Lazarus Freed from the Tomb

Fifth Sunday of Lent-A

On this weekend before we recall Jesus’ passion and death on Palm Sunday, St. John invites us to ponder another story of faith.  Two weeks ago, at the well outside Shechem, we drank in the words of Jesus, the living water coming from heaven offered to the Samaritan woman.  A woman having a deep thirst came to know Jesus as the Messiah.

Last week, at a pool called Siloam, just outside Jerusalem, was another story of faith.  The light of the world opened the eyes of the man born blind letting him see the face of God. Today, we are invited to a most unlikely place, reserved for the dead. The graveyard we are summoned to is just outside the little village of Bethany. Here we will watch Jesus bestow a great gift of life to his friend Lazarus, whom his sisters thought was dead.

The beginning of the story is quite disturbing.  Martha and Mary, the two sisters of Lazarus, sent word to Jesus informing him of an illness. Master, the one you love is ill.” Upon hearing the message, Jesus reassures his disciples, “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.

Upon hearing Jesus’ response, his disciples could only have surmised the illness Lazarus was suffering from would be cured, for they did not yet understand the meaning of the resurrection from the dead. Perhaps, the disciples remembered the times Jesus had cured people of their ailments in the past, so his response to them would not seem out of the ordinary.

Martha and Mary were not with Jesus and his disciples and did not hear the confident pronouncement that their brother’s illness would not result in death. They were instead home grieving the loss of their brother, who now lay in the tomb for four days. For them, Lazarus’ illness certainly resulted in his death.

In anguish, Martha knew Jesus had the power to cure and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” For she had yet to realize that Jesus can cure even humanity’s fatal illness.  Jesus reassures Martha, that Lazarus will rise again. Her response affirms her belief in the resurrection on the last day. Although Martha has a belief in life after death, she still does not yet understand how it happens. She rebukes Jesus in front of the tomb by saying, “Lord by now there will be a stench; for he has been dead for four days.” She had already forgotten what Jesus had previously told her: that he is the Resurrection and life. Martha being the pragmatic one, notices the stench and the power of death before she ever contemplates the spiritual reality of life after physical death. Remember Jesus telling her earlier, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is a need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” How often do we view the resurrection of the dead from a distance, instead of entering the dynamic completely by uniting with Christ’s passion and death?  

After the interaction with Martha, Jesus meets with her sister Mary. Upon meeting Jesus, she falls to her knees weeping. Interestingly, she said the same thing to Jesus as  Martha did, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She said nothing more. Mary was the same person who in a past washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. She also anointed his feet with costly perfume. It was the practice for a servant to wash the feet of an honored guest with water and a towel. It was unusual, however, to wash with human tears and apply costly perfume.

Mary’s action resembled more a preparation of a corpse for burial than it did with a warm welcome. Now, her weeping along with a penitential posture of falling at Jesus’ feet can be seen as a continuation of the first time she did homage to the Savior. Perhaps, Mary still chose the better part, by recognizing spiritually what Jesus told 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.”  

Martha and Mary’s reactions to the death of their brother are quite different. The story gives a glimpse into the different ways people come to know the resurrection of the dead. Martha knew from a distant and cognitive point of view, while Mary knew from the heart that a relationship with Jesus is the only way to eternal life. Both of them believed, one more clearly than the other.

To believe in Jesus as the Resurrection and life means we must both believe in our minds and hearts that the resurrection from the dead is only accomplished through the person of Jesus Christ.

There is a  prerequisite to conform our lives to Christ’s. It entails a grafting on the body of Christ through baptism and a willingness to follow him, just as he followed the will of his Father.

As a part of Christ’s body, we must also be willing to accept our sufferings just as Christ suffered for us and have a faith reassuring us our physical bodies must die in order to be resurrected, just as Jesus’s body died and rose from the dead. 

Hopefully, in our life we can hear similar words from our Savior, “Lazarus, come out. Untie him and let him go.”  

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