Lectionary Commentaries for April 6, 2014
Fifth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 11:1-45

Robert Hoch

Stories of Jesus raising the dead appear in all the Gospels, but John alone includes the story of the raising of Lazarus.

As a story, it supplies a basic pivot point in the overall narrative: Jesus’ enemies shift from generalized opposition to a formal decision to have him killed. In that sense, then, the story signals the beginning of the end of Jesus’ teachings and signs.

However, consistent with John’s penchant for paradox, this “conspiracy” to kill signals God’s “conspiracy” to save: “‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed’” (verses 49b-50).

Biblical scholar Gail R. O’Day tells us that Caiaphas’ rebuke amounts to “the full truth … unwittingly told.”1

And the “shift” isn’t limited to the narrative horizon of John: as the assigned text in the lectionary for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, the story of Lazarus anticipates the events of Holy Week. Additionally, in Year A, the lectionary assigns John as the Gospel reading for four out of the five Sundays in Lent, supplying interpreters and congregations with a generous dollop of Johannine narrative.

One other note regarding the Johannine narrative deserves mention: its consistent emphasis on the personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Over and again, John presents Jesus as saying, in effect, “I, the one speaking to you, am he” (e.g., 15:1, 5; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 6:35, 41, 51). Whereas the gospels of Mark, Luke, and Matthew prefer more indirect expressions of Jesus’ divinity through parable, John’s gospel surprises us with these frequent and startlingly personal expressions of self-disclosure.

As Raymond Brown notes, the absence of the “reign of God/heaven” language in John’s gospel is not an indication of some form of unearthly mysticism in John. Rather, John’s unwavering focus on the unity between God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, indicates the stress John places on community. Like the synoptic focus on the Reign of God, unity with Christ and the promised resurrection is not an other-worldly affair but a this-world promise: “Instead of entering the kingdom of God as a place, [John’s gospel asserts that we] need to inhere in Jesus to be part of the community.”2

The raising of Lazarus abounds with the personal character of the Johannine Jesus, in a sense intertwining the narratives of Jesus and Lazarus and, indeed, the whole community that believes in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. Lazarus, for instance, becomes a key character in the story of Jesus as one who, like the Samaritan woman and the the official’s son, leads many to faith in Jesus Christ (12:9, 11 cf. 4:39-42, 53b). Additionally, like Jesus, Lazarus lives under the threat of death (12:10).

John extends that intimacy of testimony in undeniably communal ways: Lazarus is the brother of Mary and Martha; Mary, we are told by the narrator of John (referring to 12:1-7) will be the one who anoints “the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair” (11:2); Martha, for her part, was there too, serving everyone, including Jesus and Lazarus.

Interestingly, when Lazarus becomes ill, “the sisters” send Jesus a message and it is a message calling upon the intimate love of Jesus for the beloved: “‘Lord, he whom you love is ill’” (verse 3). It is in response to this heartfelt appeal that Jesus answers saying that this illness does not lead to death “rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (verse 4).

Jesus’ answer recalls his response to the disciples who asked about the origins of one man’s blindness (9:3). It is an answer captured in the African American church tradition, “Where the world places a period, God introduces a comma — suffering does not have the last word!”

Yet this text does differ from Jesus’ healing of the blind man: this lection assumes the deep knowledge of Jesus and Jesus’ knowledge of the community. Jesus’ response to the sisters includes his loving attachment to not only Lazarus, but also specifically Martha and Mary: “Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after hearing that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (verse 6).

Even though all this happens for God’s glory, his decision to remain two days longer is not a cold dogmatism. John’s testimony writes a “letter of affection” on the hearts of those who wait. Nevertheless, Jesus’ decision to stay “two days” longer causes consternation for not only the disciples, but also for Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (verse 21).

This might be one place that interpreters want to linger, particularly if the faith community is struggling with untimely death or inexplicable suffering. Maybe modern communities of faith would not say it so baldly, but the pained accusation might surface: “If Jesus had been with us … but he wasn’t.”

Maybe this absence recalls Jesus’ other absence in 9:8-34, his longest absence in the entire gospel. Of course, if that is his longest absence in the absolute terms of chapter and verse, the longest by far consists in those “two days longer” — two days stretched into the irreversible terminality of a tomb.

One way to explore the sense of Jesus’ absence in relation to the life and struggles of the “beloved community” would be to turn to passages in John 14:15-27, 16:4b-15, 20:19-23, each of which include Jesus’ promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The last passage is particularly striking since Christ enters a room locked with fear, a lock that was powerless to exclude the appearing of the risen Christ. Our fears and our sufferings may always seem to be impervious, implacable in their finality. Even so, John’s gospel witnesses to a Christ who not only “picks those locks” but renders them as meaningless as grave clothes are to the risen Christ.

Two related cautions with regard to John’s gospel and its personal characteristics bear mentioning: first, it should not be taken to be synonymous with the popular notion of “Jesus is my personal savior” rhetoric; second, we should not let “individualism” have its way with John’s Christology.

After Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, Jesus says to everyone watching, “‘Unbind him, and let him go” (verse 44). He was “risen” but was he truly alive in his full humanity, as a joyful member of the beloved community? Being raised from the dead entails a community dedicated to loving one another in the liberating love of Jesus Christ.

During my stay with the Cherith Brook Catholic Worker in Kansas City, I helped as the community hosted showers and opened a clothes closet for people living on the street. Many entered the shower room waiting area looking beaten, tired, and as neglected as the urban cityscape itself. People avoided eye contact. Conversation was limited. But as each emerged out of the showers, clean and wearing a fresh set of clothes, a new life seemed to come into their eyes. They shone with the warmth of their humanity restored, shining with the luster of care and dignity.

What I witnessed, I suppose, was a little resurrection, a resurrection of a person in community and a community in a person.


Notes:

Gail R. O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 9: Luke John, ed. Leander E. Keck, et. al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 549.

Raymond E. Brown, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 87.


First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14

Margaret Odell

In this last Sunday before Holy Week, two texts promise resurrection.

In Ezekiel, dry bones are knit back together and infused with life-giving breath, while in John, Lazarus is brought back to life after four days in the tomb. In neither case is resurrection life necessarily pretty. Resurrection is not new life, the perfect promise of a newborn baby, but renewed life, life forged from death; even the risen Jesus still bore his scars.

For congregations who have tended to the dying and cared for the grieving over the past year, these texts do not glibly wash over the reality of suffering and death with the bright pastels of Easter. Nor should they; we are still in Lent, after all. Yet with all its brutal honesty, Ezekiel’s vision challenges us to see that the problem is not death but the fear of it, while the solution — God’s ever-present gift of life — is as near to us as breathing.

Under the hand of God, Ezekiel is carried in the spirit to a valley filled with a great many dry bones. Although it is not named, its identification as “the” valley suggests a particular place; other clues suggest a battlefield. As such, it evokes ancient Near Eastern curses threatening treaty violators not only with wholesale destruction but also with leaving the slain unburied for carrion prey to devour.

In this one grim scene, then, we are reminded of all that has transpired since Ezekiel was first summoned to speak to the rebellious house of Israel. From the time Ezekiel first began to speak in 592 BCE, the people’s long history of rebellion against God and now also against Nebuchadnezar has sealed their fate. Destruction was inevitable, and by 586 BCE Jerusalem lay in ruins. Whether we are to think of this battlefield as Nebuchadnezzar’s doing or God’s, we are to remember a broken covenant and unspeakable loss.

We may also be asked to remember Ezekiel’s commission as a prophet to sound the warning in the hope that some might hear, repent, and live. The sheer number of bones suggests prophetic failure, and God’s question to Ezekiel can only remind us of that grim fact. “Mortal, can these bones live?” At the end of his own imagining, Ezekiel can only leave it up to God: “Oh Lord, you alone know.”

God responds by commanding Ezekiel to prophesy. Although God addresses Ezekiel, the message addresses the bones directly, promising to bring breath into them and clothe them with flesh. The message makes it clear that any new life is God’s doing (verses 4-6), and it ends in a familiar Ezekielian refrain: “and then you will know that I am the Lord.”

As Ezekiel prophesies, the bones come together with a great rattling and quaking as sinew, flesh, and skin come on to the bones. But there is still no breath in them, so God commands Ezekiel to prophesy again, this time to the “breath,” or “wind” (Hebrew, ruach). Ezekiel does as commanded, and as breath enters into the slain, they live and stand as a great multitude.

The image is not entirely heartening. In other prophetic images of restoration, there is dancing and rejoicing; here, the dry bones are indeed alive, standing on their feet. But they’re not doing much more than that. What are they doing just standing there?

The ambiguity of the image is only heightened by God’s explanation to Ezekiel in verses 11-14. God explains to Ezekiel that the dry bones represent the whole house of Israel. Their complaint, “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost, we are clean cut off,” gives further clue to their identity and concerns. These are not the ones who were slain but those who have survived in exile. Parallels with similar expressions in the Psalms suggest they feel themselves cut off from God’s presence — perhaps because they perceive the covenant to have been severed, certainly because absence from the Jerusalem Temple closes off any possibility of seeking God. For the exiles, being cut off from God means they are as good as dead.1

If the dry bones represent the living exiles, then, it turns out that the entire vision is concerned, not with the reality of death, but with despair. The exiles were the survivors, yet they have dug their graves with their fear of God’s absence. To this hopelessness Ezekiel offers a startlingly simple metaphor of divine presence, the ready availability of breath. In just fourteen verses, the word ruach occurs nine times, and while it is variously translated as “breath” (verses 5, 6, 8, 10), “wind” (verse 9) and God’s own spirit (14), we would lose the metaphorical force of this usage if we neatly differentiated between the meanings. Whether it appears in one instance as breath or in another as wind, it is all the same life giving force. And it is all from God.

And it is in this sense that breathing becomes a metaphor for divine presence. Despite the exiles’ fear of being cut off from God, God is as near to them as their own breath. Ezekiel’s vision does nothing to alleviate them of their present difficult circumstances, though it does promise them a future in their own land.

Though they remain in exile, still coping with the death of loved ones, still mourning the loss of familiar ways to find and meet God, they are reassured of God’s presence. The standing multitude of dry bones brought back to life now acquires a somewhat different connotation. Because God is present, they can breathe. And stand ready for the future, looking forward in hope.


Notes:

Saul M. Olyan, “‘We Are Utterly Cut off’: Some Possible Nuances of ngzrnu lnu in Ezek 37:11,” CBQ 65 (2003): 43-50.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 130

Elizabeth Webb

In Psalm 130, the writer calls out to God from the depths of human suffering, hoping for, expecting, and insisting on God’s hearing.

The psalmist has every confidence that God will hear and respond to every cry of pain, because mercy, the writer insists, is who God is.

The lament of Psalm 130 is familiar to our hearing and our living. The psalmist cries out to God from “the depths” (verse 1), from the darkest abyss of human suffering. That abyss takes different shapes in individual and communal human life, but we all have had or will have some experience of it, and not always tangentially.

Grief, depression, illness, poverty, abuse — any of these experiences, and so many more, can plunge us into a darkness so deep that it can feel almost like death. That the abyss, the pit, the deep, is so centrally and universally a part of human life is reflected in the Psalms’ repeated reference to it, as in 16:10, 40:2, and 69:2. Augustine, in his exposition on this psalm, likened the abyss to the belly of the whale in which Jonah was trapped: Jonah’s abyss was deep in the water, in the yawning center of the whale’s body, tangled in the “very entrails of the beast.”1

In verses 1 and 2, that cry is a demand to be heard, an insistence that God listen to the voice of torment: “Pay attention to my suffering, and for heaven’s sake, have mercy on me!” Often such a demand issues from a sense of God’s absence in the depths. Pain, whether physical, psychological, spiritual, or some combination, can be so isolating that we feel abandoned to our misery, even by God.

But the careful structure of Psalm 130 indicates that the demand here issues not from a sense of abandonment but from a certainty that God will hear. The writer cries out from the sure conviction that God cares. Verse 5 states that the psalmist trusts in the promises that God has made and waits for their fulfillment, and twice in verse six the psalmist describes his or her soul as waiting for the Lord “more than those who watch for the morning.” This phrase may refer to those who, after a night of prayer, receive confirmation of God’s redemption with the new light of dawn. The psalmist is asserting that he or she lives with even greater certainty of God’s attention than these.

Is this the pious boasting of a holier-than-thou jerk, eager to show us up in the faithfulness department? Actually, this text is a careful statement about God’s character, not the psalmist’s, and the key to this understanding is found in verses 3 and 4. “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with you, so that you may be revered.”

The psalmist is not asserting the power of God’s judgment or even the extent of human sin, as these verses are often read. The writer is telling us that God is not the kind of God under whose judgment the sinner withers. Rather, “there is forgiveness with God,” as verse 6 states. Forgiveness, in other words, is who God is. This Psalm is about the very character of God, which remains steadfast even in the abyss. God is not to be feared because of the wrath of God’s judgment, but God is revered because “with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem” (verse 7). God’s unchanging love is the essence of who God is, and God’s power is precisely the power to redeem.

It is this God, the writer argues, the God who is mercy and love, who will redeem the people. In similar laments, like Psalm 25:6, the psalmist must call upon God to remember God’s mercy. Not here. He the writer calls on us to remember that God is mercy. We need this reminder especially in the depths of misery. Augustine says that Jonah’s prayer, uttered from the depths of the whale’s body, was not contained by that body. Jonah’s prayer “penetrated all things, it burst through all things, it reached the ears of God.”

Even the prayer that issues from the utter abandonment of human suffering reaches God’s ears, is heard and answered by the God whose very being is love. What’s more, Augustine continues, that love not only hears, but becomes a companion who leads us on our way.2 God hears the cry from the abyss, meets us in the depth of our pain, and accompanies us in and through it, sharing in our suffering and leading us toward the light of God’s redemption.

The sad truth is that human beings can be downright unmade in the depths. The deepest suffering not only can tear at our flesh and our hearts, it can strip us of all that makes us who we are, such that we feel that our very selves are lost. To someone in this state, whose stolen self is unable to issue the prayer for God’s hearing, what does Psalm 130 offer?

Together with the gentle companionship of others who have known suffering and redemption, the words of Psalm 130 can be a healing balm to the shattered soul, offering assurance of God’s endless mercy, and of the divine companionship that will remake all that is broken. Psalm 130 issues a calling to the assembled to claim for each and all of us the vast mercy of God and to companion one another through and out of the myriad abysses we each and all encounter.


Notes:

Augustine, Exposition on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 130, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf108.ii.CXXX.html.

Ibid.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:6-11

L. Ann Jervis

Paul is convinced that because of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection a new reality is available for humankind.

Paul believes that this new reality is not something people dream about in their heads, or have to work hard to pretend that they are living in. It is not a reality that exists somewhere else or in the future. Paul is certain that it is real, it is here, and it is now. Paul is convinced that because of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection the new reality — some interpreters of Paul, like J. L. Martyn, call it a new cosmos — is here now.

Paul believes that here and now humans can live in the Spirit (verse 9). This is not to say that they constantly have experiences of the Spirit, such as speaking in tongues or prophesying or the capacity for self-sacrificial love. It is rather to say that Paul thinks that believers in Christ live in a new eco-system, a new place with new reality structures. Rather than living in an eco-system structured by sin and death, they live in one structured by Christ, by the Spirit, by life. People do not enter this alternative reality on their own. People may live in the Spirit because they are “in Christ Jesus” (8:1).

Paul understands that believing in Jesus Christ means at the same time living in Christ Jesus. Our belief in Christ is our entrance into the being of Christ. We enter an alternate cosmos through our faith in Christ. That alternate reality is the reality of Christ and the Spirit. This is a vastly different place and way to live than when we lived in the flesh.

The “flesh” here refers not to the skin of our bodies but to a way of living, a reality, a cosmos that is dominated by death (verse 6). The “flesh” is for Paul a power, a force that works alongside sin and death. The purpose of the ‘Flesh’ is to produce death and hostility to God (verses 6 and 7). The ‘Flesh’ seeks to constrain people in a way of life that has everything to do with death and with hatred of the God of life and love.  

Paul helps his hearers to recognize that because they are “in Christ” they have been liberated from the “flesh”; they do not need to live lives that are turned towards death and away from God. Because of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, and by virtue of living “in Christ,” people are liberated from the “flesh” and freed to live in the Spirit.

The word “mind” in verse 6 — to set the mind on the flesh — means mentality or outlook or aspiration. It does not mean mind in the sense of the capacity to reason, although it includes that. The Greek word — phronema — indicates what a person strives for, what a person aims at, what a person cares most about, an orientation.

Paul is saying that living in the “flesh” means that we necessarily care most about what the “flesh” cares about — death and the things of death; all that is against the God of life and of love. The alternative reality — the one in which those in Christ live — is the Spirit. In the Spirit the orientation is towards life and peace (verse 6). Clearly, it is possible to be in the Spirit and yet not take advantage of that marvelous location.

Paul needs to open the eyes of his hearers — who are already believers — to the reality of where they are. They are in the Spirit and so they can allow their orientation, their deepest desires and the focus of their lives to be about God’s life and peace. The requirement for being in the Spirit is that the Spirit is in us. It is the Spirit of God that lives in us (verses 9, 11). In this new reality, then, God has made available God’s own Spirit through the work of God’s own Son.  

God’s Spirit is the Spirit of life and of the power of life. The Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in believers (verse 11a). The power of God’s Spirit is such that even the inevitable deaths of our bodies cannot deny the life of God’s Spirit. God’s Spirit will give life to our bodies in the same way as God’s Spirit did to Christ’s body.  

It is to be noted that the Spirit is also the Spirit of Christ (verse 9). This is one of the immensely significant passages for understanding of Paul’s view of the Trinity. While clearly Paul did not use the term “Trinity,” he did think there was an inseparable identity of God, Christ, and the Spirit.