JESUS IS LORD OF LIFE AND OF DEATH
Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45
The raising of Lazarus is the climax of the signs (miracles) which Jesus performed in John’s gospel. These miracles begin in chapter 2. Remember the words of Jesus: “I came that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). Jesus came to give life and we have seen him in the gospel episodes of the last two Sundays restoring people’s lives. The miracle of today’s gospels is the last that Jesus does in John’s Gospel.
In John’s gospel, the irony is found in the fact that Jesus’ GIFT OF LIFE leads to HIS OWN DEATH. It is the raising of Lazarus which leads directly to the decision of the Sanhedrin to kill Jesus (Jn 11:45-53). “So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. (Jn 11:53) The Jewish leaders even went further to plot the death of Lazarus also. “When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.” (Jn 12:9-11) It is the scheme to kill Jesus that we shall encounter throughout the Holy Week.
- THE SEQUENCE OF THE GOSPEL TEXTS OF THE LAST TWO SUNDAYS
There is a sequence that has been building up since the 3rd Sunday of Lent. Accordingly, on the 3rd Sunday, by means of the Samaritan woman, we were introduced to the theme of Jesus as “SAVIOUR OF THE WORLD”; “We know that this is truly the saviour of the world” (Jn 4:42). Last Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent, by means of the blind man, we were introduced to the theme of Jesus as “LIGHT OF THE WORLD”; “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn 9:5) He is the light that dispels the darkness of blindness. In Jesus, the blind world could see once more. Today, the 5th Sunday of Lent, we are introduced to the theme of THE RESURRECTION OF THE DEAD. This 5th Sunday of Lent is already pointing us towards Easter. It leads us to the celebration of the paschal mystery culminating in the feast of the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday.
The death and the raising of Lazarus does not happen by chance. It was all about the glory of God. When Jesus learns of his illness, he says: “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” It is an opportunity to manifest the glory of God. Next, when Mary protests about opening the tomb because the decomposing corpse would be smelling, Jesus responds: “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?” And when the stone was taken away, Jesus prayed in these words: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that you have sent me.”
- THE RAISING OF LAZARUS FROM THE DEAD
The raising of Lazarus does not happen immediately Jesus arrives at the scene. There is a sequence of events preceding it. The resurrection only comes at the tail end. The details that precede the raising are of great importance. There are important historical notes present in this narrative:
- a) The first detail is the twice-mention of “four days” in the narrative. The first instance is in John 11:17. When Jesus first arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for “four days”. As the narrative progressed, Mary said: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus reacts by saying: “Take away the stone.” But, Martha, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench;he has been dead for four days.”
- This mention of “four days” has great historical significance in the context of the Judaism of that period.A later Jewish text that cites an authority from the early third century A.D.: “Until three days [after death] the soul keeps on returning to the grave, thinking that it will go back [into the body]; but when it sees that the facial features have become disfigured, it departs and abandons it [the body]”. This “fourth day” shows that Lazarus was not simply in a state of coma, which would have meant that Jesus was doing what was within the reach of the medical science, a mere resuscitation. The “fourth day” means that something very extraordinary and quite dramatic needed to happen to bring Lazarus back to life.
- The first reading of today has relevance to the “fourth day” which signified complete annihilation of the dead. The prophet Ezekiel envisioned the nation of Israel as a wasteland of bones scattered across a desert valley on account of their exile in Babylon (Ezekiel 37). What is happening with Lazarus is seen as a fulfilment of the prophet’s Helpless and hopeless were exactly how Mary and Martha felt when their brother Lazarus died (John 11). He was now like dry bones. The people ask themselves, “Can these lifeless bones live again? Can the decomposing Lazarus live again?” And behold, they got the answer! With their own eyes they saw Lazarus, the dry bone, come back to life.
- For Jesus, the process of bringing dry bones to life was by no means easy in the light of some formidable ritual obstacles. According to the prevailing purity laws in fashion in the time of the New Testament, Jesus was faced with two ritual dangers the raising of Lazarus. He faced the danger of ritual pollution from the decaying corpse of Lazarus, and the women accompanying him. How? In the Judaism of the Old Testament, “Those who touch the corpse of any human being will be unclean for seven days.” (Numbers 19:11ff.) Those who did not cleanse themselves were to be severely punished. “Those who touch the corpse of a human being who dies and who fail to purify themselves defile the tabernacle of the LORD andthese persons shall be cut off from Israel.” (Numbers 19:13).
- We can see why the Jews were angry with Jesus, because what he did was worth excommunicating him. By ordering this tomb to be opened, according to Jewish law, he ritually endangered all those present, including himself. But for Jesus, this was not about the Jews and their laws. It was all about the glory of God. “This illness is not to end in death,but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
- The second ritual danger was ritual contamination from the women around. The contact between Jesus and Mary was potentially dangerous. But conformity with ritual norms is not the supreme function of the Messiah.JESUS IS SIMPLY NOT ABOUT RITUAL CORRECTNESS BUT ABOUT THE GLORY OF GOD.
- b) Secondly, by raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus manifests himself as TRUE GOD. It is interesting, the way St. John formulates it in his gospel: “Ego sum qui sum”(I am who I am)! The use of “I am” in the gospel of today reminds us of the self-revelation of Yahweh in the book of Exodus. There Yahweh revealed himself as the “I AM”. (Ex 3:14) And this is clearly the case in the use of “I am the resurrection and the life.” The raising of Lazarus culminates the moment of revelation of who Jesus is. It is the moment of “unveiling” the true identity of Jesus. Therefore, the ‘I AM’ of John is a pointer to the “I AM” of Yahweh in the Old Testament. Accordingly, Jesus reveals himself to the Jews as “I AM”:
- “I am” the bread of life (Jn 6:35 & 48)
- “I am” the light of the world. (Jn 8:12)
- “I am” he good shepherd. (Jn 10:110
- “I am” he Saviour of the world. (Jn 12:47)
- “I am” he resurrection and the life. (Jn 11:25)
- “I am” he way, truth and the life (Jn 14:6)
- “I am” he true vine (Jn 15:1)
- c) Through the raising of Lazarus to life, Jesus also manifests himself as TRUE MAN. Even though he is the “I AM,” he is also HUMAN. In the simplest language,“Jesus wept”. In this shortest verse of the bible, we are introduced to the humanity of Jesus. He is the Son of Man, the Word that became man. He was visible and tangible. He is not an imaginary God. He was very empathetic and compassionate. He feels for us and WITH US. He is involved in the affairs of the people. John writes that Jesus was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled” (John 11:33). Jesus wept with Mary and Martha, and then he raised Lazarus from the dead.
- THE MESSAGE FOR US TODAY
- a) Since the 3rdSunday of Lent (Year A), the Lenten readings show thesimplicity and ordinariness of Jesus. He is far from being a perfectionist. Although HE IS GOD, Jesus shows a remarkable flexibility in dealing with the ritually impaired persons in his Jewish society: the Samaritan woman, the blind man of last Sunday who was also a “do not touch” in the Judaism of the period; and today, he encounters Lazarus, who as a dead person, was a rich source of ritual contamination. He also encountered the women around him. With this approach, Jesus, our loving God, uses downgraded individuals to lead the world to divine truth. First of all, the SAMARITAN WOMAN was led to the revelation that “Jesus is Saviour”. Secondly, the “BLIND MAN” was led to concept of Jesus as the “Light of The World.” And thirdly, MARY AND MARTHA are led to the miracle of Lazarus and the revelation of Jesus as “The Resurrection and the life”. Again, there is still another degraded woman, Mary Magdalene, who will be key to the discovery of the empty tone on the Resurrection Morning!
- b) Lazarus’ resurrection teaches us that, like Martha and Mary, we should run to Jesus at all times that we find ourselves in a desperate situation. He is the only one who can give us that life. It also teaches us to pray for the dead. Lazarus was dead, buried and decomposed, but his sisters still call on the Lord to give him life. Let us not fall prey to the ‘evangelical protest’ that “there is no life in the grave”.
- c) Jesus did not come to prevent physical death. He delayed two days after being informed about Lazarus’ sickness. He allows his best friend to die. But that death of Lazarus leads unto to the manifestation of the glory of God. As believers, we do not die like dogs. We are assured of life after death. For us, who believe, there is no death. We have a rest; we have a sleep. That is why Jesus tells his listeners that Lazarus “only SLEEPING”. That is why we are able to say, “Eternal rest, grant unto him, O Lord!” We know that with the Lord, there is no death. We live on after death, because we trust in him. C.f. 2nd Reading: “He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (Rom 8:11)
- d) It is this resurrection of the body that we look forward to at Easter. At Easter, we celebrate the truth that Jesus Christ, the TRUE GOD and TRUE MAN, born in Bethlehem BY MARY, i) TRUELY DIED; ii) He was TRULY BURIED; and iii) He TRULY ROSE FROM THE DEAD.
“For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?” (Deut 4:7) Let us praise Him, amidst our fears and worries, for the marvels He does in our lives daily!