Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)

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.

April 10, 2011

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Commentary on John 11:1-45

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.