the other Evangelists, so he also mentions His weaker aspects, and other such things which especially reveal the affections of Christ's human nature” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1541).

Thomas returns to the explanation by which the cave signifies the depths of sin. Jesus orders, “Take away the stone” (Jn 11:39). There is a fear that the corpse will smell. Thomas affirms, according to this interpretation, “For just as good works spread a good odor, as the Apostle says – ‘We are the aroma of Christ to God’ (2 Cor 2:15) - so from evil works there arises an evil odor and a stench” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1546).

Thomas calls attention to Christ's way of praying:

Jesus lifted up his eyes, that is, He lifted up His understanding, directing it in prayer to the Father above. As for us, if we wish to pray according to the example of Christ's prayer, we have to raise the eyes of our mind to Him by turning them from the memories, thoughts and desires of present things. We also lift our eyes to God when we do not rely on our own merits, but hope in His mercy alone” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1551).

The Father is quick to give, as Jesus exclaimed: “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me. “Here we have a sign that God is quick to give, so that He hears our desires even before they are put into words: for the tears which Christ shed at the death of Lazarus acted as a prayer” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1552).

 Jesus thanked God as He began praying: “Christ gives us the example that when we pray, we should thank God for the benefits we have already received before asking for new ones: ‘Give thanks in all circumstances’ (1 Thess 5:18)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1552).

 Thomas explains that “… as having a human nature Christ is less than the Father and, accordingly, it is appropriate for Him to pray to the Father and be heard by Him. Therefore, since the will of the Father is the same as the will of the Son, whenever the Father fulfills His own will, He fulfills the will of the Son… My will is always conformed to Your will.”  (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1553).

Jesus announces: “I have said this on account of the people standing by” (Jn 11:42). Everything that Jesus did is a lesson for us: “We understand from this that our Lord did and said many things for the benefit of others: ‘For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you’ (13:15). For every action of Christ is a lesson for us’ (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1555).

Jesus’ prayer was an acknowledgement that the Father was His principle: “Christ wanted to show by His prayer that He was not separated from the Father, but recognized Him as His principle.

The miracle manifested that Jesus was sent by the Father: “…that they may believe that You sent Me (Jn 11:42). Jesus declared at His Last Supper: "And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent" (Jn 17:3).  Thomas concludes: “This is the benefit coming from His prayer” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1556).

Jesus called Lazarus out “with a loud voice” (Jn 11:43). Thomas observes: “We understand from this that Christ calls sinners to come out from living in sin. We are also called to let our sins come out of concealment by revealing them in confession” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1557).

Lazarus came out of the tomb immediately: “For such was the power of Christ's voice that it gave life without any delay, as will happen at the general resurrection. For Christ's mission was already being anticipated: ‘The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live’ (Jn 5:25).

Jesus commanded that they release Lazarus from his bonds. Thomas notes: “The sinner comes out when by repenting he passes from the practice of sin to the state of righteousness: ‘Come out from them, and be separate from them’” (2 Cor 6:17) (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1560).

Thomas compares Lazarus’ condition with the situation of one who is forgiven yet still feels attracted to sin:

“His hands are bound with bandages, i.e., with carnal desires, because, although he is rising from his sins, he cannot escape such annoyances as long as he lives in the body. Thus the Apostle says: ‘I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin’ (Rom 7:25). His face being wrapped with a cloth signifies that in this life we cannot have full knowledge of God: ‘For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face’ (1 Cor 12:12)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1560).

In the sacrament of Reconciliation,

“One comes out in this way by leaving his secret sins by disclosing them in confession. That one confesses is due to God calling him with a loud voice, that is, by grace. And the one who confesses, as still guilty, is the dead person still wrapped in bandages. In order for his sins to be loosed, the ministers are commanded to loose him and let him go. For the disciples loose those whom Christ by himself vivifies inwardly, because they are absolved, being vivified by the ministry of the priests: ‘Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven’ (Matt 16:19)” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1560).

Thomas compares the role of the confessor with that of the disciples who unbound Lazarus:

“For it is proper to the sacraments of the New Law that in them grace is conferred. But the sacraments exist in the administration of the ministers. Thus, in the sacrament of penance, contrition and confession behave materially on the part of the one receiving the sacrament; but the causative power of the sacrament lies in the absolution of the priest, by the power of the keys, through which he somehow applies the effect of our Lord's passion to the one he absolves so that he obtains remission” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1561).

“Therefore, one must say that just as in the sacrament of baptism, the priest, by pronouncing the words and washing outwardly, exercises the ministry of baptism, while Christ baptizes inwardly, so the priest, by the power of the keys, outwardly administers the ministry of absolution, while Christ remits the guilt by grace” (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1561).

The Evangelist tells us that “many believed in Him” (Jn 11:45): “Our Lord had said that He would perform this miracle for those standing by, so that they might believe in Him. And so His words were not empty, but many believed because of the miracle they saw.”

Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.

The quotations from St. Thomas Aquinas’ Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew were done by R.F. Larcher, O.P. The full text may be found on the web site of the Dominican House of Studies, Washington, D.C.: http://dhspriory.org/thomas/