Gospel Reflection for March 29, 2020

Lazarus is dead. Jesus was in Galilee, a distance from Bethany, when word comes to him that Lazarus is ill. Jesus does not rush to the side of his friend Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Instead, he lingers where he is before making the trek back towards Jerusalem where, just recently, his life had been threatened. Clearly the disciples were nervous about the return, but Jesus is clear why they are headed there: he is to restore Lazarus to life.

There are several differing tensions that run through this account. However, the most poignant is the tension between belief and unbelief. The Jews were not of one mind on questions of the afterlife. There was no consensus among the various Jewish sects about a belief in resurrection of the dead. The passage we hear in the First Reading from the prophet Ezekiel does, on one hand, present a clear and certain promise that God will raise the dead to life. Yet others interpret this oracle as God pronouncing in a symbolic way the restoration of the exiled Jews to the Promised Land. Certainly, a fuller sense of the Scripture leaves plenty of room for both interpretations. Many of those who come to Sit Shiva with Martha and Mary are clearly not also disciples of Jesus, and many of them demonstrate a clear lack of faith in Jesus.

Jesus comes to Bethany to raise Lazarus to life. Every aspect of his conversation with Martha and Mary points us there. As disciples of Jesus, both Martha and Mary believe in the resurrection of the dead at the end of the age, but they are not expecting that such will happen now. Both of them react similarly to the arrival of Jesus – and challenge him for not being there in time to effect healing for Lazarus. In the midst of their exchange Martha said to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Shortly after Mary, too, “came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’”

The assembled family and friends similarly are critical of Jesus. The one who had cured others did nothing to save his friend. This lack of faith is distressing for Jesus, but he brushes that aside as he is focused on his mission.

Jesus replied to 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. Do you believe this?” This elicited Martha’s testimony of faith: “Yes, Lord” demonstrates the power of her faith even in the face of the lack of faith of those who were accompanying them.

As Jesus approaches the tomb of Lazarus, where he has now be interred for four days, he is accompanied by Martha, Mary, and the assembled villagers, and his disciples. Although Jesus told the disciples that they were going to Bethany to raise Lazarus, so presumably preparing them for this his greatest sign, the lack of faith around him strikes at him to the core.

The Gospel translation tells us on two occasions in this moment that Jesus was “perturbed.” Generally we understand that word to mean slightly angry or a tad annoyed. This translation does not capture the depth of the visceral reaction that the Greek word suggests. Jesus is about to confront evil and death at its very heart. He stands there, in the face of death – the result of sin-in-the-world – surrounded by skepticism and a general lack of faith, and takes death on head-on.

This is the clearest foreshadowing of his resurrection that occurs in the ministry of Jesus. If it is faith in Jesus risen from the dead that is the heart of the Christian proclamation, the central act of our belief, then it is the raising of Lazarus that stands as a precursor to that faith in those who witnessed the event.  The raising of Lazarus points us beyond this singular moment, for Jesus raises Lazarus as a sign of the power of God present in him to restore all creation to the Father, promising eternal life.

Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.