Lectionary Commentaries for April 10, 2011
Fifth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 11:1-45

Meda Stamper

This is the fourth in a series of encounters with Jesus in the book of John this Lent and offers us another long, beautifully developed text for preaching.

The Lenten journey, which has taken us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death on the fourth Sunday, now leads us to the dry bones of Ezekiel 37:1-14 and the tomb of Lazarus and the gift of life out of death.

Although the story climaxes with the raising of Lazarus, it is also the story of his sisters, Martha and Mary, and their experience of grief and absence.  Jesus does not immediately come when they call, and they both tell him that their brother would be alive if he had not delayed.  So it is as much a story of lament initially, as it will be ultimately a story of resurrection and life.

It is also a story about love.  The Bethany family, along with the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” of the second half of the Gospel, are the only individuals in John whom Jesus is specifically said to love (11:5).  Jesus loves “his own” (13:1, 34), and the Son loves the Father (14:31), and Jesus loves Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.  So this story is also about that — what it means to be in relationship with Jesus, what it means to love him and be loved by him.

Love is linked inextricably to death in John (“No one has greater love than this… .” 15:13; “For God so loved…” 3:16), and that is also true in the story of this family.  Their relationship with Jesus does not mean that bad things do not happen.  He does not prevent Lazarus from dying.  But he is ultimately present to them, and God is glorified even in something that feels initially un-redeemably painful, and this beloved family is part of God’s glory.

Martha and Mary also appear in Luke 10:38-42 but with no mention of their brother Lazarus.  In John’s narrative, they appear again at the opening of the next chapter when they give a dinner for Jesus at which Martha serves, Lazarus is alive and well and at table with Jesus, and Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume and wipes them with her hair in an act of extravagant love, which Jesus identifies as preparation for his burial.  The family is identified in 11:2 with a reference to Mary’s act.  (Note that in John it is this Mary who anoints Jesus’ feet, not Mary Magdalene, who is from Galilee and is never said to perform the anointing in any Gospel.)

The narrative begins with Jesus in retreat across the Jordan after the second attempt to stone him in Jerusalem at the end of John 10.  When he tells his disciples that they are returning to Judea, they object on the basis of the danger to him.  One of the misunderstandings typical of Johannine dialogues ensues with Jesus saying that he will awaken Lazarus and the disciples protesting that if he is asleep, he will be all right.  The reference to walking during the day in the light of this world is reminiscent of last week’s passage in which Jesus says that they must work the works of the one who sent him while it is day and Jesus, the light of the world, is present. 

The next scene occurs near the village of Bethany as Jesus approaches.  Martha comes out to greet Jesus and immediately laments his having delayed in coming because she knows that he could have saved her brother’s life.  Their conversation culminates in one of Jesus’ most supremely comforting “I am” statements.  It isn’t that her brother will rise again in the resurrection on the last day, a belief common among first-century Jews, but that Martha is, in fact, face to face with and beloved by the one who is in himself the embodiment of life.  Martha responds with a confession of faith, which is sometimes considered John’s equivalent to the Synoptic confession of Peter at Caesarea Philippi (but see also Peter’s statement in John 6:68-69).   

In the next scene Martha has returned to the house to fetch her sister, who goes out quickly and meets Jesus in the place where he has met Martha.  Mary falls at his feet, which is, interestingly, where we see her in the Luke story and also where she will be at the opening of John 12:1-8, which itself prefigures the foot washing in 13:5 when Jesus will be at the feet of those he loves.

Mary’s lament echoes Martha’s but with no accompanying qualification about Jesus’ power, even then, to help.  Mary does not reason; she just weeps.  Jesus, who will soon also weep, is said to be greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.  The first of these verbs may include an element of anger or indignation. 

The second verb is used again when Jesus’ soul is troubled at the arrival of his hour in 12:27 and then in 13:21 to describe Jesus’ spirit as he announces that he will be betrayed by one of his own.  Jesus then uses it in 14:1 and 27 when he tells the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled at his departure.  The two verbs combine here to describe the deepest sort of human emotion.  Even the one who is himself the resurrection and the life is deeply unsettled by human grief and death.

In the final scene the sisters lead Jesus to the tomb and, after voicing sensible concerns, which reveal that they cannot conceive of what is about to happen, they remove the stone, and Jesus calls Lazarus, and, of course, Lazarus comes out.

What happens next, although it is not included in the lectionary text, is essential for understanding the passage.  Although some of the bystanders believe, others go and report Jesus to the authorities, and it is on this basis, that they decide definitively to put him to death.  The immediate way to the cross and Jesus’ own tomb starts here where Jesus is most impossibly, lovingly life-giving.  They will plan to kill Lazarus too once the word about him gets out (12:10-11).

Being in relationship with Jesus means facing death and grief with him and learning that still, in spite of the death and the dryness and the finality of the door at the entrance to the tomb of our hopes, he can still be said to be life.  Nothing is ever so dead that it keeps him from being that in himself and for us.  And in John that life is not only a future hope.  Abundant life is always ever now.

As we approach Holy Week, having Jesus at our tombs also means that we must follow him to his.  We must endure the silence of his Saturday even as we endure the silences of our own.  But we endure them knowing already that Sunday will surely come, that when we are walking in the garden of our grief, we will meet him again.


First Reading

Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14

David G. Garber, Jr.

Our culture seems obsessed with death imagery.

From crime investigation television shows like CSI and the aptly named Bones, to the revitalization of classic works of literature into ghoulish parodies such as Pride and Prejudice with Zombies, figures of death crowd the popular cultural landscape. If we turn our attention away from mere entertainment to media coverage of disease, poverty, natural disaster, and war, the obsession only amplifies. 

Perhaps death and our fascination with it is simply a result of the human condition, as Ecclesiastes suggests: “Moreover, the hearts of all are full of evil; madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead” (Ecclesiastes 9:3). Or perhaps we are pursuing the ancient quest to conquer death chronicled in stories as ancient as Gilgamesh and as new as Battlestar Galactica.

The book of Ezekiel tells some of the most macabre tales in the Bible. Yet, when people mention the prophet Ezekiel these days, we may only think of Samuel L. Jackson wildly paraphrasing the book in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (often before a cold-blooded killing) or television documentaries “reporting” references to aliens in the Bible. In Christian circles, however, the name Ezekiel almost universally invokes the story of a valley filled with dry bones that is the reading for the fifth Sunday in Lent (Ezekiel 37:1-14).

It is no wonder that the Christian tradition often reduces the book of Ezekiel to this one magnificent text, given the strange, violent, incomprehensible, and even offensive nature of much of the book (see Ezekiel 16 and 23). It is much more palatable to reach for the hope of resurrection that one finds in Ezekiel 37–or perhaps the lush picture of new creation in Ezekiel 47–than to dare confront some of the book’s darker imagery. Ezekiel’s audience members misunderstood his melodramatic ranting as much as we do. In an exasperated response to God, the prophet himself laments: “Ah, Lord GOD! They say of me: He is just a riddlemonger” (Ezekiel 21:5 JPS).

God actually begins Ezekiel 37 by presenting a riddle to the prophet: “Mortal, can these bones live?” (Ezekiel 37:3) Surveying the valley filled with dried, brittle bones, the prophet meekly responds with an exasperated, “O Lord GOD, only You know.” We cannot fully comprehend the magnificent hope in the latter verses of this passage without some attention to why Ezekiel’s response is so resigned. Before we can watch the wind swirl the bones back together and marvel at the newly formed humans breathing the breath of life again, we have to ask a few questions. Why is the valley full of bones? What caused the visions of death that the community faced? What has brought Ezekiel to the point of near speechlessness and despair?

Because we so often do not read the rest of the book leading up to this grand scene, we have a myopic view of the prophet’s own desperation and the plight of the community to which this story attempts to give hope. We forget that Ezekiel himself was taken into exile in 597 BCE, that he heard reports of his religious institution being corrupted without the proper oversight of the priesthood, and that his status had been reduced from a prominent position as a future priest in Jerusalem to that of a temple-less priest in exile.  We forget the death of his wife and God’s command for him not to mourn her as an example for the exilic community not to mourn the loss of the Temple (24:16-24). 

More importantly, we forget the historical trauma that accompanied this exile. We forget that the Babylonians tortured the inhabitants of Jerusalem with siege warfare that lasted almost two years, leading to famine, disease, and despair (2 Kings 25:3). We forget how they destroyed the city of Jerusalem, razed the temple to the ground, killed many of its inhabitants, and forced the rest to migrate to Babylon. Over and over again, in the texts we refuse to read from the book of Ezekiel, the prophet offers imagery that testifies to and metaphorically represents the multiple traumas that the community faced under the realities of ancient Near Eastern warfare.

While many of us read Ezekiel 37 as a beautiful passage, it is also horrifying. It is horrifying because it calls the reader to remember, confront, and testify to the devastating events that led to the valley filled with dry bones in the first place. Its beauty, however, manifests itself with the possibility that even in this landscape full of death, a hope for renewed life remains. Ezekiel prophesies to the bones that soon reanimate, with newly formed sinews knitting the bones together as living flesh and skin envelop them (verse 8). In a scene that recalls the breath of God entering the first human in Genesis 2, the prophet then commands the four winds and the same breath of God enters the reanimated bodies that live once more (verse 10). 

The miracle of this vision does not simply lie in its theatricality. The true miracle is that it occurs after the community has faced such devastating loss. Yet, the familiarity of this text can tempt preachers and teachers to reduce the miraculous to cliché. We can often turn it into a promise for new life on individual and communal levels without taking seriously the situations and circumstances that have lead to the initial death. As is the temptation in every Lenten season, we might look forward so fervently to the reanimation of the bones that we rush forward to the glory of resurrection Sunday without considering the trauma of the preceding week. While celebrating the victory over death, we refuse to evaluate the systems, patterns, and consequences of our walk through the valley of its shadow.

If we are to teach and preach this text responsibly, we must pay attention to the boundary between life and death. We must at once recognize and bear witness to the despair of the world around us while also inspiring hope for a seemingly impossible future. Our task, like Ezekiel’s, is not an easy one. But if we are able to shed our cynicism and despair, if we are willing to discern and testify to the death that surrounds our communities, and if we are prepared to obey the charge to command the spirit of God to renew them, perhaps the Church can and will fulfill its role to inspire new life in the darkest valleys.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 130

Jerome Creach

Once while leading a study tour of the Middle East, my group visited the chapel of the Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem.

The attraction of the chapel was a set of stained-glass windows created by the artist Marc Chegal. The windows are set within a domed ceiling so as to direct the worshipper heavenward. As we gazed at the windows, however, a member of our group noticed another feature of the chapel. Directly below the windows the floor was sunken, and in the middle of the depressed area was a pulpit. Curious about this design, we asked about this architectural feature. The hospital representative explained, “The floor beneath the windows was made this way because we believe all prayer should be offered ‘out of the depths.'”

This explanation about the design of the chapel at the Hadassah hospital gave a nod, of course, to Psalm 130. This psalm is best known for its first line, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord” (verse 1). Because of this evocative opening Psalm 130 is often identified as the prototypical lament. It expresses both the key components of lament (complaint and petition) and the proper stance before God from which to pray.

The identification of authentic prayer offered “out of the depths” is instructive because it reminds us of the key role petition and complaint play in biblical prayer. Nevertheless, the church in North America today seems to have largely lost its appreciation for lament. The neglect of complaint and petition, lament’s characteristic features, has serious theological consequences. Walter Brueggemann identifies the problem with the current devaluation of lament as “the loss of genuine covenant interaction.”1

Lament is a form of speech that allows the worshipper to complain about injustice and to call on God to hear the cries of those who suffer, as did our biblical forbears. Because lament is offered to one in covenant relationship, however, lament also is praise, and a very important expression of praise at that. It gives evidence of faith worked out in the midst of hardship, hurt, and loss. Perhaps this is the reason the editors of the Psalter labeled the book “praises” even though it is dominated by the lament genre.

Psalm 130 also deserves attention for its detailed development and nuances of language. The psalm develops in four divisions. Verses 1 and 2 open the psalm with the most basic petition. After identifying the location “out of the depths,” the psalmist pleads, “Lord, hear my voice,”(verse 2). This cry to God carries an implicit statement of confidence and faith. The psalmist believes God is present in “the depths.” 

Verses 3 and 4 suggest the psalmist is in the depths of life because of his or her own sinfulness. But the psalmist makes no specific confession. There is not even an outright admission of guilt or transgression. Rather, the psalmist focuses on the character of God who forgives (verse 4). The psalmist refers to iniquities in order to declare that God does not count them, or else no one would be acceptable (verse 3). The preacher may find in this section, however, an opportunity to address the notion that all human beings live under the pall of sinfulness. Proper awareness of that fact is crucial to right prayer and right relationship to God. By not naming specific iniquities the psalmist gives no explicit opening to moralize or deal with petty matters. Instead, he or she points us to that most fundamental failure we share with the rest of the human race.

The final two portions of Psalm 130 contain complementary statements about waiting for and hoping in the Lord (verses 5-6, 7-8). Verses 5-6 are cast as the confession of the psalmist: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope” (verse 5). To wait in the sense mentioned here is to live expectantly, with awareness of how God has acted in the past and with keen anticipation of what God is about to do. Waiting is thus the opposite of despair and hopelessness. Verse 6 restates this waiting with a poignant metaphor. Waiting for the Lord is like the work of the anxious watchman on the city wall who, fearing the attack of an enemy, finds relief in the arrival of dawn. The certainty of the coming light makes clear that the waiting is not delusional or unrealistic. Such is the nature of the psalmist’s waiting for the Lord.

Verses 7 and 8 turn from personal confession to public charge: “O Israel, hope in the Lord” (verse 7a). The word “iniquities” appears here again, thus linking the psalmist’s recognition of sinfulness with Israel’s failures as God’s people. But in the call for Israel to hope in God two new words appear. The first is “steadfast love.”  This word for this in Hebrew is one of the most important theological words in the Psalms. It signifies God’s faithfulness to God’s promises, even when such faithfulness seems to be missing. The second word is “redeem.” This word speaks of God as a kinsman who buys a relative out of debt, slavery, or some such desperate circumstance. In this case, the promise is that God will purchase Israel out of the self-inflicted wounds of its own iniquity.

The psalm that follows Psalm 130 ends with the same charge to “hope in the Lord” (131:3). This may mean either that the two psalms were placed together because of the final charge or that the final charge was added (perhaps to Psalm 130) to draw them closer thematically. Regardless of how and why this pairing took place, it is worth noting that the prayer from the depths in Psalm 130 is modeled further in Psalm 131. Psalm 131 exemplifies the kind of humility and reliance on God called forth in Psalm 130.    


1 “The Costly Loss of Lament,” JSOT 36 (1986), 60.


Second Reading

Commentary on Romans 8:6-11

Margaret Aymer

Romans 8 is the pinnacle chapter in Paul’s most formidable epistle.

However, the verses of this morning’s proper are probably less well-known than the soaring climax of this chapter in verses 8:31ff. Instead, Romans 8:6-11 form a small part of a larger discourse Paul is having on the dichotomy between flesh and spirit. In order to preach this passage carefully, one must wrestle with Paul’s argument about flesh and spirit, as well as the treachery in taking the analogy Paul uses too far.

Paul discusses flesh in two ways. In the first, it is a relatively neutral descriptor for physical descent between ancestor and descendant. Thus, “according to the flesh,” Paul identifies Jesus as a descendant of David (1:3); himself and his Jewish compatriots as descendants of Abraham (4:1); and the messiah as a descendant of Israel (9:8). A preacher must note, then, that the flesh has its place in Pauline theology.

It is a marker of privilege, at least initially, for it stands as a means of determining those with whom God has made covenant and from whom God will bring forth the Messiah. At the same time, the honor due a particular blood line or family heritage is undercut by this passage. For, it is not by the flesh but by the spirit of Christ that the community of faith receives its life and peace. One task a preacher might take, then, in preaching this epistle is one that challenges a community’s assumptions about status or lack of status based on biology and family heritage.

For Paul’s argument here and in Romans overall is not that one’s family of descent matters, but rather that through Christ Jesus, God has created heirs of the Abrahamic covenant through the spirit and the promise of God rather than through the flesh. As a result, Paul regularly assigns to the flesh characteristics such as death, “enmity to God,” an incapacity to live under the law of God, and imperfection. Paul is clearly influenced, here, by the dualism of his age that considers the flesh to be imperfect because it is capable of deterioration.

The caution for today’s preachers is that such dualism can lead to an unconcern for bodily matters that can be harmful in communities that have significant physical needs for pastoral care and intervention (obesity, cancer, diabetes, AIDS, eating disorders, etc.). Preachers must weigh carefully the extent to which, in upholding Paul’s theology, they strengthen already unhealthy or detrimental attitudes toward the embodied people in their churches.

Nevertheless, while it is possible for the preaching of this text to become dangerously disembodied, the same text can be used to underscore the impact of the presence of Christ’s spirit upon a disparate group of previously unrelated human bodies. For, Paul argues, that, if the Spirit of Christ dwells in you, it has the power to change your mindset to one of life and peace, and even to enliven the fleshly part of your existence: your bodies. In fact, Paul steers clear from the purely Docetic (anti-flesh) argument, suggesting instead that, through the Spirit of God, even mortal bodies become life-filled. Later, he even argues that this inspiration by the Spirit of Christ turns unrelated bodies into kinfolk, family members of the household of God.

In Romans, Paul is using the metaphor of “flesh” to make a contrast between the way the world is and the way it should be for those in Christ Jesus. Throughout the letter, Paul is tackling a thorny issue: how one is brought into the covenant community of God as those who are heirs of the divine promises. In the world, this would happen through physical descent or, perhaps, through physical adoption. For Paul, it only happens through the spirit of God that, once it infuses a believer, changes mindsets and moves the believer from death to life. However, this is not done through a series of mortal bodies but rather through the divine work of God as God breathes life into those who believe in Christ Jesus.

One sees the evidence that God has done this work because a person, whether born Jewish or Gentile, has a spirit-inspired mindset, full of life and peace. For Paul, this marker is critical because it is not a marker having to do with ethnicity — that is, with descent “according to the flesh.” Paul does not argue that only those descended from a particular parent exhibit a spirit-inspired mindset. Quite the opposite: he argues that, despite human descent and fleshly failing, God is able to blow such a spirit-inspired mindset into anyone God may choose, Jew or Gentile.

Preachers of this text must, therefore, be careful to read it not as an ethically prescriptive text but rather as an anthropologically descriptive text, a metaphor for the act of salvation that only God is able to do. As such a metaphor, it is a powerful statement of the nature of the community of faith: that we are all spirit-infused mortal bodies, brought to life by the work of God through Christ Jesus. This same work makes us family to one another and members of God’s household.

Romans 8:6-11 must thus be understood as a text of affirmation, affirmation of what God has already done in the life of the believer and of the church as a whole through the incarnation and death of Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1-5). It stands as an affirmation of the changed status and mindset of the believer because of God’s action. While last week’s epistle created an ethical choice for the community of faith, in Romans we hear a word of assurance, a promise that the very thing we are unable to do, breathe life into ourselves — for, we are mortal — is that which the Spirit of Christ has already done in us. And echoing through this assertion of faith is the credo that ends Romans 8 and which undergirds all those who, through God’s intervention, are spirit-infused: nothing created can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.