Mar 29, 2020: 5th Sunday of Lent (A)

1st Reading – Ezekiel 37:12-14

Thus says the Lord GOD:
O my people, I will open your graves
and have you rise from them,
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD,
when I open your graves and have you rise from them,
O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live,
and I will settle you upon your land;
thus you shall know that I am the LORD.
I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.

The prophet Ezekiel was among the captives who were carried off to Babylon in 587 BC. He is called “The Prophet of Divine Fidelity” because he emphasizes the fact that God is faithful in his threats as well as in his promises.

Because the people were in exile and had lost all they thought God had promised them — their land, their king, and their temple — they were forced to rethink their understanding of their covenant relationship with God. Does God still love them? Are they still God’s people?

Thus says the Lord GOD:

The standard prophetic declaration indicates the resolute and authentic divine nature of the message.

O my people, I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel.

Three divine statements of reversal are made: the sealed graves will be opened; those who are dead will rise; the exiled will return home.

This is wonderful news for the people! This oracle is assuring them that they are still God’s people and they will be returned to their land.

Ezekiel is using bodily resurrection as a metaphor for the reestablishment of the nation after its exile in a foreign land; however, this doesn’t necessarily mean the people believed that a resurrection might literally happen. Ezekiel prophesied from 593 BC to 571 BC, well before the Israelites came to any kind of belief in life after death. In fact, the improbability of resurrection may be one of the strongest reasons for employing it here, for then God’s wondrous power over death itself could be revealed. Resurrection would proclaim that God can bring life out of death, and can make the impossible possible.

Then you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people! I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land; thus you shall know that I am the LORD.

The restoration envisioned echoes the story of creation. In the beginning, the creature that had been formed from the dust of the ground became a living being when God breathed the breath of life into it (Genesis 2:7).  Here, those in the grave live again when they are raised from the dust of death and are given God’s own spirit. Both original creation and this resurrection from the dead are unconditional gifts from a magnanimous God.

I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.

This reinforces the decisiveness of the opening declaration, “Thus says the Lord.”

If God says it, regardless of how incredible it might appear, it will surely happen.

2nd Reading – Romans 8:8-11

Brothers and sisters:
Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh;
on the contrary, you are in the spirit,
if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.
Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
But if Christ is in you,
although the body is dead because of sin,
the spirit is alive because of righteousness.
If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,
the one who raised Christ from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies also,
through his Spirit dwelling in you.

In today’s second reading, Paul is teaching that through Jesus we have eternal life, a teaching that will be echoed in our gospel reading as well.

Brothers and sisters: Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

The goal of human life is to please God, yet it cannot be attained by one who is dominated by concern for self, that is, are “in the flesh.”  Paul’s denunciation of life in the flesh is unqualified.

It should be pointed out that “flesh” for Paul did not mean the body; Paul did not despise the body. He is speaking of human nature in all its limitations, limitations that sometimes incline one away from God and the things of God. People who live according to the flesh are spiritually dead and cut off from Christ.

On the other hand, people who espouse the spirit are attuned to God and spiritually alive. In fact, they are joined to the very Spirit of God.

“The apostle does not reject the substance of flesh but shows that the Spirit must be infused into it.” [Saint Irenaeus (A.D. 180-199), Against Heresies, 5,10,2]

But you are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.

The Spirit, as the new principal of Christian vitality, is derived from God.

Note that the baptized Christian is not only “in the Spirit,” but the Spirit is now said to dwell in him or her.

Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.

Note how Paul interchanges the “Spirit of God,” the “Spirit of Christ,” and “Christ” as he tries to express the multi-faceted reality of participation in divine life.

But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the spirit is alive because of righteousness.

Here, Paul equates Christ and Spirit and plays on the meanings of the Greek word pneuma, which means “breath” or “spirit.”

Without the Spirit, the source of Christian vitality, the human body is like a corpse because of the influence of sin, but in union with Christ, the human spirit lives, for the Spirit resuscitates the dead human being through the gift of uprightness.

“Paul is not saying here that the Spirit is Christ, but is showing rather that anyone who has the Spirit has Christ as well. For where the Spirit is, there Christ is also. Wherever one person of the Trinity is present, the whole Trinity is present too. For the Trinity is undivided and has a perfect unity in itself.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 391), Homilies on the Epistle to the Romans, 13]

If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,

The Spirit is the manifestation of the Father’s presence and power in the world, since the resurrection of Christ and through it.

the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit that dwells in you.

The future tense refers to the role of the Spirit in the resurrection of Christians at the end of time.  Although sin can still exact physical death as a punishment, it cannot quench the spirit that lives because of righteousness.  Therefore, just as Christ conquered death and lives anew, so those joined to Christ will share in his victory and enjoy new life.  Sin and death are not the ultimate victors.

Gospel – John 11:1-45

Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany,
the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil
and dried his feet with her hair;
it was her brother Lazarus who was ill.
So the sisters sent word to him saying,
“Master, the one you love is ill.”
When Jesus heard this he said,
“This illness is not to end in death,
but is for the glory of God,
that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
So when he heard that he was ill,
he remained for two days in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to his disciples,
“Let us go back to Judea.”
The disciples said to him,
“Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you,
and you want to go back there?”
Jesus answered,
“Are there not twelve hours in a day?
If one walks during the day, he does not stumble,
because he sees the light of this world.
But if one walks at night, he stumbles,
because the light is not in him.”
He said this, and then told them,
“Our friend Lazarus is asleep,
but I am going to awaken him.”
So the disciples said to him,
“Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.”
But Jesus was talking about his death,
while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep.
So then Jesus said to them clearly,
“Lazarus has died.
And I am glad for you that I was not there,
that you may believe.
Let us go to him.”
So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples,
“Let us also go to die with him.”

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus
had already been in the tomb for four days.
Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away.
And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary
to comfort them about their brother.
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him;
but Mary sat at home.
Martha said to Jesus,
“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
But even now I know that whatever you ask of God,
God will give you.”
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.”
Martha said to him,
“I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”
Jesus told her,
“I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord.
I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world.”

When she had said this,
she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying,
“The teacher is here and is asking for you.”
As soon as she heard this,
she rose quickly and went to him.
For Jesus had not yet come into the village,
but was still where Martha had met him.
So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her
saw Mary get up quickly and go out,
they followed her,
presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him,
she fell at his feet and said to him,
“Lord, if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping,
he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said,
“Where have you laid him?”
They said to him, “Sir, come and see.”
And Jesus wept.
So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.”
But some of them said,
“Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man
have done something so that this man would not have died?”

So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb.
It was a cave, and a stone lay across it.
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”
Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him,
“Lord, by now there will be a stench;
he has been dead for four days.”
Jesus said to her,
“Did I not tell you that if you believe
you will see the glory of God?”
So they took away the stone.
And Jesus raised his eyes and said,
“Father, I thank you for hearing me.
I know that you always hear me;
but because of the crowd here I have said this,
that they may believe that you sent me.”
And when he had said this,
He cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”
The dead man came out,
tied hand and foot with burial bands,
and his face was wrapped in a cloth.
So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary
and seen what he had done began to believe in him.

Except for the passion account, today’s reading is the longest continuous narrative in John’s gospel. It is the climax of all Jesus’ signs and leads directly to the decision of the Sanhedrin to kill Jesus.

Now a man was ill, Lazarus

The name Lazarus means “God helps” (Eleazar in Hebrew), which foreshadows the events that will take place.

from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

The way the author introduces the village indicates that he expects us to know who Martha and Mary are (see Luke 10:38-42, where Jesus is a guest and teaches in their house).

The name of the village today is El-Azariyeh (Arabic for “Place of Lazarus”); it is less than two miles southeast of Jerusalem, separated from it by the Mount of Olives.

Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill.

There are a number of women in the Gospels who are called Mary. The Mary here is Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus, the woman who later anointed our Lord, again in Bethany, at the house of Simon the Leper.

Were Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, and the “sinful” woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Galilee (Luke 7:36) one, two, or three women? It isn’t clear, but it seems most likely that they are all different people. Due to the times, locations and details reported, the anointings at Bethany and Galilee are believed to be two separate anointings. Nothing given about Mary Magdalene links her to the other two Marys.

So the sisters sent word to him, saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.”

When Jesus left his childhood home in Nazareth to begin his ministry, he had “nowhere to rest his head” (Matthew 8:19–20; Luke 9:57–58). Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were like a second family to him and welcomed Jesus into their home whenever he was in the area.

That is why the sisters’ message contained no request to come: it wasn’t necessary. The sisters’ request, like the Blessed Virgin’s at Cana (John 2:1-11), is implicit in their words.

As Saint Augustine would say later, it is impossible for a person to simultaneously love someone and desert him.

When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Like Cana, Jesus’ first reply appears to be a rejection of the request.

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.

John is careful to point out that it was not lack of love for Lazarus and his sisters that caused him to delay going to him. He waits until there is no question about the irreversibility of Lazarus’ death.

Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?”

The disciples are reminding him that his life is in danger in Judea (John 10:31, 39).  Their apprehension emphasizes the unfathomable nature of Jesus’ future actions, when he gives himself over to be crucified.

Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

This enigmatic parable can be understood in at least three ways:

  1. The literal meaning: during the day we can see more clearly, at night we can stumble and fall,
  2. The metaphorical meaning: we are guided by an inner light, not the light of day, and one stumbles when there is no inner light,
  3. The Christological meaning: the light is Jesus himself, the “light of the world” (John 9:4-5).

The phrase “the light is not in him” may also reflect the ancient Jewish belief that there was a light within the eye that allowed a person to see (see Luke 11:34; Matthew 6:23).

He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.”

Sothesetai can mean both “will recover” and “will be saved.”  The disciples have no idea of the irony of their words.

But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.”

Note how John explains the mistake to his audience and Jesus explains the mistake to his disciples.

This pattern of dialogue is often depicted in John’s gospel:

  • Jesus makes a statement regarding a profound religious truth.
  • The statement is misunderstood in a superficial and material sense.
  • This misunderstanding provides Jesus an opportunity to further develop the spiritual meaning of his pronouncement.

So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”

Didymus is the Greek word for twin; the name Thomas is derived from the Aramaic word for twin. His words are reminiscent of the Last Supper, when the apostles said they were ready to die for their master (Matthew 26:31-35). Thomas probably does not realize the implication of his words when he suggests that they accompany Jesus even to his death.

When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days.  Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, only about two miles away. And many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them about their brother.

These details underscore the reality of Lazarus’ death.

According to Jewish custom, Lazarus’ funeral would have been held on the day of his death. Because everyone wanted to show their respect during the seven days of mourning rites (sitting shiva), the house was full of friends and sympathetic acquaintances — many from Jerusalem, only two miles away.

The mourning of the entire group would be an almost hysterical shrieking: the ancient Jews, like some moderns, had the notion that the more unrestrained the mourning, the greater honor paid to the dead.

When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went to meet him; but Mary sat at home. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.

One who is well known for his miracles should have been able to heal Lazarus. What she is really asking is, “When you received our message, why didn’t you come right away?”

But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”

No sooner were her words of impatient reproach out than, even through her sorrow, Martha speaks words of faith. She recognizes that God is the source of Jesus’ powers. This separates her from those crowds that are amazed by Jesus’ deeds but divided over his identity.

Her grief tore her between anger for his not coming sooner and trust in him.

Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”

By the time of Jesus, the majority of Jews (except for the Sadducees) did believe in a life after death.  Martha’s response shows that she shares this view of a general resurrection and judgment at the end of time (Daniel 12:2). She has no idea that Jesus has come to bring Lazarus back from the dead.

Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life;

This is one of Jesus’ profound “I am” statements in John’s gospel which allude to the meaning of the name God revealed to Moses: “I am who am.”

It is reminiscent of Khuda, a Persian word used in northern India by Hindu and Muslims alike, which means “that which exists of itself”: that which is self-sufficient and exists without needs.

whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.

From the fact that Jesus is God, we can stake our lives on the fact that everyone who lives and believes in him will never die, because belief in Jesus establishes a bond of life that not even death can sever. Although believers die physically, this bond will bring them back to life. Furthermore, this bond will survive physical death and keep believers from an eternal death.

Do you believe this?”  She said to him, “Yes, Lord.

Jesus poses a solemn question: “Do you believe?”  Martha’s answer is immediate and unequivocal: “Yes, Lord.”

I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

Martha elaborates on her faith by professing these Christian truths, using the formulas with which she was familiar from Old Testament expectations.

By doing this, Martha affirms the core theological tenets that John has been teaching throughout his gospel. In fact, as John concludes his gospel, he says that it is to teach these truths that he has written his gospel in the first place: But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name (John 20:31).

Martha still does not realize, nor has she been told, that Lazarus will rise here and now as a sign.

When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary secretly, saying, “The teacher is here and is asking for you.”

Martha’s reference to Jesus as “the teacher” can be seen as a characterization of Jesus’ ministry. He did not disdain, as others often did, to teach a woman (see Luke 10:39, 42).

As soon as she heard this, she rose quickly and went to him. For Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still where Martha had met him. So when the Jews who were with her in the house comforting her saw Mary get up quickly and go out, they followed her, presuming that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Mary’s greeting is almost identical to Martha’s: she too confesses faith in Jesus, and she too had hoped Jesus would have arrived in time to heal Lazarus.

When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled,

Literally, “he snorted in spirit and was deeply troubled,” perhaps in anger at the presence of evil (death).

and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.”

John emphasizes Jesus’ deep love for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.

Verse 35 is the shortest verse in Holy Scripture. In many translations, it is merely two words: “Jesus wept.”

But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.”

This would have been horrifying for the onlookers; it was considered a sacrilege to violate a dead person’s tomb.

Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.”

One last reminder to the reader of how long Lazarus has been buried, emphasizing the seeming finality of his death.

Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”

To see the “glory of God” is to see God’s divinity.

So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.”

Jesus is not praying to petition for divine power, for having been sent by God, he already possesses it. He prays in thanksgiving. The prayer is really a public testimony to his relationship with God, and it is prayed for the sake of those around him.

And when he had said this, he cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”

A dramatization of John 5:28: “The hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice.” (See also Daniel 12:2.)

The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go.”

The marvel he has performed cannot be denied, but it can be misunderstood.  Jesus is not merely a wonder-worker; he himself has the power of resurrection, and he is the source of eternal life.

Paradoxically, Lazarus’ restoration to life would lead to Jesus’ death (John 11:46-53). There had been a build-up of opposition to Jesus among the Jewish leaders, and the Lazarus incident made them more determined to kill him.

Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.

As is usual in the gospels, this narrative of the marvelous is brought to a matter-of-fact conclusion with no attempt to satisfy idle curiosity about incidental details.

John wants his audience, including us, to believe along with the witnesses to this awe-inspiring event — so that we, too, can have eternal life.

Connections and Themes

Scrutinies.  The themes for this Sunday add a third dimension to the reflections of the scrutiny Sundays.  On the Third Sunday of Lent, we considered the plight of the individual (the Samaritan woman), and we saw Jesus as the source of living water.  On the Fourth Sunday of Lent (last week), we encountered the blindness of the believing community, and we watched Jesus give the man both sight and insight.  Today we consider the universality of death, and Jesus is revealed to us as the resurrection and the life.

Death.  On the First Sunday of Lent, we reflected on death and we return to that reflection today.  Death is the fate of all human beings. No one is spared.  The grave swallows up the righteous and the sinner alike.

As a metaphor, death can stand for many things.  The prophet Ezekiel witnessed the death of the nation; the gospel reports the death of Lazarus.  Although Paul refers to the mortal character of our physical bodies, he is more concerned with spiritual life and death. Death attacks each of us in all three of these ways.  We are all mortal and subject to physical death; we are all sinners and must deal with implications of spiritual death; we are all subject to the consequences of social sins such as terrorism, violence, group hatred, greed, and ecological exploitation.

The question before us is: Will we allow death to reign in our lives and our communities, or will we choose Christ?

God’s Offer of New Life.  All three readings point out our inability to raise ourselves out of the deaths that afflict us.  In the passage from Ezekiel, it is God who promises to open the graves of the people; the people are helpless to do anything.  Acknowledging human propensity to sin, Paul credits the Spirit of God with transforming death into life.  Finally, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the grave and returns him to his life.

As with the First Sunday of Lent, so today we see that God does not leave us to languish in our various deaths (communal, physical, spiritual); instead, he offers us new life out of the tombs.  Throughout the Lenten season, the readings have invited us to meditate on the mercy and compassion of God, on God’s willingness to give us chance after chance despite our unrighteousness.  There has been no insistence on penitential practices.  Instead, it is almost as if God is asking for another chance, another chance to shower us with mercy – if we but accept the new life offered to us.

Choose Christ.  In the face of death, we are encouraged to choose life.  This is particularly strong in the reading from Romans and in the gospel.  In both readings, we see that this life can be found only in Christ — it is the Spirit of God at work in us through Christ that transforms us.  In the gospel, Jesus holds life and death in his hands because he is “the resurrection and the life.”  These readings are placed before us today so that once again we can make a choice.  Will we choose death or life?  Will we choose our own willfulness or Christ?

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