Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)

It is significant that the story of Lazarus, unique to the Gospel of John, is the Gospel reading for the last Sunday in Lent,

March 9, 2008

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Commentary on John 11:1-45

It is significant that the story of Lazarus, unique to the Gospel of John, is the Gospel reading for the last Sunday in Lent,

the Sunday immediately preceding Palm/Passion Sunday. For the Synoptic Gospels, the cleansing of the temple is the impetus for the plot to kill Jesus (Mark 11:18; Luke 19:47-48). In the Gospel of John, the temple scene is moved to the beginning of the Gospel, immediately following the Wedding at Cana, and it is the raising of Lazarus to life that incites the plot for Jesus’ arrest and death (11:53, 57). In John 11:46-57, the chief priests and the Pharisees are told what Jesus did and “from that day on they planned to put him to death.” Moreover, the chief priests want to get rid of the evidence as well, and plan to put Lazarus to death “since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus” (12:9-11). It is Jesus’ very claim, “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25) that provokes his death in the Fourth Gospel. The repercussions of the raising of Lazarus are not included in the lectionary reading, or any time in the three-year lectionary cycle (12:1-11 only on Holy Monday), and should either be read or referenced in preaching on this text.

The raising of Lazarus is the last of Jesus’ “signs” in the Gospel of John. Chapter 12 functions as a bridge chapter before the narrative halts in time for Jesus’ last meal and words to his disciples (chapters 13-17). The actual raising of Lazarus is narrated in only two verses (11:43-44). The events, discussion, and details prior to the main event receive the bulk of the narrative space. Previously in the Gospel, Jesus performs a sign, which is typically followed by dialogue and a discourse by Jesus that interprets the sign (5:1-47; 9:1-10:21). Why does Jesus comment on the sign before actually raising Lazarus from the dead? On one level, it seems that what precedes the miracle is just as important. In other words, Jesus’ interpretation of the meaning of the sign is perhaps as, or more, critical than the sign itself. Why is the structure changed for this last sign and what does it suggest for the preaching on the raising of Lazarus? How do these details in the story leading up to Lazarus finally walking out of the tomb contribute to our understanding of the meaning of this sign?

This is not to say that the raising of Lazarus is not important. The narrative elements that set up Lazarus coming out of the tomb are significant. They contribute both to the narrative suspense and to the extraordinary final scene of Lazarus, dead man walking. We are told that the tomb was a cave and that there was a stone against it. Lazarus has been dead four days (see also 11:17). Since Jewish belief held that the soul left the body after three days, just in case we are wondering, Lazarus is really dead. And, he is going to smell. Jesus then pauses to pray and this prayer is more than demonstrative. Note what Jesus highlights in his prayer–hearing (11:41-42). Jesus thanks God for hearing him, and how is Lazarus raised? By hearing Jesus. Like the sheep that recognize the voice of the shepherd who calls them by name (10:3), Lazarus hears his name being called, he recognizes the voice of the shepherd, and the dead man comes out, because only the shepherd can lead his sheep out.

Again we should ask, why does Jesus need to talk about the raising of Lazarus prior to doing it? Is it because that the sign would be easily misunderstood, even by us? When we think about the raising of Lazarus, do we place our focus on “I am the resurrection” and not remember that Jesus also says “I am the life?” Indeed, this is exactly what Martha thinks. Notice her dialogue with Jesus in 11:21-27. When Jesus says to her, “your brother will rise again,” she hears only the promise of a future resurrection, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (11:24). And Jesus seems to correct this misunderstanding, “I am the resurrection and the life.” But Jesus, we might ask, what is the difference?

In fact, this is a question that has puzzled others as well. Other ancient manuscripts omit “and the life,” with the assumption that this phrase is a redundancy on the part of Jesus. Our first impressions may be the same. We tend to focus on the resurrection that we situate for ourselves as a distant promise, our guarantee of salvation, our eternal life with God and Jesus in heaven. But what might it mean that Jesus is the resurrection and the life? That we are raised to life, not as future salvific existence, but to life right now, right here, with Jesus? For Lazarus, the Gospel does not describe his future with Jesus, but his present. In chapter 12, the anointing of Jesus takes place at the home of Mary and Martha in Bethany. We are told that Martha served, Mary anoints Jesus, and Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead (12:1, 9, 17) “was one of those at the table with him.” The raising of Lazarus also gives him new life with Jesus. This new life is leaning on the breast of Jesus (13:23), reclining at the table with him, sharing food and fellowship (13:28). New life in Jesus is this intimacy, this closeness, this dwelling, lying on the chest of Jesus. It is here and now, because for the Gospel of John, it is not just the death of Jesus but the life of Jesus that brings about salvation. For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, through which “we have all received grace upon grace” (1:16).