5th Sunday of Lent – Homily (Fr. Smith)

If we understand the raising of Lazarus as a great miracle, Jesus is angry with us and that is a good thing. I admit this may take some explaining.

First, geography, history and then an observation

Bethany was a town near Jerusalem, Jesus was most likely in Galilee. He is informed of Lazarus’ illness but knowing that it would take two days to get there nonetheless waits two days to go to Bethany. It is obvious that he wanted to arrive after Lazarus had died.

Middle eastern burial practices were dominated by hygiene concerns. They needed to get the body away from people as fast as possible. So, the body was washed and wrapped in burial clothes and then brought to the burial place, often a cave. A seven-day period of mourning followed during which the close relations stayed at home and friends and neighbors visited them. Jesus knew there would be a crowd when he reached Bethany.

Finally, John is very suspicious of miracles. He knew that Jesus did spectacular things but felt that they could be distracting for people who did not have faith. They would get caught up in the moment and not see the true reality. Many saw only that the man born blind could physically see not that we are all offered spiritual vision. Jesus’ mighty acts are signs that point to a deeper reality.

Now let us join Jesus as he enters Bethany.

He is met by Martha. Her greeting is ambiguous. Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (But) even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”

She wonders why Jesus took so much time to arrive, but her faith is great enough that she believes that he can still “work miracles”.

Jesus tries to guide her to a deeper reality “Your brother will rise.”

Good pharisaical Jew that she is acknowledged that he would rise “on the last day”.

That is in the future when all will come to life again and the good would be separated from the wicked.

This is pious but inadequate Jesus tells her “I am the resurrection and the life” He is at his moment the source of life and those who believe in him have a life, here and now, that can never be taken away. Belief means more than dotting I’s and crossing T’s but joining with Jesus. It is John’s way of describing conversion – turning one’s life over to Jesus.

Martha’s reaction is interesting. She acknowledges him as the Messiah and more than that but not fully who Jesus is and what he can offer.

Next, we see her sister Mary. She greets Jesus with the same words as Martha: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Note that she kneels at Jesus’ feet in homage and, unlike her sister, does not ask or even hint that she wants anything from him. This is a positive sign. Yet she does not maintain her focus on Jesus, but joins the crowd in weeping for Lazarus. They do not know what Jesus will do but they see it as an end in itself.

We are told that Jesus became “perturbed and deeply troubled”. The Greek might be better translated as, “he snorted”. Jesus himself then weeps, but not for dead Lazarus whom he will soon bring back to earthly life, but for his dearest friends, who still do not understand the life he wants to give them.

This Martha shows again by objecting to Jesus’ casting aside the stone for there would be a stench. Jesus’ response is simple: “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?”

He then calls Lazarus out and forward; he is still bound in his burial clothes. He is unwrapped and seems perfectly normal. This is the point. This is not a resurrection, but a resuscitation. He will die again. This is not the end – this is a sign which points to the true end: eternal life.

Because Jesus “is”, not “will be” the resurrection and the life, he offers this life, this new existence which John calls eternal life HERE AND NOW. That even his closest friends and disciples do not accept this makes him so angry that He snorts His disapproval. We are meant to stop in our tracks.

We cannot fathom the physiology of Jesus. It is beyond our comprehension. When John uses the language of emotion in his gospel, we should see them as signs pointing to a higher reality. Jesus’ love for us is so great that he will offer his life so that we can have a closer relationship with him.

He wants that to begin now. He wants us to “believe in him”, to know him and to experience joy now. This too is a sign. The joy that we experience in this life will point to its fullness in heaven.

It is amazing that Jesus is moved by emotions so powerful that he cannot put them into words: not when we commit sin, but when we refuse joy.