March 29, 2020 • 5th Sunday of Lent
Liturgical Color: Violet
First Reading: Ezekiel 37:12–14
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 130:1–2, 3–4, 5–6, 7–8
Second Reading: Romans 8:8–11
Gospel: John 11:1–45
I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land; thus you shall know that I am the LORD. (First Reading) This is the divine theme for today, when so many of us are suffering an exile from all that is familiar and desired. God is telling us, first, that not everything turns around our comfort and convenience; second, that true life, the life that Jesus brings us, is not like the perishable life we had chosen for ourselves, but completely different and eternal; and third, that the current crisis will not last forever. We know all these things, but we avoid acknowledging them because they are uncomfortable truths.
Lazarus and his two sisters hosted Jesus whenever he came to Jerusalem. Thus the evangelist Luke (10:38–42) tells us of one such visit, where the two sisters, Martha and Mary, demonstrated different attitudes to Jesus’ presence in their house. The fact that Jesus repeatedly accepted their hospitality shows his love and respect for them. Indeed, the family’s prominence and piety are attested to by the numerous prominent Jews who attended the funeral and came by afterwards to offer their condolences.
When Jesus reaches the outskirts of town, first Martha and then Mary come to encounter him. Each sister states the same thing: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Did they believe that Jesus’ presence would prevent his death? He had spoken on many occasions of eternal life, and this may have occasioned a misunderstanding. Eternal life, in Jesus’ parlance, refers to eternal supernatural life. Natural life remains what it has always been; it will soon enough come to an end for everyone, including Lazarus and even Jesus himself.
We can also note that the two sisters present an identical reaction here. This is quite a different representation of Martha and Mary from the passage in Luke, cited above.
Now, attempts on Jesus’ life were nothing new; John’s Gospel relates two of them before the death of Lazarus: John 8:58–59 and 10:30–31.
These attempts by the Jewish authorities failed because Jesus’ “hour” had not yet arrived — that is, the time laid down by his Father for his death and resurrection. When the Crucifixion comes, it will be the hour of his enemies and of “the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). But until that moment it is daytime, and our Lord can walk without his life being in danger. (Navarre Bible Commentary)
With this in mind, it is no surprise that among those who mourn Lazarus there are some who know that the Jewish leaders want to get rid of Jesus, and they side with them. When Jesus brings Lazarus back from the dead, this is, for them, yet another excuse for telling the leaders that Jesus is back, doing yet more audacious works in public. So those present are, without saying so publicly, split into two factions: those who love and believe in Jesus, and those who see him as stirring up trouble. We see this division clearly delineated in verses 36–37 and 45–46 of the Gospel text (verse 46 is omitted from the liturgical reading, perhaps on the assumption that those opposed to Jesus were well in the minority). It prepares the way for the events of Holy Week, when Jesus finally allows himself to be apprehended and handed over to the Romans to be crucified as a political agitator.
But what about Lazarus? Was he truly resurrected, as we all will be on the last day? The circumstances of his being called out of the tomb, still wrapped in the burial cloths and requiring others to help him free of them, shows that he is by no means glorified, but simply brought back to life as he was before. This new life is natural, not supernatural, and Lazarus will eventually die again before rising to eternal life. First Corinthians 15:42–50 is clear enough on this point. Today’s Gospel has this in common with the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:35–43) and the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11–17).
We also need to squelch a misidentification, which has had currency since medieval times. Prominent historical writers, including some saints, have followed a common, but mistaken, assumption of their time concerning Mary, the sister of Lazarus.
Were Mary of Bethany, Mary Magdalene and the “sinful” woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Galilee (cf. Luke 7:36) one, two or three women? Although sometimes it is argued they are one and the same, it seems more likely that they were all different people. Firstly, we must distinguish the Galilee anointing (Luke 7:36) by the “sinner” from the Bethany anointing done by Lazarus’ sister (John 12:1): because of the time they took place and particular details reported, they are clearly distinct.… Mary Magdalene appears among the women who follow Jesus in Galilee as the woman out of whom seven demons were cast (cf. Luke 8:2), and Luke presents her in his account as someone new: no information is given which could link her with either of the two other women.…
The reason why Mary of Bethany has sometimes been confused with Mary Magdalene is due (1) to identification of the latter with the “sinner” of Galilee through connecting Magdalene’s possession by the devil with the sinfulness of the woman who did the anointing in Galilee; and (2) to confusing the two anointings, which would make Lazarus’ sister the “sinner” who does the first anointing. This was how the three women were made out to be one, but there are no grounds for that interpretation. The best-grounded and most common interpretation offered by exegetes is that they are three distinct women. (Navarre Bible Commentary)
Finally, in browsing through my resources, I discovered the following gem from St. Augustine. It is a striking example of how we can use Scripture in a spiritual sense.
St. Augustine sees in the raising of Lazarus a symbol of the Sacrament of Penance: in the same way as Lazarus comes out of the tomb, “when you confess [your sins], you come forth. For what does ‘come forth’ mean if not emerging from what is hidden, to be made manifest. But for you to confess is God’s doing; he calls you with an urgent voice, by an extraordinary grace. And just as the dead man came out still bound, so you go to confession still guilty. In order that his sins be loosed, the Lord said this to his ministers: ‘Unbind him and let him go.’ What you will loose on earth will be loosed also in heaven” (St. Augustine, In Joann. Evang., 49,24). Christian art has used this comparison from very early on; in the catacombs we find some one hundred and fifty representations of the raising of Lazarus, symbolizing thereby the gift of the life of grace which comes through the priest, who in effect repeats these words to the sinner: “Lazarus, come out.” (Navarre Bible Commentary)