Fifth Sunday in Lent – a reflection on the Sunday Readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

Jesus cried out in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face wrapped in a cloth…So Jesus said to them: “Untie him, and let him go.” John11, 1 – 44

This Sunday’s gospel reading is the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. It is the culmination of what is called the “Book of Signs” in John’s Gospel. There are seven signs in total:
The changing of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana – John 2, 1 – 11
The healing of the royal official’s son – John 4, 43 – 54
The healing of the invalid at the pool of Bethesda – John 5, 1 – 16
The feeding of the five thousand – John 6, 1 – 15
Jesus walking on the water during the storm on the lake – John 6, 16 – 21
The healing of the man born blind – John 9, 1 – 41
The raising of Lazarus from the dead – John 11, 1 – 44

John uses these seven signs to establish for his audience the real identity of Jesus as the Word of God in human flesh and blood, the light of the world and the author of life. These signs, in John’s mind, are so extraordinary that they should convince anyone that Jesus really is the Son of God.

But, as John builds the story of the raising of Lazarus, he shows how the disciples, who had witnessed all seven signs, had failed to grasp what those signs were pointing to. They had failed to understand who Jesus really was. And Martha, too, is equally blind to his identity. John weaves into his story a sequence of misunderstandings to demonstrate how those closest to Jesus still had not understood who he was.

When Jesus heard of Lazarus’ illness, he predicted that his friend‘s sickness would not end in death, but would lead to an outcome that would redound to the glory of God. After a delay of two days, when he invited his disciples to accompany him to Judea, they realised he was heading into danger. Some discouraged him, and Thomas even pronounced, with a degree of bravado and rashness, that all of them should join him in walking towards martyrdom. But they stopped in Bethany, at the house of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, only to learn that Lazarus had died and was already buried. Bethany is just a stone’s throw from Jerusalem. Clearly, Thomas and the other disciples had failed to grasp the significance of Jesus’ assertion that something momentous would take place in Bethany. On the way, Jesus had already spoken euphemistically of Lazarus’ death by stating: “Our friend Lazarus is at rest; I am going to wake him.” Yet again, the disciples did not understand. As if exasperated, Jesus has no choice but to be blunt: “Lazarus is dead.”

Whether or not these are verbatim accounts of what actually happened is of no real significance. John is using the conversational snippets as a story-telling device to illustrate the huge gap between the way Jesus thought and understood and the way in which his disciples failed to comprehend what was going on around them. But that’s not the end of the misunderstandings in this story. When Martha reprimands Jesus for delaying, he makes no attempt at an excuse or an explanation. Even when he declares to Martha: “Your brother will rise again”, she responds by saying that she knows all about the resurrection of the dead on the last day. Moreover, there were people in the crowd of mourners who were engaged in “Wouldn’t you Think?” conversations: “Wouldn’t you think that if he could restore the sight of a man born blind, he would have been able to stop his best friend from dying?” But what got up the noses of the religious leaders was the growing popularity of Jesus, swelled by the news that he had in fact raised Lazarus from the dead. They were also hostile at Jesus assertion: “I am the resurrection. Anyone who believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” This assertion of Jesus and his raising of Lazarus from the grave, were tantamount to his signing his own death warrant.

The love that Jesus grew to have for the God who had loved him into life and accompanied him throughout his 33 years became so full and profound that it overflowed to those closest to him and to all whom he invited to come close. That was the love that brought Lazarus back to life. When Jesus proclaimed: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me will never die”, Martha’s response indicated that, while she didn’t fully understand him, she was far from rejecting him. The religious leaders, however, not only refused to entertain what Jesus had said and done, but rather, threatened by his rising popularity, laid plans to have him murdered.

But this gospel we hear today asks us what our response is to Jesus’ assertion. What do we make of it? What do we make of his raising his friend from a grave in which his body had lain for four days? Lazarus was restored to the kind of life that had left him. He would die a second time. I like to think that Martha and Mary, having seen their brother restored to life, faced their own deaths without fear, and that Lazarus himself faced his second death in a similar way. As I reflect on this gospel I am reminded of an extraordinary man I came to know and admire. Tim Leyland was a very talented and intelligent man sought after by multinational businesses to guide them in reinventing themselves. Tim once described himself as an agnostic Jew. When he was dying of terminal cancer, he requested the prayers of his religious friends: “Please pray that I will experience my dying to the full. It will be an experience I’ve not had before.” Underneath that remark was a faith he did not realise he had. Something in his “religious” friends had rubbed off.

The resurrection of Lazarus anticipated God’s resurrection of Jesus and the vindication of his life and mission, of all that he had said and done. But the life of the resurrected Jesus was a completely new kind of life, a life that would never die. That’s the kind of life we anticipate will be ours as a consequence of the death and resurrection of our brother, Jesus who invites us to come close and experience something of the mercy, compassion and love of God.

All the healing miracles that Jesus performed gave a better quality of life to those he healed. However, they also delayed the inevitability of death. But they held out a promise of God’s mercy, compassion and love as they simultaneously extended an invitation to believe in a God who loves us endlessly and promises us, after death, a life that will never end. In the meantime, Jesus invites us to be on the lookout for all those Lazaruses we encounter who are bound-up, oppressed, less than fully alive or yet to find the freedom needed for living wholesome lives. “Unbind them”, he says to us, “let them grow free.”