Fifth Sunday of Lent 2017
John 11: 1-45
Having grown up in a family of actors, I recognize the power of a dramatic scene when I see it. For me, few scenes in the New Testament exhibit this amount of dramatic tension: a group of characters with deep emotional connections, contradictory motivations, and potential conflict as does John’s account of the raising of Lazarus. And the stakes could not be higher – the finality of death and the prospect of eternal life! We see and hear the questions of Martha, Mary, the disciples and the Jewish community surrounding the sisters, and are left wondering with them about the unfolding of Jesus’ reactions and behavior. With what character(s) in the story do you identify?
The first element of dramatic tension: Jesus’ obvious love for the family ─ Lazarus and his sisters Martha and Mary. Mary who had recently caused a stir by anointing Jesus in front of the Pharisees. The sisters send word to him: “Master the one you love is ill.” The bond could not be clearer. Yet when Jesus heard the news, “He remained for two days in the place where he was.” As readers we see Jesus’ clarity on the eventual outcome. But as his followers or the family, how would we have judged this behavior? Then, when Jesus announces, “Let us go back to Judea.” we see his disciples’ fear and confusion: What? Those Jews were just trying to stone you and you want to go back there?” We’re told how close Bethany is to Jerusalem, and through the lens of history can understand the disciples’ fear and the risk to Jesus.
At the center of this drama ─ two women of great faith. Martha’s two affirmations: “Jesus 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.” When Jesus assures her Lazarus will rise, she goes even further: “I know that he will rise, on the resurrection on the last day.” Then comes Mary’s echo of Martha’s certainty: “Jesus if you had been here…” But this time not asserted privately, or merely with his disciples, but in front of the entire Jewish community that had followed her out to meet Jesus. Their incredulous reactions may be closer to our own, had we been among them: Wait a minute! Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have DONE SOMETHING so that this man would not have died? What’s going on here?
Entering into the emotions of all the players in this scene, especially the sisters, I find myself wondering: will I ─ do I ─ muster such faith, such certainty, and confidence in Jesus’ teachings when confronted with death all around me? Like many of us of a certain age, I seem to be tangling with death a lot these days: the death of a parent, the loss, or long battles with critical illness, of mentors, colleagues, and friends. Wading into the messy unfolding of anguish, amazing courage, and piercing grief, faith is tested. In reading today’s gospel several women of faith in my own life come to mind: my godmother Teresa, (an Oblate of the Ridgely community) Sr. Esther Bataille, OSB, both of whom have died, and Rosalie an increasingly frail friend and parish elder whom I recently visited. I witnessed their ability (in two cases almost literally) to “see into the next room” with a certainty, peace, and even joy that I can only hope to be capable of myself.
Jesus’ calm command: “Take away the stone,” must have elicited all kinds of emotion in the crowd, most vividly voiced by Martha: “Lord, by now there will be a stench!” Who were the brave followers that overcame their fears and misgivings to step forward and follow Jesus’ orders? Would we have been among them? I hear echoes of the women on Easter morning asking each other “Who will roll away the stone?” We know the ending, the dramatic affirmation of Jesus’ power and Martha and Mary’s faith. Still, what are the stones of doubt or fear that prevent us from confidently embracing Jesus’ promises, from accepting the depth of his love for each of us? And who are the Marthas and Marys in our lives whose witness of faith will lead us to Easter and the Resurrection?
Kathleen O’Toole, OblSB, Emmanuel Monastery, Lutherville, MD
Image from Read and Grow picture Bible created by American illustrator Jim Pagett