When I was growing up in Jackson Heights, many of my friends and neighbors were from India. They were slightly older and certainly more mature than I was, and I tried to keep up with them. Yet sometimes I did not understand what they were saying. They constantly used words like bowler – which I thought was a hat – wicket – which I thought was a kind of small bush, and popping crease which totally mystified me. I finally realized that they lived and breathe that most inscrutable sport, Cricket, and these were all technical terms. After I read an article from Encyclopedia Britannica – for younger people, this is what we had before Wikipedia – I could at least navigate the conversation.
This is the case with today’s Gospel passage. Unless we realize that everyone speaking about the resurrection is a Pharisee we will be, at very least, very confused and possibly miss what Jesus is proclaiming.
Jesus assures Martha that Lazarus will rise. She tells him that she is a good Pharisee: “ I know that he will rise in the resurrection at the last day.” What did she mean?
Jews, like Christians, do not believe in immortality. Life after death is not built into us and it took time for even a minority of them to accept any form of life that continues beyond death. Indeed, Jewish belief in an afterlife began to develop only after the exile in the mid-400s BC and is not clearly formed until after 200 BC. Even then it was a minority opinion. They called it “resurrection” and saw it as a pure gift from God.
The reason why it is given is as important as the resurrection itself. There are many verses in Scripture like “ I believe I shall see the LORD’S goodness in the land of the living.* from the 27th Psalm. Even more famous is ” you set a table before me in front of my enemies;* You anoint my head with oil;* my cup overflows” from the 23rd Psalm. We could add a dozen more.
Yet how often is this true? We see the wicked prosper often in spectacular ways while many times the good and faithful live seemingly miserable lives. This was a problem for devout Jews. God has promised justice that would be known to all. How could this happen. The response of the Jews who eventually became the party of the Pharisees was to believe that the LORD will someday stop the world as it was presently known and “resurrect” all who ever lived. Then he would separate them into the just and the unjust. This was not primarily to reward or punish humans but to proclaim the justice of God. We tend to think of ourselves as the center of the universe, but God is, and we are made for him and his world. The vindication of his justice and mercy comes first and our happiness follows from it.
What Martha calls the last day is thus not the end of the world in the usual sense. She believes that at the last day of our current way of living all who ever lived will rise from their graves on earth and God’s justice will be revealed at that time. This is perhaps best expressed in the book of Job, “As for me, I know that my vindicator lives,*and that he will at last stand forth upon the dust.g26 This will happen when my skin has been stripped off, and from my flesh I will see God.”
We should certainly have a clearer experience of this today. The coronavirus may seem to effect people equally but why do movie and sports stars get tested before ER nurses? There will be stimulus packages, but like Katrina and Sandy will recovery money reach those who most need it? Punishment is unlikely for the guilty and unless there is a day of reckoning then how can we consider God all just and all powerful?
Jesus however is asking Martha, Mary and indeed all of us to go further, He tells 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” Simply stated the resurrection is thorough him and it is now. Martha says that Jesus is the Christ. But then notice what happens next. Jesus sees Mary and the other Jews weeping and he “became perturbed and deeply troubled.” He becomes perturbed again when he hears them ask if he could open the eyes of the man born blind why could he not save his friend?’ He is perturbed and troubled because they do not get it: Jesus can resuscitate the dead, but he can do so much more. He offers not a mere continuation of life at some future date but a new way of being human here and now.
Will we make use of it? Our Lenten program this year with our friends at Grace Church was on 4 short stories of Flannery O’Connor. They are peculiar to say the least, but perfect Lenten reading. They usually contain violence and are often grotesque because she believes that our daily lives too often become merely a pursuit of prestige and honors. With our Baptism we have been given new life, but it has become imprisoned in bad habits and conventions. A true experience of the presence of Jesus is essentially a jail break.
Aren’t we experiencing that now? Our regular day-to-day existence is being broken down and gives Jesus the opportunity to break into it. Although this new life will be fulfilled in heaven it begins in the here and now. How and where shall we show it? I think there are two areas.
This is a presidential election year and before the virus shut campaigning down it had become particularly vile. It will begin again but if Jesus has broken us out of our personal confinement to worldly expectations we will resist trivial pursuits. Seeking the common good is a sign that the bonds have been broken and we have been freed.
The fact that you are listing to this on-line is clear proof that the world has decisively changed. We can connect not only because there are new means to do so but also because there are parishioners to do it. We the clergy cannot implement this. We can have a connection with each other because of younger lay people. The longer this continues the clearer the call from Pope Francis will be heard that the Church is Jesus and no one class or caste can claim Him: He claims all of us. He is always first.
The new life that Jesus offers is not meant to be a fuzzy feeling inside of us but the way the world best experiences Jesus. If we recognize that we have received a new way of being a human being, then we should seek new ways of being a nation and being a church.