April 10, 2011 - Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today's Readings

The Gospel today is like a news story. There are so many little details that are mentioned. If the whole Gospel were like this, it would be hundreds of pages long. As St. John says at the end, if everything that Jesus did was written down, there would not be enough books in the world to contain it all. We can be thankful for the details that we are given today though.

We do not know Lazarus all that well, but we do know Mary and Martha from at least three other stories. Mary washed Jesus feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. She was also the woman who broke open a jar of perfume worth $15,000 and poured it all out on to Jesus. Martha was the one who was so busy with serving Jesus when he came to visit that she asked Jesus to tell Mary to get up and help her. It is also possible that Mary is Mary Magdalene, in which case we know other stories as well.

So going into this story we know that Mary was a serious sinner, probably a prostitute or mistress to a Roman politician from the way that the Pharisees acted. But she had repented. She loved Jesus and would do anything for him. She loved to sit at his feet and listen to him teach. Martha also loved Jesus. She showed it by serving him when he came to visit.

Lazarus, their brother, is ill. They send a message to Jesus, “Master, the one you love is ill.” Of course, Jesus loves everyone. What a wise prayer this is. When we are praying for someone, it is good to remember that, no matter how much we love them, God loves them more. When we pray for someone we should say to God, “Lord, the one you love needs something.”

Jesus loves Mary and Martha and Lazarus, and he stays for two days in the place where he was. The disciples seem to think that Jesus was afraid to go to heal Lazarus because he lived so close to Jerusalem and the Jews, the people who lived in Jerusalem, were trying to kill him. We know that Jesus was not afraid. No one could hurt him unless he allowed it. We also know that Jesus could have healed Lazarus from where he was. One word and the healing would have started. Instead, Jesus lets Lazarus die. He loved him, and he let him die. When God lets someone we love die, he is letting someone he loves die. We do not understand. We can only trust that God knows what he is doing; he knows how to run the universe better than we do.

When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha comes out to meet him and Mary stays home. Was this because Mary was mad at Jesus? It could be. She heard Jesus was coming, but it was too late, Lazarus had died. Here Martha shows that even when she was busy getting dinner on the table, she was listening to Jesus. She shows that she understands Jesus better than Mary. Even though both sisters say “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”, only Martha says, “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”

The next words are kind of humorous. Jesus tells Martha, “Your brother will rise.” It sounds like the sort of thing people say at funerals all the time. When we see someone who is mourning, we do not know what to say. We are helpless to help, so we have certain catchphrases: “I’m sorry for your loss.” “He was a good man” “Well, he is in heaven now.” Martha seems to think that Jesus is just saying something polite, so she accepts his condolences: “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus reminds her, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Here Jesus is saying one of those things that proves he was not just a nice teacher. “I am the resurrection and the life” is not something someone slips casually into conversation.

In this story we see how Jesus is both human and divine. Only God could say something like, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Only God could raise Lazarus from the dead. On the other hand, Jesus weeps. We do not know why Jesus weeps. Did he simply feel the sadness of death even though he knew that Lazarus would soon be walking around again? Perhaps he was just participating in sympathy with Martha and Mary. He wept because he saw them weeping and, even though he knew that they would soon be overjoyed, he wept with them.

Perhaps it was because of Mary’s anger toward him. She did not come right away and, when she did come, she did not demonstrate the faith of her sister. He wept because she who had been so completely converted felt betrayed by him. Mary had probably spent the last four days thinking of all the people Jesus healed, and he could not even come and heal her brother. When she saw him weeping, surely any anger she had went away.

Jesus goes to the tomb and orders the stone to be rolled away. Here we see that Martha still did not expect him to do anything for Lazarus. She seems to think that Jesus merely wants to see the body: “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” This image of her being concerned about practical things fits so well with the other story we have about her serving Jesus. Yet this practical side makes her faith so much more astonishing. She did not just say what she said because she thought that Jesus would raise her brother from the dead. This seems to not have even entered her mind. Her faith is completely present even in great sorrow.

While Jesus stands before the tomb, he prefaces his words to Lazarus with a prayer. We do not often get to hear Jesus pray, but his words here help explain that. When Jesus tells the lame man to get up and walk or heals the blind man or cures the mute man, a world of prayer lies behind the statement. Here he makes explicit what is always implicit: Jesus did not perform his healings by any power except the power of God. He lived a life totally in union with the Father and the Holy Spirit. St. Paul also raised someone from the dead. Many people have been raised from the dead since Lazarus’s time.

Raising someone from the dead is not just something that Jesus could do because he was God. It is something that God can do whenever he wants, and he will do it through us. There are dead people out there whom God wants us to raise. I mean this literally and figuratively, the physically dead and the spiritually dead. If we knew the will of God and knew that he hears us when we pray, we could raise the dead just like Jesus.