Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent Year “A”
10 April 2011, on John 11
The raising of Lazarus is the last and greatest of the seven signs of Jesus reported by St. John. Coming immediately before the account of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, it clearly in some ways foreshadows that. So we read it today to help us prepare for Holy Week and Easter. In the sign of the raising of Lazarus we see demonstrated the truth of the words of Jesus: that he has life in himself (1:4; 5:26); that he came to give life (10:10); that his life-giving power can overcome even death itself (5:25; 6:52,59; 12:24 etc.)
The Life Jesus came to give is one of the major themes of St. John’s Gospel. God loved the world so much, John says, that he gave his only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life (3:16). Or again: These things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name. (20:31). We could cite many other passages: the word “Life” occurs over 50 times in this Gospel.
Today’s Gospel is often quoted in funeral liturgies, for it points to our belief that Jesus will one day raise all of us from death. It’s also important for catechumens preparing for baptism at Easter. For we believe that eternal life with God in Christ is not something confined to the future. On the contrary: in baptism we already pass from death to life; from death in sin to life in God (cf. e.g. Rm 6:8; 2 Tm 2:11).
It’s typical of John to present these great truths in the form of a Drama. The whole account of the raising of Lazarus naturally lends itself to stage performance. And all the ingredients for gripping the attention of an audience are there. The highly dramatic miracle itself is carefully prepared for in a build up of anticipation. Its backdrop is an atmosphere of murderous tension: readiness to die on the one hand, and to kill on the other. The importance John gives this episode is shown not only by its position, at the turning point of his Gospel, but also by its sheer length: longer than any other Gospel scene, apart from the Passion narrative itself.
Here I want to highlight some of the oddities of the account.
Perhaps the first oddity to mention is the highly personal focus on the two sisters, Martha and Mary: on their reaction to the death of Lazarus, and their relationship with Jesus. It’s a marked contrast to what we might surely have expected: a great public discourse, as in the Synagogue at Capharnaum, carefully staged before an audience of very important people.
Then we might have expected the miracle to follow in some way the pattern set by Elijah. Like Jesus, Elijah needed to show that he had God’s authority behind him, and that his enemies were also in fact God’s enemies. Elijah called down fire from heaven on a sacrifice (1 Kings 18:38): that certainly persuaded the crowd, vindicated the prophet, and confounded the opposition. But, according to St. John’s account, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead much more for the sake of those who already believed than for those who did not. And far from persuading the Jewish authorities, his action directly caused their final determination to do away with him.
Then isn’t it odd how Lazarus himself is so largely left out of the account? All he has is a brief walk-on part, all muffled up in grave cloths. He says not a word, and we are told nothing whatever of his character or history: only that Jesus and his sisters loved him.
Then we have to face the fact that Jesus deliberately let his friend Lazarus die: he who restored the son of the Royal Official at a distance by a word (4:46ff). We might have been more ready to accept that, if we could see Jesus serenely in control of events: ready to come, happily wipe away every tear, and make everything well again. But John goes out of his way to underline how in some sense Jesus is not in control at all. Confronted by this death he could have prevented, Jesus seems to be overwhelmed by its horror. He was deeply troubled, says John twice. He wept openly.
In all these ways, and others too, John challenges our reactions, draws us into his drama, and offers his profound teaching for our reflection. He shows us here Jesus, the divine Person, doing what only God could do; but paradoxically at the same time he presents Jesus at his most human: a man we can all relate to personally. John helps us do that here above all through the two sisters whom Jesus loved.
The bafflement of Martha and Mary in face of Jesus’ refusal to heal their brother evokes what all of us face when confronted with pain, or sorrow or death. God could have prevented it. Why didn’t he? Jesus gives the answer, or at least the beginning of an answer, here. Because in this way, he says, more glory is given to God, and to the Son of God (11:4). At once we think of the Cross. There Jesus gave supreme glory to his Father, and was himself supremely glorified, not by wonderfully escaping it, but by even more wonderfully enduring it.
And this is our faith: that it is necessary for us to pass with Jesus through death to life; from alienation in sin, to the glory of the Sons of God. What Jesus does for us is the greatest possible good. It’s a greater thing for him to cure death itself than merely to cure disease. It is a better thing to reach into the depths of despair, and turn it into perfect joy, than to prevent anyone ever feeling sad. It is better for us to follow Jesus through suffering to glory, than as it were to have a cheap salvation handed to us on a plate.
The scene with Martha is a bit like the scene with the woman at the well in Chapter 4. Jesus gives a great revelatory saying - I am the Resurrection and the Life - but in the course of a private, even confidential conversation. He evokes a declaration of faith from her, though Martha has to give this without the benefit of full explanation, or the possibility of full understanding.
Then there’s the scene with Mary. Here Jesus gives no theological revelation: in fact he scarcely speaks at all. Instead there is simply the profound sharing of emotion, which the curious by-standers cannot understand or enter. In this way John invites us not merely to believe in a set of abstract truths, but to enter into a highly personal relationship with Jesus. This relationship must be founded on faith and trust, which can be given even without full understanding. It will blossom, if we let it, into close friendship: into a communion with Jesus of life and of love.
Fr Benedict Hardy OSB