Lectionary Commentaries for April 2, 2017
Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)
Commentary on John 11:1-45
Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14
Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones coming to life is offered alongside the stories of death and life from John 11.
The passage also occurs at two other times: on Pentecost, and as part of the Easter Vigil. In each setting, a different dimension of Ezekiel 37 is foregrounded. Perhaps the story is best known from Pentecost, where the role of God’s spirit stands out most strikingly. The Hebrew word ruah, meaning “breath” and “wind” as well as “spirit,” is repeated ten times in these fourteen verses — four times in the climactic verse 9 alone:
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath (ruah), prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath (ruah): Thus says the Lord GOD: Come from the four winds (ruah plural), O breath (ruah), and breathe upon these slain, that they may live” (Ezekiel 37:9).
But today the emphasis lies elsewhere, in the very question of death and life, offering listeners a gentle inoculation against the horrors to come in less than two weeks on Good Friday. Beside this story echo the pensive words of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you … I wait for the Lord, my soul waits … more than those who watch for the morning.”
Ezekiel speaks from Babylon, exiled from a country that has died, its temple and capital city destroyed. Like earlier prophets, Ezekiel understands this disaster not simply as the unfortunate result of Babylon’s empire-building. To him, since nothing can happen unless God allows it, Judah’s people and especially their leaders brought this devastation upon themselves by their disobedience to God.
The prophet is understandably pessimistic about human goodness. He insists that individuals are utterly free to make moral choices and utterly responsible for the consequences of these choices. Each individual is given the chance to make decisions that may be life-giving or death-dealing (Ezekiel 18). Yet Ezekiel sees little evidence that Judeans will choose more wisely in the future than they have in the past. Though blessed with moral agency, they are no more able to use this faculty well than lifeless bones are able to get up and walk. This conundrum in Ezekiel’s theology could have led to an unspeakable impasse.
But Ezekiel discovers divine grace instead. This grace initiated the whole human enterprise by making humans from dust and breathing into them the breath, ruah, of life (Genesis 2:7). God likewise initiated the entire Israelite project, choosing to take slaves from Egypt, giving them God’s own law, and bringing them to a good land — and doing this with minimal cooperation (Ezekiel 20:5-14). Now, Ezekiel says, God will take the initiative yet again: God’s spirit will bring new life to a people dead as stone, dead as bones.
This vision of dry bones coming to life is closely related to a saying that has already appeared twice in the book. In Ezekiel 11, speaking for God, the prophet has already said of the exiles:
I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:19-20)
And again in Ezekiel 36:
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:26-28)
This new heart is nothing the people can obtain for themselves. The new spirit is not their own, but God’s, a spirit enabling them to do what they could not before, to live as holy people before Holy God. The prophet spells out the divine intent in these two sayings, and in the story of the dry bones he shows it.
Divine initiative and human action are interwoven throughout this passage. It is God who leads Ezekiel to the valley and directs his attention and speech. It is the prophet who sees, and describes, the utterly dry bones, and responds by doing as he is asked, ordering the desiccated bones to hear God’s word. As he does so, with no help from the bones themselves (what could the dead do?), God brings them together.
God adds sinews, tendons to attach them; flesh, muscles to make them strong, and skin to give them form. Yet still they lie lifeless. It is only when God tells the prophet to speak to the ruah — the spirit, or breath — and Ezekiel does so, that the spirit breath blows from the four winds and the bodies live and stand. Divine agency and human response appear interwoven, if not inextricable. Initiative comes from God, who makes sure the prophet participates. Ezekiel calls to the spirit; the spirit enters the people; they come to life, a vast multitude.
Only grace fills the gap between what we are made for and what we ourselves can manage.
Commentary on Psalm 130
One of the 15 “Psalms of Ascent” (120-134), Psalm 130 begins with the familiar cry for help, “Out of the depths.”
This is a prayer for help at a time of deep personal need; an individual’s prayer, that serves also as an invitation to the community of believers to hope in the promise of redemption.
Psalm 130 can be divided both neatly and awkwardly, into different “moving parts.”
Awkwardly, (by which I mean “unevenly”) the psalm has two parts, verses 1-6, and verses 7-8.
Part 1 of the awkward division is defined, first, by the pairing of two words which look similar, are used to address the same subject, but are different in important ways: Lord and Lord. For those familiar with the Old Testament the difference between these two words may be obvious, but odds are good (and I’d go dollars to donuts on this … or maybe denarii to dates) that many if not most of the people in our congregations don’t know what’s going on here. In English translations of the Old Testament the word Lord, with “ord” in small caps, is a stand-in for the Hebrew name for God: Yahweh. (This move is made in many translations out of respect the Jewish tradition of refraining from speaking God’s name aloud.) Lord, capital “L” with lowercase “ord” is the translation of the Hebrew word adonay which means … um … lord. Three times in verses 1-6 there is a back-and-forth between the name for God and a title for God; the LORD is called upon by name, and then appealed to by title, first one, then the other:
I cry to you, O Lord … Lord hear my voice! (verses 1-2)
If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? (verse3)
and I wait for the Lord … my souls wait for the Lord. (verses 5-6)
The Lord (Yahweh) is called Lord; God is called upon, hoped in, both by name and by title.
Part two of the awkward division is defined by a shift in address. Verses 1-6 address God; the Lord is appealed to. Verses 7-8 address Israel; these verses are testimonial about the Lord. It is interesting that in these last two verses we get the word “lord” again, and twice (again), but in this case it is the same “lord,” the divine name “Lord.” As the shift in who is being addressed takes place, marking an invitation to all of Israel to join the author of the psalm in trusting in God, with whom “is great power to redeem,” there is a shift in the function of the poem-prayer. The burden of the psalm is a plea, made from the basis of the theological conviction that becomes the testimonial of the invitation to join in such trusting plea, that rounds out the psalm.
“Neatly,” the psalm has four parts of two verses each: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, and 7-8.
In verses 1-2 it is the psalmist’s voice which dominates: “I cry” (1), “my voice … my supplication” (2). God is called upon to listen to this prayer.
Verses 3-4 turn to metaphysical reflection in the form of a hypothetical: If God should “mark iniquities,” literally “keep an eye on” or be on the “watch” for them, then who could stand? That is the question, to which the implicit answer is “No one.” Where one might hope for the “if” to be negated — i.e., God doesn’t keep an eye out for our iniquities, but that is not the case. Rather, there is a shift: God does mark sins, but God is also a God who forgives. There is a theological progression in these first four verses; God listens, God marks or watches, and God forgives.
In verses 5-6 it is back to the psalmist’s voice: “I wait … I hope” (verse 5). What is striking here is that the verbs “wait” (which occurs in this third section two times in English [though only once in Hebrew]), and “watch,” are both the very same word that is translated “mark” in verse 3. The verb is shamar, to keep, watch, mark and wait for. The psalmist waits for God, in precisely the way God marks the psalmist, in trust and hope.
Finally in verses 7-8, as was noted above, the voice in the psalm shifts once more out of “I” and into a proclamatory, invitational ways. The one who hears this psalm is invited into this expectant, hopeful, trusting relationship with a God who listens, who forgives, and with whom there is steadfast love, and great power to redeem.
Psalm 130 fits beautifully into the spirit of the Lenten season, in which the worshiping community, and indeed the world, waits, waits, and watches (longingly) for the God who comes to us as a human being, to die, in order to work life out of death. And that is great power to redeem indeed.
Commentary on Romans 8:6-11
School children are often asked to name their heroes.
This type of task gives them a chance to think about the qualities that make a role model and how they might imitate someone they admire. When my boys were young, they would don a chestnut hooded cape, grab a light saber and cry “may the Force be with you” and set out to destroy evil as they saw it. As they have grown through the years, their heroes have changed from superheroes to sports personalities to historical figures to people they know. When they admire someone, they tend to dress like them, talk like them, and act like them. They appear to take on their form.
Romans 8:6-11 fits into a larger discussion about the way believers take on the form of Christ. In these verses, Paul builds on his description of the believer’s life in Christ, for which he has laid the foundation in Romans 6. There, Paul exposes the incongruity of sin in the life of the believer (6:1-4), and then develops a series of contrasts to explain the radical new life in Christ: it is characterized by the movement from one state of being to another (death to life), from one master to another (sin to God), from one principle to another (law to grace), and one kind of activity to another (wickedness to righteousness). Robert Tanehill comments, “Christ’s death and resurrection are continuing aspects of the ‘form’ of Christ … so that believers take on the same ‘form.’”1 That is, believers become like Christ; they are transformed into his image by dying and rising with him.
In Romans 8, Paul develops this line of thought by characterizing the contrasts of Romans 6 as “flesh” versus “Spirit.” This is an antithesis between the old age ruled by sin that results in unrighteousness and death; and the new eschatological age ruled by the Spirit that results in righteousness and life. Reading Romans. 6 and 8 together, we might say that Paul presents unbelievers as belonging to the realm of the flesh where sin reigns and enslaves people to unrighteousness, resulting in death; and believers as belonging to the realm of the Spirit where God enslaves people to righteousness, resulting in life.
Throughout Rom 8:6-11, Paul juxtaposes life in the realm of the flesh and life in the realm of the Spirit by repeating the language of the mind: Those who live in conformity with the flesh think things that are of the flesh, while those who live in conformity with the Spirit think things that are of the Spirit. In other words, the age or realm to which people belong aligns with their thinking and generates their behavior. For Paul, the power of sin is not only personal, but also cosmic. The sin-sick cycle that determines the thinking and actions of individuals, of groups, of the world is complex and requires divine help.
For this reason, the Spirit does not merely characterize a realm or an age; the Spirit also works in believers and communities. Paul explains the presence and work of the Spirit in two important ways. First, while he had earlier argued that believers’ living is based on being “in Christ Jesus” (6:11), he now states that it is based on “Christ in you” which he defines as “the Spirit of God in you” (8:9-12). Second, while Paul had earlier stated that sin used to dwell in those apart from Christ (7:17, 20, 23), he now states that the Holy Spirit dwells in the believer (8:9, 11), creating new life. God does what the law was unable to do, first through Christ’s atoning death (8:3) and now, on that basis, through the transforming work of the Spirit (8:4-11).
Based on 8:6-11, Paul tells believers that if they put to death the practices of the body by the Spirit they will live (verses. 12-13; see also 6:11). The Spirit’s work is to replicate the life of Christ in believers both at the present time through obedience in righteousness (1:18; 6:13, 16, 18, 20) — “the Spirit is life because of righteousness” — and in the future through resurrection — “he who raised Christ … will give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit” (8:11). The Holy Spirit continues the work of producing the form of Christ in believers. That is, believers take on the form, or image, of Christ by dying and rising with him (Romans 6) and by living in conformity with the Spirit (Romans 8).
Romans 8:6-11 is thus an important part of Paul’s developing argument that believers are taking on the form of Christ. Believers are obligated to live now according to the Spirit (8:12) because this Spirit has a future claim on them: Just as God appointed (horizo) Jesus to be Son of God with power by the Spirit through the resurrection from the dead (see also 1:3-4), God has pre-appointed (proorizo) that believers will be conformed to the image of his Son by this same Spirit (8:29).
In the meantime, this Spirit bears witness that believers are children of God and co-heirs with Christ of God’s glory (8:14-18). And the Spirit performs the process of transformation into the image of Christ individually and corporately as the members of Christ’s body discern righteous thinking that is manifest in righteous conduct that pleases God (12:1-5). Such conduct is marked by self-sacrificial love and enables a diverse community to glorify God together (Romans. 12-15, especially 13:8-10; 15:1-6).
To be in Christ is to take Christ’s form, dying and rising with him and living in conformity with the Spirit. Taking the form of Jesus is not optional for Christians, but is the very essence of who we are as individuals and a community, both now and in the future.
1 Robert C. Tanehill, Dying and Rising with Christ: A Study in Pauline Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2006), 38-39.
In this chapter, which lies at the rhetorical and theological center of the gospel of John, we have yet another conversation of Jesus with a couple of women, two sisters, Mary and Martha.
We also have an example of the use of rhetoric to convey theological meaning.
Placement of John 11 in the layout of the Gospel
John 11 is located precisely at the center of the Gospel: 10 chapters precede it and 10 chapters follow it.
The centrality of this chapter in relationship to the whole document has been recognized by many scholars, though almost all of them pair it with John 10. David Barr’s outline, in his book New Testament Story,1 is a typical example:
Testimony to the true identity of Jesus……………………………………………………1
The glory of God revealed in signs………………………………………………2-4
The union of Jesus with God in action…………………………………5-10
The ultimate sign……………………………………………..11-12
The union of Jesus with God in Word…………………………….….13-17
Jesus is glorified in his death…………………………………………………18-20
Testimony of the community to the truth………………………………………………..21
Barr says that the underlying theme of the action in John 1-12 is the descent of the Word into the world (1:9). Jesus’ ministry is public and the main topics are life and light, appearing 82 times as opposed to only 6 times afterwards.
In John 13-17 Jesus’ ministry shifts from the crowds to the disciples. There are no more signs and the topic is love (31 times, but only 6 times earlier). Jesus is now oriented towards the Father (13:1). Barr thinks that there is a connection between the form or John’s narrative and the basic Johannine worldview, namely, a dualism, a going out from the Father (John 1-12) and a return to the Father (John 13-20), a coming down and a going up.
The raising of Lazarus in John 11 stands as a hinge between Jesus’ public ministry and his private ministry to the disciples. It represents a climax to Jesus’ earlier actions (this is the ultimate sign, the last in a series of 7) and a foreshadowing of his own death and resurrection. It is also a moment of profound irony because the one who is the resurrection and the life, the light of the world, starts to walk the path of self-renunciation that will ultimately lead him through the narrow and dark alleys of death. But at the same time, Lazarus’ raising foreshadows Jesus’ own resurrection and glorification.
Relationship between text and praxis
One of the reasons why the Gospels were written was to motivate the believers to the imitatio Jesu (the imitation of Christ). I am convinced that discipleship is better exemplified by Jesus than it is by the disciples themselves.2 Thus, Jesus’ paradoxical living is an example of the believers’ paradoxical existence.
If John 11 falls at the center of the gospel, and if there is any relationship between form and message, between rhetoric and theology, between the social and the literary, then this strategic positioning should have some theological implications. It might be saying something about the community’s reality. If the blind man of John 9 symbolizes the community in its cultural and religious estrangement from the synagogue, then Lazarus, which means “God helps,” could also represent the Johannine community which had been relegated by the religious authorities to the grave of cultural marginalization, a dead body without access to participation in the body politic.
Lazarus’ resuscitation, then, stands for the community’s daring affirmation that it is belief in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, the Logos of God, that enables them to claim their right to abundant life, that is, to full participation in the life of God’s reign. Therefore, the center of the gospel speaks of the belief of the community that despite their predicament they can still find true life and real liberation in their communion with Jesus, the true vine.
Placement of Martha’s confession in the layout of John 11
John 11 has a center of its own, with a related theological implication.
John 11 has 57 verses, but the story is told in verses 1-54. Verse 55 starts a new section that serves as an introduction to Mary’s anointing in John 12. This new section is marked by the catchword Passover in 11:55 and 12:1 linking both chapters. Its rhetorical center lies at verse 27.
And what do we find there? Martha’s confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, which is precisely the purpose of the gospel as expressed in 20:31. Therefore, this is not only the center of John 11, but also the rhetorical and theological center of the entire gospel. It constitutes its main theological statement and it is verbalized by a woman!
In John 1 we have a similar confession, though not as developed as Martha’s, put in the lips of Nathanael, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (verse 49) to which Jesus replies, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these” (verse 50). This belief in Jesus as Messiah and Son of God is placed at the beginning, middle, and end of the gospel, which bespeaks of a strategic rhetorical positioning that is meant to convey meaning by its mere presence.
Implications for preaching
Oppressed and marginalized communities find that their commitment to a life of discipleship will give them the hope that mainline society denies them. In their struggles to gain recognition as equal human beings, African Americans, Latinas/os, Asians, Native Americans, LGBT communities, immigrants, and refugees, etc., proclaim with their lives the power of the resurrection giving new life to culturally dead bodies.
Despite the gospel’s general tendency to use the words of those who engage Jesus in conversation as foils to Jesus’ own words, to make clear that only his words should be listened to, still on several occasions his interlocutors make important theological points. When that happens, it is usually women (the Samaritan woman in John 4, Mary and Martha in John 11). As a matter of fact, women make more and better theological statements in the Gospel of John than their male counterparts. How could this information affect your preaching when using John as a text? How would that help bring about the equality women in the church are still fighting for?
Jesus’ death and resurrection are anticipated in the narrative by Lazarus’ death and raising. His prophetic praxis leading to death is foreshadowed in Mary’s anointing in John 12. Therefore, we see Jesus as part of a community of faith who teaches him, through word and symbolic action, the fate of discipleship, something he is about to experience in Jerusalem.
1 David Barr’s New Testament Story. Wadsworth, 2002.
2 See here my book Jesus, Disciple of the Kingdom: Mark’s Christology for a Community in Crisis. Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications, 2014.