Mar. 29, 2020

FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT, 2020

AS IN THE DAYS OF LAZARUS

Readings: 1st- Ezek. 37:12-14; 2nd- Rom. 8:8-11; Gospel- Jn. 11:1-45

We can look at several parallels in today’s readings: death vs resurrection; despair vs hope; fear vs confidence; physical life vs divine presence; natural vs miraculous; darkness vs light; doubt vs belief. The first reading from the Prophet Ezekiel begins by recapitulating the experience of the Israelites in Babylonian exile. Ezekiel, known to be a tough prophet, encourages his audience in hope. He pictures Israel as being in their graves (hopelessness) from where God will deliver them. Ironically, the people exiled (fear) because of their sins (despair) still experience God’s love while in exile (divine presence). God’s plan for Israel remains unchangeable, “I will open your graves, and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and have you rise up from them” (37:12). This seems to set the stage for the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead in the gospel. Christians are invited to manifest hope in God despite seemingly impossible situations. 

We might need to ask what is it that makes Lazarus’ story such a popular one in the Scriptures?

  1. Lazarus’ case represents human freedom threatened by insurmountable difficulty.
  2. It points to human vulnerability in the absence of Jesus. 
  3. It directs us to the transcendental truth that miracles contradict the laws of nature.
  4. It challenges believers to exhibit faith in the most abnormal circumstances.
  5. It foreshadows the resurrection of Christ.
  6. The story depicts Christ’s victory over death.

The shock started with the reaction of Jesus on hearing about Lazarus’ serious illness. Jesus, as we know could be chill during what would look like human emergencies. He seemed uninvolved at the disciples’ experience of the storm. He was chill at the sight of the man born blind. Now he is chill at a very troubling news of Lazarus’ imminent death, goes on ministering till Lazarus eventually died. Martha and Mary sent a clear message expecting he would hasten to visit because of their close relationship with him, “Master, the one you love is ill.” They knew that by his divine powers, Jesus could prevent Lazarus from dying if he had come and each repeated before him, “Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus wanted to reinforce the intended goal for such seeming calamity, “for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” The lesson might be confusing for us but Jesus puts it this way, “And who of you by being worried can add a single hour to his life?” (Matt. 6:27). 

This aspect of Jesus’ life would always baffle the disciples. In the case of Lazarus, it was an opportunity of faith awakening; Jesus is the resurrection and the life. The disciples thought that if Lazarus was asleep, no need to help him wake up. He would have to work out his own salvation, they thought. Hence, Jesus made it clear to them that Lazarus had died, “And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe.” Could he be referring to his own resurrection? Could he be prophesying here, what Thomas would do when the Son of Man rose from the dead? Isn’t faith supposed to believe before physical evidence? In this event, it was the same Thomas that spoke on behalf of the other disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”

Each step that Jesus took in this passage formed the building block of a great revelation which Lazarus’ death pointed to. Yes, raising Lazarus from death was at stake but Jesus’ resurrection was the real deal, "The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise" (Matt. 9:31). Jesus was not afraid of the Jews who were planning to stone him. He was not afraid to go back to Judea. His mission was to free Lazarus and the entire humanity from the captivity of death.  

The news of Jesus’ arrival at the house of Martha and Mary made a difference. Martha stepped out to meet him. Like most Pharisees, Martha believed in the resurrection even though she seemed disappointed that Jesus had not responded promptly. Still, Martha believed in the power of God and said to Jesus, “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Martha’s faith made her a primary beneficiary of the good news of Jesus’ mission and identity. Jesus said to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Jesus needed Martha to profess this faith albeit her brother’s physical death. Unlike Thomas who would want to see before believing, Jesus asked Martha, “Do you believe?” and she said, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” Martha teaches us a great lesson here: our faith must be alive irrespective of the circumstance. She didn’t let grief take away her confidence in Christ. 

Jesus identified with Mary and Martha in an emotional way. He wept. Jesus wept at the miserable condition which death had brought them. He wept that the tomb covered the beauty of life which God gratuitously gave to humanity. Jesus wept at the helplessness of the weeping crowd in the house of Martha and Mary. But Jesus thanked the Father for hearing him on our behalf, for freeing us from the shackles of the physical death of which Lazarus became a victim. Jesus gave us reason to hope when he spoke to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?“  We must believe to see the glory of God at work.

Saint Paul reminds us in the second reading that if Christ is in us, the body might be dead because of sin but the spirit never dies. God cares for us so much that he has given us Christ. In today’s world held captive by the COVID-19, aren’t we like the old Israelites scrambling in their graves? Aren’t we like the disciples unable to differentiate sleep from death? Aren’t we like the disciples lacking understanding of our situation? Aren’t we like Thomas nervous and confused? Aren’t we like the crowd wailing helplessly in the house? Aren’t we like Martha and Mary feeling desperate at the absence of the Master? Aren’t we like Lazarus completely covered by the weight of the tomb and filled with stenches? But Jesus is here. He weeps with us. He knows how much the Father cares for us. He has the power to untie the burdens on our shoulders. Like in the days of Lazarus, Jesus intercedes for us. He reminds us, “the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit dwelling in you” (Rom. 8:11). Let us reenkindle our hope in Christ. Let us resurrect our faith like Martha and Mary. Let us beseech Jesus to be present, to dispel the powers of darkness, sin, and death in our world. Yes, Lazarus’ death was a negative thing but it brought everyone to life through Jesus Christ, “Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him” (Jn. 11:45). As in the days of Lazarus, so shall it be in our time.