Jesus’ Friend Lazarus

The readings for Sunday, April 2, 2017, Fifth Sunday of Lent, Cycle A, are
Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romand 8:8-11; and John 11:1-45.
The third of the great Lenten Gospels for the instruction of catechumens before baptism is the resurrection of Lazarus. It is the last of the seven miracles of Jesus that John narrates. John does not use the ordinary terms used for Jesus’ miracles in the other Gospels. He calls them signs, because they are signs of Jesus’ identity. Last Sunday’s Gospel, the creation of sight for the man born blind, identified Jesus as prophet, Son of Man, light of the world and creator of light for humankind. The resurrection of Lazarus identifies Jesus again under various titles: Son of God, Lord, Messiah (Christ), Teacher, and most importantly, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  This last of the great signs of Jesus identifies him also as fully human. His deepest emotions are on display for all to see: troubled in spirt, groaning, sighing, weeping, all expressing human love.

On to the story: Jesus receives a message from his friends Martha and Mary of Bethany ( the eastern slope of the Mt. of Olives), that their brother, “he whom you love,” is ill.  John quickly  points out the sign value of this illness, in words attributed to Jesus, “This illness is not unto death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by means of it.”

Jesus shares with his disciples that his and their friend Lazarus “has fallen asleep, but I am going to wake him.” Characteristic of John’s style is to depict a not so bright response to a mysterious statement from Jesus. The disciples note that if this sick man is sleeping, he will recover. Then Jesus reveals that Lazarus has died.  Another strange statement follows, “For your sake I am glad, so that you may believe.” All seven signs of Jesus are intended to elicit faith from those who experience them by seeing them or hearing about them. Thomas Didymus, not the brightest light among them, but with a quick mouth, says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Here John uses Thomas as a predictor of what will happen to Jesus in Jerusalem because of this very miracle.  The one who moved the dead to life will be removed from life to death.

Jesus and Co. arrive in Bethany, where Lazarus has already been entombed four days. Many  friends from Jerusalem and the area had converged on Bethany. John needs a crowd of witnesses for this stupendous sign. The personalities of the two sisters, Martha and Mary, are quickly displayed. As in the Gospel of Luke, so here too, Martha is the mover, the doer, while Mary is the sitter. Martha goes to meet the approaching Jesus. John constructs an important instructional dialogue between Jesus and Martha. First she seems to reproach him for not having been there and cured her brother. Then she professes her faith in Jesus’ closeness to God, that whatever he asks of God will be granted — the power of intercession.  Jesus assures her that Lazarus will rise again. She thinks he means the final resurrection of all humankind.

Key catechetical statements on the Christian teaching of resurrection of the dead now follow: “I am the resurrection (the one who causes resurrection and restoration) and the life.” Then the necessity of faith, “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” Jesus asks as one would ask a catechumen, “Do you believe this?” To Martha John gives the primary profession of faith granted to Simon Peter in the other Gospels, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah (Christ), the Son of God, the one who is coming into this world.” Martha’s sister Mary, who had been sitting in the house, finally arrives.  Everyone there is now weeping, crying, sighing, moaning, wailing, and John describes a beautifully human Jesus, “He was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”  And, “Jesus wept.” He asks for the location of the tomb.

An interesting but brief dialogue takes place, as Jesus tells them to roll back the stone from the entrance of the tomb carved into the side of a hill. Martha cautions, “Lord, by this time he stinks, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus prays to his Father, a prayer in which John assures his readers and hearers that Jesus’ influence with his Father is absolute. Jesus roars, “Lazarus, come on out!” Jesus said to them, “Unbind him and let him go!”  The catechumens under instruction and all of us sinners have faith in Jesus calling us out of sin now and out of death in the future. As the Gospel closes, John adds the purpose of this sign and all seven of the great signs included in his Gospel, “Many therefore who had come along… , and had seen what he did, believed in him.