Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A



Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A

First Reading: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Response: Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8; Second Reading: Romans 8:8-11; Gospel: John 11:1-45

To accompany today’s gospel — the resurrection of Lazarus — the first reading takes us to the interpretation of a parable that compares the return of Israel from exile to a resurrection of the dead. Ezekiel’s parable is known as “The Vision of the Dry Bones.” Ezekiel was a priest in exile with his people in Babylon. He was probably taken there with thousands of exiles after Jerusalem’s first surrender to the Babylonian army in 598 B.C. (See 2 Kings 24:10-16). Ezekiel’s ministry as prophet began in Babylon in 593 B.C. (See the story of his first call in Ezekiel 1:1-3:21). His last dated oracle (prophecy) is dated in 571 B.C. (See 29:17). In 33:21, Ezekiel is again commissioned by the Lord. Among the visions and oracles that follow is the Vision of the Dry Bones in 37:1-10. The vision is a must-read – not only because of its unique structure, but also for its entertainment value. It is the basis of the well-known Negro Spiritual, “Dem Bones Gonna Rise Again.” The vision ends with its interpretation as symbolism in verses 11-14 and is today’s first reading.

After the dry bones in the valley had connected themselves in proper order and been brought to life, the Lord God himself gave an authoritative interpretation of the vision. It is necessary, for understanding the interpretation, to recall that God’s people, the Israelites, were in exile in Babylon (Iraq today). The revived and resurrected bones represented the return of the exiles from Babylon to their homeland in Jerusalem and the former Kingdom of Judea. That was the original meaning of the vision. When, however, the Lord’s interpretation is used in conjunction with the real, physical resurrection of Lazarus, the vision becomes a preview of the general resurrection Christians believe will take place at the end of time. In the Gospel of John, the resurrection of Lazarus has a similar purpose — a preview and guarantee of Jesus’ power over death in a general resurrection. Jesus had made this claim earlier in the Gospel of John (See John 5:25-29).

Psalm 130 is one of a class of psalms called “The Seven Penitential Psalms.” We would expect some reference to a resurrection of the dead, but there is nothing. The closest the psalm comes to being a response to the first reading is in the words, “. . . with him there is plenteous redemption, and he will redeem Israel . . . .” This could be a reflection of the promise of a return from exile in the first reading. The theme of the second reading, St. Paul to the Romans, is definitely about a resurrection of the dead. At the beginning of the Letter to the Romans, Paul taught us about the role of “the Spirit of Holiness” – the Holy Spirit – in Jesus’ own resurrection. In today’s reading, Paul extends that role to our resurrection. “If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus…dwells in you, the One who raised Jesus . . . will give life also to your mortal bodies . . . .”

The gospel reading introduces us to three siblings who were friends of Jesus. They lived in Bethany on the eastern slope of the Mt. of Olives, 1 5/8 miles east of Jerusalem. Their names: Lazarus, Martha, Mary. The sisters sent a message to Jesus, “The one you love is ill.” Jesus points out to his disciples that “this sickness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God,” so that Jesus himself will become known as Son of God. This thought is repeated in Jesus’ prayer to his Father just before he gives life to Lazarus: “that they may believe that you have sent me.”   The author notes the love Jesus had for the three siblings. Their home was probably Jesus’ home when he was in Jerusalem. It was a safe place to overnight away from his enemies in the city. Jesus announces that he and they will return to Jerusalem despite danger of his assassination. Jesus tells them Lazarus fell asleep. They think this is good news. He can sleep off his fever.

Jesus answers bluntly, “Lazarus has died,” a more direct statement than the Christian term, “falling asleep.” The Greek word for a bedroom is koimeterion, the origin of our English word cemetery. Jesus again notes the purpose of Lazarus’ “sleep:” “I am glad that I was not there, that you may believe.” They arrive in Bethany. Lazarus has been dead four days. Many came from Jerusalem to comfort the sisters. Martha goes to meet Jesus. The dialogue between them is set up by the author to lead to an astounding revelation by Jesus, as he says, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die.” The first clause is a claim to divine power. Is it Jesus’ own power shared with the Father. He had said in John 5:26, “For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.” But he also said in John 10:18, “I have power to lay down my life, and the power to take it up again,” as if it were his own power. Then adds, “This charge I have received from my Father.” An answer in John 10:30: “I and the Father are one.” The other clauses in the revelation Jesus proclaims: “. . . whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who believes in me will never die.” Natural death is temporary, and those who believe in Jesus already share in eternal life here on earth.

The author of the gospel gives to Martha the greatest faith statement in the story, a statement that Matthew’s gospel gives to Simon Peter, chief of the 12. “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God….” A brief dialogue follows with Mary, Lazarus’ sister. They come to the tomb cut into the side of a hill. A stone was placed across the entrance to the tomb. Jesus orders the stone removed. Martha is concerned, and says, “It already stinks, for it has been four days.” It was commonly thought that a soul or spirit hovers around a body for three days, then leaves, and decay begins on the fourth day.” Jesus said, “I told you that if you believe you will see God’s glory.” Jesus prays to his Father. Though equal to his Father, the Father is his eternal source. The climactic moment arrived, as Jesus commands with divine power, “Lazarus, come on out!” Jesus orders bystanders to remove the burial wrappings, “Unbind him and let him go!” Jesus’ power over death, “the glory of God,” has been displayed, “and many began to believe in him.”