Lectionary Commentaries for March 26, 2023
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Commentary on John 11:1-45
Jennifer Garcia Bashaw
Commentary on Ezekiel 37:1-14
Ezekiel 37 is probably the most well-known passage from this prophetic book. Inevitably, when I tell people of faith that I am writing about Ezekiel, they mention the valley of dry bones. So, the imagery may be familiar to many congregants—perhaps because of songs like “Dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones”—but the historical context for this vision may be lacking.
Prioritize situating this vision within its historical context before moving to our Lenten context.
My personal connection to this passage goes back to college, when, as a naïve but earnest ministerial student, I preached my first sermon ever in a rural Alabama church on Ezekiel 37. I don’t have a copy of that sermon, and I don’t remember many details. But I remember doing my exegetical homework on the biblical passage at my college’s library and preaching about exile and national restoration. I didn’t connect the passage to individual resurrection or to Jesus, leading to an evaluative remark from one congregant afterward. He said, “I’ve never heard that story preached that way before.” I wasn’t sure if it was a compliment! But I did learn at an early age that these churchgoers were reading the Bible differently than my commentary writers.
It may be that people in the pews also think in terms of individual resurrection when hearing this passage; it is a prevalent reading based, of course, on the Christian and Jewish traditions, which have frequently understood the issue present to be one of literal resurrection. So the preacher needs to lean into a communal understanding. Verse 11 in this passage clarifies that the bones are “the whole house of Israel.” Consider whether resurrection—in the sense of individuals rising from the dead—is the appropriate word for a Lenten sermon and this passage.
During the season of Lent, we will profit by grounding this prophetic visionary experience in Israel’s exilic moment. God’s people have lost their most cherished theological realities: the land, the temple, and the monarchy. They find themselves amid a theological crisis. The anchors for their relationship with God have been upended. Their traditional theologies—based on God’s covenants with Moses and David—are failing. Zion is no longer the home for God and God’s people. This new experience of exile calls forth a new reconceptualization of God and God’s dealings with the people.
How could God allow such a disaster to occur? Where is God during this devastation and loss?
The first half of the book of Ezekiel contains one answer to these questions. The prophetic oracles and visions and sign-acts explain that the people are rebellious and at fault. Their disobedience has led to this unfortunate moment.
Yet, in the book’s second half, the prophet turns to consolation and oracles of promise. Ezekiel’s vision of a valley of dry bones is one of these places of promise within the book. The prophet is brought to a valley, a low place filled with bones. In this vision, these dry bones represent the people in exile (verse 11). They feel like dry, hopeless, weary people in a foreign land. But God does not leave them as dry bones!
God breathes into these bones, covers them with skin, and places flesh on them. God revives them, and they become alive again.
The vision serves as a promise to God’s people that they will be restored. God will take the dry bones and create a new future—a future with God’s spirit within, a future in the land of Israel (verse 14).
At this point, the preacher can pivot to our contemporary Lenten season. The themes of loss and renewal are fruitful areas to explore. We have all experienced life as a valley, a hopeless and destitute reality. Hardship and trouble are not unknown concepts to God’s faithful people. Our Lenten emphases concerning repentance, sin, and the cross may be mentioned to create a fuller picture.
The faithful life is not without its serious challenges.
For those of us with privilege, we do not want to overestimate our sorrow either. As a White Christian American, I am not persecuted by my government or society. We must be careful that we don’t always see ourselves in the role of exile, especially when we may need to look at ourselves as the oppressor who contributes to others’ exile.
The prophetic vision intervenes in this depressing situation with good news: God brings life from death. God restores the broken!
God does not leave us where we are.
God is present with us in the struggle. The Psalmist reminds us: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).
Ezekiel’s vivid vision of transformation provides hope in the middle of a complex and painful calamity. Dry bones are not the last word.
Commentary on Psalm 130
Psalm 130 is the eleventh of the fifteen Songs of Ascents in Book Five of the Psalter (Psalms 120-134).1
These psalms are most likely songs that ancient Israelite pilgrims sang as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate a number of annual religious festivals, including Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Jerusalem sits on a hill; so no matter where one comes from, one “goes up” to Jerusalem. Imagine traveling from your village home, meeting up with others, joyously anticipating the festive time that you would celebrate together in the city of God. And you, the travelers, would perhaps sing as you went along: well-loved, well-known traditional songs. And as one group met another, they mingled their voices and sang together.
A variety of psalm “types” occur in the Songs of Ascents: individual and community laments (Psalms 120, 123, 126, 130); individual hymns of thanksgiving (Psalms 121, 122, 131); community hymns (Psalms 124, 125,129, 134); wisdom psalms (Psalms 127,128, 133); and a royal psalm—about the person of the king (Psalm 132). The diversity within this collection has led some scholars to question its cohesion. If we understand the collection, though, as the mingled voices of pilgrims coming from all sorts of situations in life, its diversity is not hard to understand. Some travel with burdens that cry out for lamenting; others with stories of deliverance by God; others marveling at God’s goodness, wisdom, and provision.
Psalm 130 is a lament, specifically an individual lament, words spoken to God by an individual worshipper (pilgrim?). In verses 1-2, the lamenter addresses God directly, asking (petitioning) God to “hear” and “be attentive.” In verses 3-4, the lamenter expresses confidence that God will indeed “hear” and “be attentive,” because God does not “mark iniquities” and offers “forgiveness.” The word “iniquities” (‘avonoth) occurs over 200 times in the Old Testament and is the primary word used to describe human sin and guilt in the prophetic writings. The root meaning of the word is “to bend, curve, turn aside, or twist,” thus providing a concrete image for a definition of “iniquity” as “an act, or mistake, which is not right or unjust.” God provides forgiveness, and so, God is to “be revered” (NRSV). The Hebrew root of “revered” is yara’. A number of translations render the word as “feared” (KJV, NASB, NLT). “Fear” is a good translation of the word. But in today’s culture, the idea of fear is usually connected with the basic human instincts to run, defend, or retaliate. The Hebrew root yirah encompasses a larger meaning of “awe, reverent respect, honor.” It appears in the Hebrew Bible as a synonym for “love” (‘ahab, Deuteronomy 10:12); “cling to” (dabaq, Deuteronomy 10:20); and “serve” (’abad, Deuteronomy 6:13; Joshua 24:14). At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will.
Verses 5-6 in Psalm 130 are a statement of hopeful expectation. The words “wait” and “watch” occur repeatedly. “Wait” is from the root qavah and conveys a sense of almost tense expectation, like pulling on two ends of a rope and waiting for it to snap. The psalmist waits, with more intense expectation “than those who watch for the morning.” Sentinels often stood guard on city walls, as did soldiers in camps during times of war, watching in the darkness for danger and waiting expectantly for the safety that daylight brought.
Thus far in Psalm 130, we have heard the voice of an individual singer, crying out to God, petitioning God, expressing confidence in God, and stating hopeful expectation of God’s presence. In verses 7-8, the psalmist turns attention to “Israel,”—in the context of the Songs of Ascents, perhaps to companion travelers. This singer has renewed confidence in God and calls on those traveling alongside to “hope.” The Hebrew word is yahal, which means “to wait expectantly.” The word is far less intense than the word translated “wait” in verses 5-6, but clearly ties the psalm singer’s statement to the admonition to “Israel” in verse 7. “Wait, expect, hope,” and in the end, God will deliver Israel from all of its “iniquities” [’avon], because, in the words of verse 3, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, LORD, who could stand.”
And so, once again, imagine it. Pilgrim travelers to Jerusalem; one village or family group meeting one another, exchanging greetings. The songs begin; first one voice, then another, and others join in. Many times a single voice breaks out in song—“Out of the depth I cry to you, O LORD . . . my soul waits for the LORD.” And that single voice invites all traveling companions to “hope”—expectantly hope as they approach Jerusalem together. For God, indeed, can redeem us from all of our “iniquities”—our twisted ideas of what is right and wrong, of what is just and unjust.
Psalm 130 is one of the seven penitential psalms in the Psalter (Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143), the Lenten liturgy of the medieval church. By order of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216), the psalms were to be prayed while kneeling each day of the Lenten season, or at least every Friday. The penitential psalms remind the reciter of the great divide between the goodness of God and the iniquity of humanity, but they also remind the reciter that “with God” is “steadfast love” and “redemption.” Martin Luther called Psalm 130 “a proper master and doctor of Scripture.”
- Commentary first published on this site on June 7, 2015.
Commentary on Romans 8:6-11
After a one-week break, the Fifth Sunday in Lent returns to the book of Romans. In Romans 8, we have been brought into the courtroom to await a verdict from the judge. But instead of hearing a word of judgment, we hear this declaration: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (8:1, English Standard Version). Yet, the lives of most people are filled with condemnation.
As the Bible makes clear, in our fractured world people are ready to condemn others for any perceived wrong (for example, Matthew 7:1-2; Romans 2:1); our own hearts can condemn us (1 John 3:20); and God’s first word to us, the Law, condemns us in our sins (for example, 2 Corinthians 3:9; Romans 3.9-20). But, miraculously, God’s second and final word, the Gospel, declares: because of Christ, no condemnation. As Paul explains in Romans 8, what the Law could not do—make us righteous—because of sin, God has done by sending Jesus into the world, so that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8:4).We are saved from condemnation by the Condemned One. But how, and in what way, does this freedom from condemnation take root in our lives now?
Flesh and spirit: two mindsets
In verses 6-8, Paul contrasts two mindsets or ways of thinking: one is set on the flesh, the other on the Spirit of God. The contrast is stark: one leads to death, the other to life and peace. The flesh, for Paul, is not merely our physical being, but is rather often depicted as a power that is hostile to God; when one lives life “in the flesh”—under its power—it is impossible to please God (Romans 8:8). This is life apart from God, a way of living and thinking that is directed toward and dominated by worldly concerns. As Paul makes clear in chapter 7, to be “of the flesh” means to be “sold under sin” (7:14); indeed, the flesh is not the site of even potential righteousness, for “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” Even the “desire to do what is right” is frustrated by the inability “to carry it out” (7:18). Flesh, sin, and death are inextricably tied together for Paul: thus, God condemns “sin in the flesh.”
A mindset directed toward the flesh is our default orientation in this world in which sin and death reign (Romans 5:14, 21), and it is a way of life that does not, cannot, “submit to God’s law” (8:6) or “please God” (8:8). Accordingly, condemnation and death follow. But the hope that Paul preaches is that in the Gospel we have been freed from this mindset and so set free from the Law’s condemnation. A new mindset is possible—and promised—because of the giving of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit, a mindset that leads to life and peace. Not an imagined life and peace, but one that takes root in our present lives. As Paul will explain, the Gospel cultivates the mindset of the Spirit in us, to shape how we live and act.
The power and promise of the Spirit
If Paul contrasts two possible mindsets, he calls us to inhabit the mindset of the Spirit as people in whom God’s Spirit dwells. If the Spirit dwells in you, you belong to Christ. For Paul, God’s Spirit is not a future possibility but is here now, bringing the life of the future into the present with hope for the future. The new life in Christ brings peace now—“to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace”—and resurrection hope. Although the “body is dead because of sin,” meaning the body is still mortal and will still receive death as “the wages of sin” (Romans 6:23), the Spirit of the risen Christ now dwells in you. If the Spirit of the resurrecting God lives in you, Paul says, you can have hope that he will give life to your “mortal bodies” through that same Spirit. Thus, if we live in a world filled with condemnation, in the Gospel God says: no condemnation. And if we live in bodies that are dead because of sin, in the Gospel God says: life. Because of the Spirit we belong to Christ, in whom we have life, righteousness, and hope.
In the Gospel, the Spirit invades our lives to unite us to Christ, in whom we are made righteous; to make our dead bodies the site of new life; and to give us hope for the future. Christians now have the possibility to live in a way that corresponds with the verdict of “no condemnation” that has been given to them, to set their minds on the Spirit instead of the flesh. Practically, we might ask: where and how do I need to remove myself from cycles of condemnation (for example, social media, news), change habits of speech, or how I relate to others? But most importantly, we take hope in the fact that the declarations of this passage belong to the work of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Through Scripture, worship, and prayer, we turn our ears to Christ to be rooted in the Gospel rather than trusting every condemning word of the world, our own hearts, even of the Law. God’s Word is stronger; to every word spoken against us, God says, “No condemnation,” now or ever. God’s absolution in Christ is new every day, every hour, to deliver us from condemnation and to set us right in the life of the Spirit.
The story of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus is a climactic one in the Gospel of John, in several aspects. First, it is an emotional and relational climax for Jesus. If you were to peruse the story for emotional and relational terms (which is good interpretive practice to do with any passage), you would find the following descriptions: “he whom you love” (the sisters write to Jesus in 11:3), “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” (11:5), “our friend” (Jesus says about Lazarus in 11:11), console/consoling (11:19 and 11:31), weeping (the Jews, Mary, and Jesus in 11:31-35, “[Jesus] was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (11:33), and “See, how he loved him!” (The Jews say of Jesus in 11:36). The whole passage is saturated with emotional responses and although such expression would not be uncommon in Jewish funeral practices, the fact that John uses the affective demonstrations from the beginning of the chapter (well before the scene at the tomb) is significant.
Thus far in the narrative, Jesus has been characterized in a more aloof way, affected only minimally by those around him (see, for example, 2:24—“Jesus would not entrust himself to them…”). But here, Jesus loves his dear friends, is deeply moved, and even weeps. There is arguably no other scene in the Gospels where Jesus is as relationally and emotionally connected to people as in John 11. As the story moves on from here, Jesus’ interactions with his disciples show increasingly more relationality and affection (specifically in the foot washing scene in chapter 13 and in Jesus’ farewell address). This chapter seems to serve as a catalyst for Jesus opening himself up more to humanity.
This passage represents another climax—it is a climactic moment for Jesus’ self-revelation. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus has uttered statements of divine self-identity (known as the “I am” statements) and these metaphors connect Jesus to the work of God in the world and solidify his unity with the Father. In Jesus’ conversation with Martha before his resuscitation1 of Lazarus, he declares that he is the resurrection and the life (the fifth metaphorical “I am” statement):
This “I am” statement is a watershed moment of self-identification for Jesus. It occurs at a midway point in the chapters that contain “I am” metaphors and it precedes a climactic confession and Jesus’ ultimate sign in John (see below). The concepts in the statement point backward and forward in the narrative: there is a reflection on the theme of life (already seen with Jesus as the “life” in the Prologue and with Jesus offering eternal life in 3:15-16; 6:47; 6:54, and 6:68) and a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection on the horizon.
In addition to the climactic emotion and identity claims, there is one more pinnacle in John 11—a climax of confession or belief. After Jesus and Martha converse about how Lazarus will rise again and Jesus replies, “I am the resurrection and the life,” he continues with, “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” Martha’s reply is the Christological confession that serves as the key to John’s narrative: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” The narrator of John tells us in 20:31, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. Although it is Peter who gives the Christological confession in the Synoptic Gospels, Martha provides the climax of confession here, using the Johannine vocabulary of belief. This detail should not be overlooked or swept to the side. That a woman is a model of belief in John points to the existence (and importance) of women disciples in early Christian communities.
As an astute reader of literature might expect, the climaxes in this story serve to initiate transition in the plot as well. The raising of Lazarus is a pivot point in John’s narrative, moving the reader (or original hearer) from the first section of John, often called the Book of Signs, to the second section, the Book of Glory. The pivot happens in two ways. First, the miracle at the tomb is Jesus’ last and seventh sign in a series that began with the water to wine sign in chapter two. Second, the talk of “glory” begins to amp up here. The first ten chapters of John contain a handful of references to God’s glory (1:14, 2:11, and 8:54). Chapter eleven begins with a significant reference to glory—“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” (11:4)—and John later provides a bookend with Jesus’ question to Martha, ““Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” After the raising of Lazarus, John focuses his language much more concertedly on Jesus’ glorification and God’s glory, a central theme for the Gospel. Chapter 12 alone has six mentions of glory/glorification, including a crucial verse explaining the trajectory of the rest of the Gospel: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23).