John 11:1-45, Fifth Sunday of Lent
This semester I teach the 3rd year theology students the Gospel according to John. Last week we reached chapter 11, the raising of Lazarus, and had a long discussion. So many questions popped up and puzzled the students. For example: Why did Jesus not go to see Lazarus when he was informed by Martha and Mary that his friend was seriously ill? For sure, the two sisters would not have sung the famous hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” – if they had known it.
Another question was asked: Why did Jesus wait two days more before he travelled to Bethany? Did he wanted to be sure that his friend was dead already?
Why is Jesus presented so human, weeping at the tomb of his friend?
Could he not have healed him when he was informed of his illness?
Why is this greatest miracle not mentioned in the other three Gospels?
Another question: Why did the evangelist stress that Lazarus was dead already four days and smelled already?
What happened to Lazarus after he came back to life?
These and many other questions were asked and make us aware that we take easily well-known biblical stories for granted.
The last question is answered in a commentary by the Jesuit Fr. Stanley Marrow who wrote: “He (Lazarus) comes on stage, plays his role, and walks out of history; and despite all the pious efforts to identify him or trace his subsequent fortunes, we know no more about him… Yet Christians…. are ever on the lookout for Lazarus’ later fate”
Another question: How could the dead man walk out of the tomb with, as the Gospel says, “his hands and feet tied with burial bands, and his face wrapped in a cloth”?
And why are the four days stressed? There was a Jewish belief that the spirit of the departed hovered around the tomb for three days, seeking entrance in the body again. But after four days, the spirit finally leaves. In other words: Lazarus was really dead, beyond hope of coming back to life.
And that brings us to the message of the whole story. John never uses the word miracle for what Jesus did. He uses the word “sign” to make us aware that the dramatic healings or raising a dead person to life are signs that point to a deeper meaning, point to one of the many truths who Jesus really is. And here Jesus makes us aware that he is the resurrection and the life!
There may be problems in this story; we may never know what exactly happened at Bethany so many years ago; but we do know for certain that Jesus is still the Resurrection and the Life. That is what this story tells us – and that is what really matters.
One student had also wondered and said: “Even at this late pointin his ministry, after three years of continually witnessing Christ’s miracles, his disciples still don’t understand him; they still don’t know their Lord. They still misconstrue his words – they think he’s talking about normal sleep when he is really talking about death. They still doubt his good sense and power – they try to dissuade him from returning to Jerusalem, where his enemies lurk. After all this time and experience, they just don’t get it.”
My answer was: “Do we get it then? Aren’t we just like the disciples or the people around Jesus? Any lesser teacher would have long ago given up on these slow and artless followers, but not Jesus. “
Think of it: We have been Christians for so long, heard so many sermons, received Holy Communion so often. And yet, in the middle of life’s ups and downs we still find it hard to figure out what God is asking of us. In the middle of life’s temptations, we still find it hard to trust him enough to follow his will instead of our whims.
But he hasn’t given up on us, and he never will. Jesus is truly Lord, a Lord who rules by love. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a powerful reminder of the fact that God never gives up on us.
When the priest consecrates the hosts during the Mass, Christ becomes truly present in them, body, blood, soul, and divinity. Then two things happen.
First, he gives himself to each one of us in Holy Communion. He is fully present in each host, and so he gives himself completely to each one of us, without holding anything back. And he will never refuse to come to us, as long as we have expressed our sincere desire to receive him. Isn’t this a miracle as great as the raising of Lazarus – a SIGN of his constant love?
The Gospel stressed that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus. And because of his love for them, he did the greatest miracle – after having it in a way tested their trust.
And so he is here out of love for us, truly present, every day and night, all day and all night. Many times we have received Holy Communion, sometimes simply out of routine, without really appreciating the greatness of the gift. But Jesus keeps on coming. He hasn’t given up on us.
Many times we forget about his presence in the tabernacle, and instead of dropping by to visit him, to share our sorrows and our joys with him, we leave him alone and do our own thing. But Jesus stays anyway. He never gives up on us.
Sometimes we are like Martha and Mary; we have prayed and asked the Lord for help — but he seemingly did not answer our prayers immediately. Like the two sisters we are also disappointed when they said, “Lord, if only you had been here, our brother would not have died.” But they learned in the end that Jesus listens and never gives up on us because of his profound love for us.
Last Thursday Pope Francis spoke about how often the Lord must be disappointed when we are disappointed with him, when we do not appreciate enough his love. And then the Pope said, “I think it would do us good today to reflect on the disappointed Lord: ‘Tell me, Lord, are you disappointed in me?”
And hopefully we can answer him: “Once in a while, yes, because of my weakness. But I know you are ”the Resurrection the Life.”