Reflection and Lectio Divina for 5th Sunday of Lent

Reflection for the 5th Sunday of Lent – “Resurrection and Life” by Rose O’Connor and Patrick Sullivan.

5th Sunday of Lent, Year A  – Lectio Divina on Jn 11,1-45

The resurrection of Lazarus is the last of the signs wrought by Jesus (2,1-12; 4,46-54; 5,1-9; 6,1-5.16-21; 9,1-7).  This is the longest account in the gospel, apart from the story of the Passion with which it is intimately linked. It explains in a masterly way, although in symbolic form, why he who would give life to others had to give his own life. Jesus dominates the entire episode – he is mentioned 22 times! Then there is the family of Bethany with whom he is bound by ties of close friendship (11,3.5.11.35). Lazarus is a silent participant throughout. He does not speak before his death and he remains silent when he returns to life. This is the only time Jesus comes face to face with the death of someone he loves (11,3), a death that does not leave him unmoved (11,35-36).

1               At that time: A certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
2               It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.
3               So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”
4               But when Jesus heard it he said, “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.”
5               Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.
6               So when he heard that he was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7               Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go into Judea again.”
8               The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were but now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?”
9               Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any one walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world.
10            But if any one walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
11            Thus he spoke, and then he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awake him out of sleep.”
12            The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.”
13            Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep.
14            Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead;
15            and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
16            Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
17            Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days.
18            Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off,
19            and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother.
20            When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house.
21            Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
22            And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”
23            Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
24            Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
25            Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live,
26            and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
27            She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.”
28            When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying quietly, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.”
29            And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him.
30            Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him.
31            When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there.
32            Then Mary, when she came where Jesus was and saw him, fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33            When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled;
34            and he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
35            Jesus wept.
36            So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
37            But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
38            Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb; it was a cave, and a stone lay upon it.
39            Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days.”
40            Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you would believe you would see the glory of God?”
41            So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.
42            I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this on account of the people standing by, that they may believe that you have sent me.”
43            When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.”
44            The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
45            Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.   

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I Read: understand what the text is saying and how it says it

The account opens with a detailed description of the sickness of Jesus’ friend (11,1-3) and closes with a command, which conquers death (11,45-53). After a brief introduction (11,1-6), the account is structured in the form of several dialogues (11,7-16: Jesus and his disciples; 11,17-27: Jesus and Martha; 11,28-37: Jesus and Mary; 11,38-44: Jesus and Martha), together with brief narrative passages and comments by the narrator (11,2.5.13.18-19.30). We cannot separate the action from the words, but it is the words that reveal the sense of what is happening (14,4.11.15.25.42.43). Here also, as in the case of the healing of the man born blind, Jesus justifies his action beforehand (11,9-10; cf. 9,4-5).

The episode begins with a presentation of the situation and the characters involved (11,1-6). The sick man Lazarus lives in Bethany, a village near Jerusalem (11,18). His sisters do not explicitly request a cure – they simply present the sick man as a friend of Jesus and they inform Jesus of his illness (11,3; 2,3). Jesus reacts in an unexpected manner: despite his love for Lazarus (11,5) he waits for two days before making any move (11,6.22.33). He knows that the illness will not end in death. Its purpose is the glory of God and the glorification of the Son.

The dialogue between Jesus and his disciples (11,7-17) is intended to clarify the ultimate significance of the sign. When he decides to return to Judea, his last journey, the disciples protest because the Jews want to put an end to him. Jesus encourages them. His actions are not based on emotion or fear. He is following a precise plan of God. The work entrusted to him by God is not yet finished, his mission is not complete. He must waken his friend from sleep, since it is not yet night (11,11). The disciples do not understand (11,13). They believe, with good reason, that if he is sleeping it is a sign he will get better. Jesus has to explain to them that Lazarus’s sleep is real death but not definitive (11,14): he allowed his friend to die so that his disciples might believe. For Jesus, the faith of the disciples, obtained at such a price, is a cause for joy. This is why he delayed in coming to the help of his friend.

In John’s gospel, Thomas is always the spokesperson for the doubts of his companions (14,5; 20,16.24-29; 21,2). On hearing the express intention of Jesus to go to Judea to give life to his dead friend (11,15), Thomas encourages the group to go with Jesus and share his fate. It is the first time that any of the disciples has made such a proposal, but Thomas did so without understanding Jesus’ intention (11,16). The incomprehension is obvious: Jesus is not now asking them to follow him to death, but to believe in him.

The dialogue with Martha (11,18-27) reveals the final significance of the sign before the account of its fulfilment. The situation seems irreversible: Lazarus has been dead for four days (11,17). There is no hope of recovery (11,21.39). The dead man’s house is in mourning, and the people are saddened (11,19). When Martha meets Jesus, she laments his absence. If he had come earlier, her brother would not have died. She then expresses her faith in the Master’s prayer (a frequent theme in John’s gospel: 14,13; 15,7.16; 16,23.24.26), and she continues to look on Jesus as a miracle worker, a man of God. She knows that God will refuse him nothing (11,22). This conviction of Martha is not yet authentic faith but it does indicate a profound appreciation: God is with the one who works signs and wonders.

Jesus replies with an ambivalent statement (11,23: “your brother is dead but will rise again”), which indicates the reason for the recent death. Martha thinks, mistakenly, that he is referring to the final resurrection, which she hoped for as part of what God would do at the end of time (11,24). Jesus, however, presents himself as the fulfilment of all hope: he is the resurrection and the life (11,25a). Belief in him means life today and always. Death is not the end for one who believes. Anyone who believes will live and will never die (11,25b-26). There are two aspects to what Jesus says. Faith in him, gives life now and in the future. It delivers from two deaths – physical death and eternal death.

The account of the miracle (11,38-44) is preceded by Jesus’ meeting with Mary (11,28-32) and by his meeting with death (11,33-37). Death, which Mary lamented (11.32), and Jesus wept over (11,35), dominates the scene until it is defeated (11,34).

Martha, who is now a believer, informs her sister quietly that the Master is there and is calling her (11,28). Mary responds immediately. She hurries to meet Jesus (11,29.31), while he was still on the way. In his presence, she repeats what Martha had said (11,32.21). She threw herself on the ground before him. Overcome with grief, she has not yet come to believe. Jesus is moved by her sorrow and the death of her brother. He sighs deeply, in great distress (11,33.38). He asks them where they have put him, and weeps in public when he sees his friend’s tomb (11,34.35). His tears are proof of his love for the dead man (11,36: “See how much he loved him!”) and they provide a pretext for the veiled criticism of the bystanders, criticism which in fact is due to their failure to understand – he opened the eyes of the blind man, surely he could have healed this man who was dying (11,37).

The Jews continue to misunderstand the motive for Jesus’ grief and his reason for wanting to see Lazarus. Jesus had not come to heal the dying but to raise the dead. And he does so with authority (11,39.43.44). He depends only on God (11,41-42). Freedom from death is obtained only by faith (11,40) and faith does not come as a result of seeing the closed tomb being opened (11,39). Faith must precede the work of God. Faith is more than simple trust – it also demands obedience on the part of the believer. (11,39.41).

When faced with death, Jesus prays. He does not ask for a miracle – he takes it for granted. He is not like some wonder-worker trying to snatch a sign from God. His prayer reveals his intimacy with the Father. His prayer of thanks is based on the certainty that he has been heard (11,41).  And as part of his thanksgiving, he reveals the motive for the miracle. He performs it as one sent by God to bring the people to faith. The one who is praying is also the one who grants (11,42). The sign that he gives is proof that he is the one who was sent.

The miracle is reported in very sober terms. Jesus shouts. The hour has come when even the dead will hear the voice of the Son. Lazarus is called by name (11,43).  The resurrection is a personal call. The final command of Jesus is to set the dead man free from the shroud that kept him bound to death. At the same time, he makes it clear that the resurrection is only a symbol of the true resurrection in the future. The dead man comes out of the tomb, still bound by death, still under death’s power. It is the witnesses who will have to set him free from his bonds. There will be another resurrection, however, when there will be no need of a shroud, because the life regained will be forever (20,4.6-9).

As usual, the people are divided about the sign. Many saw what happened and believed. Some others conspired against him and went to tell the Pharisees. Without faith in Jesus, their brother would not have risen, but even the raising of a dead man does not always lead to faith. This is still the Christian experience, even in our own day. Only those who believe in Jesus, the resurrection and the life, will overcome death, their own and that of their brothers.

II. Meditate: apply the text to your life.

Right from the beginning, the gospel story emphasizes the friendship between Jesus and the family at Bethany. The man who dies is a friend of Jesus and his death saddens him. For this reason, and bearing in mind also the expectations of the sisters, the reaction of Jesus seems strange, even inconsiderate. Jesus seems not to care about the extreme need of his friends. For the narrator, this is an act of revelation more than a work of mercy. Jesus is not just coming to the help of a needy person – he is trying to bring people to faith in God whom he is revealing. Jesus did not come to do favours or work miracles for his friends but to reveal himself as life for all people. What do I seek when I come to Jesus – his love, a response to my needs, or his revelation and his will to save? What do I look for in God – myself or him alone?

In a sense, Jesus “allowed” his friend to die so that his disciples would come to believe. The faith of his disciples, obtained at such a high price, is, for Jesus, a motive for joy. This is why he delayed in coming to the help of his friend. Much as he loved Lazarus, he valued the faith of his disciples even more. If we are unwilling to accept disappointments in our friendship with Jesus, we will miss opportunities to become true believers in him. We owe Jesus respect and acceptance even when our expectations are not met and our requests go unanswered.

If the believer dies, he will live. Death is not the end for one who has faith in Jesus. For the believer, there is no such thing as death that is definitive. It is good to remember that the conversation between Jesus and Martha takes place in the presence of her dead brother whom she loved dearly. Martha believes the words of Jesus.  She believes in Jesus, not just as a wonder-worker, not just as someone who raises the dead, but as the resurrection and the life, for those who believe in him. The believer knows that that he, Jesus, declares that he is eternal life of those who believe. Life, life eternal, is given to those who believe in Jesus. If this is my faith, that Jesus is my life,  then I will live forever.

As he heads towards the tomb of Lazarus, the place where death is victorious (11,39), Jesus is affected, but not conquered, by death which he will overcome (11,38). Jesus who raised Lazarus first drew near him, caused the tomb to be opened, and felt the smell of death, before revealing the glory of God. Only faith, the belief that conquers death, opens us to the vision of God. All who were present saw Lazarus emerge from the tomb. Only those who believed saw the glory of God. Faith is the power to break death, to open tombs, to see God where his absence is felt.

In the presence of death that conquers, Jesus prays. He does not ask for a miracle – he takes it for granted. His intimate union with the Father is nourished in prayer. He thanks the Father because he knows that his prayer has been heard (11,41). In prayer also he reveals the motive for the miracle – it is as the one sent by God that he has restored Lazarus’s life. The one who prays is, at the same time, the one who grants (11,42). He is able to give life to Lazarus because he will give his life for all. He raises the dead because he himself, when he dies, will rise. Giving one’s life for others is the way, open to all, to give life, as Jesus did.

III. Pray the text. Make your own the desire to do God’s will. What do I say to God?

I am comforted, Lord, by the fact that you enjoyed the friendship and love of a family. It means a lot to me! Knowing that you felt the need to be understood, befriended and accepted as you were, brings you closer to me. But, at the same time, it makes me nervous and a bit afraid. If that is how you treated your friend who needed you in his moment of supreme weakness, what misfortunes might await your friends!

You “used” Lazarus to reveal yourself as life for all, and not simply one who raises the dead to life. Grant that my life, and especially my death, may be occasions for you to reveal yourself as you are, beloved Son of God, his representative sent by him. May my life express my faith in you who are my life, and may my death reveal you as the resurrection for all people. May my extreme weakness reveal your saving power and lead others to believe in you, the resurrection and the life.