Lectionary commentary: fifth Sunday of Lent, year A

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READINGS

A reading from the prophet Ezekiel, 37:12-14

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 130. R/. v. 7

A Reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 8:8-11

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 11:1-45



Let’s pause for a little Lenten reflection on where we have been. We started on the First Sunday with the Testing of Jesus and discovered who he is: the Son of God. We learned of his utter obedience to God. Recall what he announced to the testing demon and to the world. It is declaration of where he is and where we must be in our God-like living, as revealed to readers and hearers of Matthew’s Gospel :

A human being shall not live on bread alone
but on every word that come from God’s mouth.


You shall not put the
Lord your God to the test.

You shall worship the
Lord your God,
and to him only shall you be bound.

These are the life principles by which Jesus lived and lives. These are the life principles that align our lives to his. They are vocational utterances. We are called to be what he is. We are called to do in our time what he did in his time. We are given his Spirit to live his life.

Then, on the Second Sunday of Lent, we found ourselves on the mountain of Moses and Elijah, the place of transfiguration. Jesus is utterly transformed by the Father before his disciples. We learn ton the mountain that we, too, will be transformed.

The way to our transformation is shouted to us from the clouds:

Listen to him!

Next, on the Third Sunday of Lent, we sat down at a well privileged to listen to a most amazing conversation between Jesus (who is, remember, the way, the truth and the life) and a woman heart-scalded by the truth of her life. But in the weary man looking for a drink of water she finds someone who listens, who tells her things to lift her heart, and who takes her into his enterprise. Leaving her bucket, she hastens to tell a new story.

She is the first person in John’s Gospel to proclaim. Hers is an apostolic mission. In speaking to his disciples of the fields ripe for harvest, Jesus speaks of the need for the seed to be sown and it is the woman who sows the seed that causes the people to hasten to Jesus and request that he remain with them. This is what apostles are for and she is the first to do so.

On the Fourth Sunday we find Jesus who sees a blind man. Here the light of world meets the darkness of distress and pain. But all it takes is to obey and, as the man tells us again and again, I went, and I washed, and I see. His new sight turns to new insight. He, too, becomes an apostle. His insistence on the truth of what has happened to him brings him to the true light, the light of the world. Readers and hearers of the story are not called to admiration: they are called to get on their knees with the man born blind who now sees with the light of the world.

Brought to the light by the insistence of the man born blind, we, too, are called to worship. His question must ever be on our lips:

Who is he, Sir, that I may believe in him?

His identity is in the story and its telling. That is what turns “Sir” into “Lord”.

Now we stand at the tomb of Lazarus. But before we join the mourners the prophet Ezekiel must be heard.



A reading from the prophet Ezekiel, 37:12-14

Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the Lord.

The word of the Lord.

To understand what Ezekiel is saying to us today it is necessary to go hand-in-hand with him as God sets him down in the middle of the deep valley:

The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. And he said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?

Ezekiel 37:1-3

Let God take us by the hand and listen to the promise:

Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, and say to them, "Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord …"

Ezekiel 37:11-12

A community of exiled people, dwindling day by day under the tyranny of Babylonian cruelty, far from home, a community that thought it was dead. But the prophet Ezekiel is unique among the prophets who mourned the desolation of exile. He alone declared that God goes into exile with the unfortunate people. He is certain, too, that God’s exiled people will come to know their God, even in their misery. More than 70 times in his long book he declares these or similar words:

You shall know that I am the Lord.

Ezekiel wants his desolate people to know their God and to know God as a deliverer from the death of exile. What God will do is to infuse people with divine spirit:

I will put my spirit within you,
and you shall live.

That is what we learn as we stand with Martha and Mary, and with the Judaean friends who had come to mourn with them at the tomb of our brother Lazarus.



Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 130. R/. v. 7A SONG OS ASCENTS

R/. With the Lord there is steadfast love,and with him is plentiful redemption.

Out of the depths I cry to you,
Lord!
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive

to the voice of my pleas for mercy! R/.

If you, O
Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,

that you may be feared. R/.

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning. R/.

O Israel, hope in the
Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities. R/.

In life and in the visions of our poets, “depths” often refer to the depths of the sea. But we know, too, of the depths of despair, and in our Bible the depths often mean She’ol. The destiny of every human being is, according to Israel’s holy Scriptures, oblivion in the depths of death.

Psalm 129 prays to God that enemies be like a thatched roof. Such a roof does not last. Eventually It is buffetted by east winds. There is no point in praying for a thatched roof. It’s like whistling in the wind. Or, maybe it isn’t.

Psalm 130 puts God to the test and calls out, begging God “to hear the voice of my plea”

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord!
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive

to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

The prayer begins with an individual plea. A single desperate soul calls on the Lord not to regard iniquities committed but to remember forgiveness. After all, surely it is divine forgiveness that leads humanity to “fear the Lord”.

To “fear the Lord” in the Bible’s perspective does not mean to cringe before the might of almighty God. The Hebrew verb spreads out its wings to embrace fear, awe, and reverence. The verb insists that if at first we come to fear the Lord the Spirit of God is quick to transform that lonely emotion into wonder (“awe”) and reverence of the kind that leads to a prayer of thanks and to a worshipful heart.

At this point the psalm makes a jump from a single voice to a community of prayer:

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.

The whole of God’s people is counselled to “hope in the Lord”. The whole people must contemplate to whom it is their prayer is made. The prayer of the people is not directed to a god of stern vengeance, a god who passes sentence of eternal death. Far from it! Those who watch for the dawn are never disappointed. Those assembled in prayerful hope and reverence, praying with a common heart and soul, are praying for general absolution, knowing to whom they pray:

For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.

The whole community at prayer together, begging forgiveness

together, in deep faith recognise together a Lord of,

  • steadfast love
  • plentiful redemption
  • a redeemer … from all iniquities.

Praying to this Lord God together, the whole of the people know that their dark night of the soul has come to a glorious dawning.



A Reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 8:8-11

Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

The word of the Lord.

It is important to be aware that when Paul uses “you” he means “all of you”. He writes in the plural; he addresses little communities of Christians. So it is well to acquaint ourselves with the first sentence of a paragraph that concerns the life of the Spirit that flows into human hearts through what God in Jesus has achieved in our world:

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.

Romans 8:1-2

What has brought this miracle of mercy, a miracle that freed humanity from the weakness of human frailty to “life and peace”? This is the glorious merciful action of our God:

By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:3-4

That is what God has achieved. “Sinful flesh” does not refer to what we usually mean by “sins of the flesh”, a careless euphemism for sexual behaviour that does not respect the dignity of women or men.

Paul’s meaning varies. When he speaks of Jesus “according to the flesh”, as in Romans 1:3 and 9:5

concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness

Romans 1:3
To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all

Romans 9:5

he means Jesus as a human being, living on earth, that is, a person in human history. When he uses “flesh” (σáρξ, sarx, flesh) referring to the whole of humanity, he means that everyone is subject to sin and unable to enter into God’s saving love. All human beings were, says Paul, in a state of ungodliness, that is, until “God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful flesh “in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”. Thus humanity, mired in sinfulness, is helpless—unless, that is, God intervenes. Jesus, God’s Son, is the intervention that transforms the sad predicament. Today’s reading from Paul celebrates the delivery of sinful humanity:

Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.

Romans 8:9

Human beings have been put to rights through the work of the Son. The radical realignment of men and women is utterly astonishing, utterly undeserved, and utterly certain:

Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.

Romans 8:8-10

As God delivered Jesus from death, so humanity, embraced by God, is destined to be delivered from death. God will confer on all humanity what has been given to the Son. As Paul goes on to reveal to us all:

you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons and daughters, by whom we cry,
ABBA!
FATHER!

Romans 8:15



A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees
the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him”.

Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house.

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 from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to
him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 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. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”

Jesus wept.

So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 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.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”

When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go free.” Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.

The Gospel of the Lord.

To ready ourselves for Chapter 11 that brings us to the tomb of Lazarus, we must remind ourselves of what we are taught in chapter 10. Following the newly-sighted man worshipping Jesus (9:38), some Pharisees renewed their questioning of Jesus and this continues into chapter 10. The theme of the shepherd and the sheepfold in introduced by Jesus who presents himself as the good shepherd.

While guarding against sheep-stealers, Jesus assures “the sheep”, that he knows their voice, he calls them by name, and he leads them out to fresh pastures. Indeed, he claims to be the very door of the sheepfold, blocking the possibility of any harm. Why this total pastoral care? Because twice Jesus insists:

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

John 10:11

His shepherding is not neglectful:

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.

John 10:14

God’s concern for the sheep, in the fold and outside the fold, is entrusted to the Word made flesh who dwells amongst us. He is the pastor who “lays down his life for the sheep” (10:15).

Then the location, the audience, and the occasion change in chapter 10. We must be aware of these changes in order to fathom the rest of chapter

At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.

John 10:22-24

The fact that the location of the discussion that follows is mentioned reminds readers and hearers to be alert. Major sections in John’s Gospel are marked off by reference to Jewish holydays and annual feasts. In chapter 6 we have the Feast of Passover and during this, the greatest of the feasts, Jesus presents himself as the Bread of Life (6:4-71). Then in chapter 7 Jesus leaves Galilee and goes to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths. There are many disputes as to who Jesus is. The arguments go this way and that until Jesus declares,

Amen, Amen, I say to you,
before Abraham was,
I AM.

John 8:58

Eternal life

The raising of Lazarus from death took place at the time of the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple (John10:22). Jesus is surrounded by “the Jews” demanding to “be told plainly” whether he was the Messiah, the Christ. Jesus points out that his works bear witness to his true identity. Those people who see and understand all that is done come to follow Jesus:

My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand. I and the Father are one.

John 10:27-30

The accusation that Jesus is making himself God is made as he is “walking in the Temple, the very place where God has placed his Name. That is to say, the very place where God is present. The presence in the Temple is at the heart of the faith of the people who charge Jesus with blasphemy. Jesus does not calm the situation by claiming that the Presence is elsewhere:

the Father in me and I am in the Father.

John 10:38

It is this Jesus who “escaped from their hands” (10:39) as they tried to seize him. It is this Jesus, the one who gives eternal life” who makes his way to the tomb of Lazarus.


The Death of Lazarus

The account of what I insist on calling The Unbinding of Lazarus (to be explained below) is given in a series of shifting scenes. Each scene increases the tension as we move from outside the Temple in Jerusalem to beyond the Jordan River. Jesus leaves his own land of Palestine and his own people. Many people beyond the borders of his own country come to believe in him, the very people who had believed what John the Baptist had told them about Jesus (John 1:19-38). It is from this location that Jesus will return to Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. There the drama of raising the dead man to life takes place. It will lead to stratagems and plots. It will lead to Golgotha and to a cross there.


Scene 1

Three people are introduced: Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Lazarus is ill. Mary is identified as the woman who anointed the Lord with perfumed oils (but, strangely this does not happen until the next chapter). Mary, for the moment, is just Martha’s sister. Notice that we are told that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”. Later are we introduced to “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” (19:26 and 20:2).

The sisters send an urgent message to Jesus, saying, Lord, he whom you love is ill.Notice they call Jesus Lord. These women know who Jesus is and have already come to believe in him. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, they make no request. They just state the fact. As the mother of Jesus said, “They have no wine”, so the sisters simply say, “Lord, he whom you love is ill”. These women know who it is and into whose hands they can place their worry and pain with utter confidence.


Scene 2

Instead Jesus remains where he is for two days before he sets out to return to Judea. His disciples warn him of hostile forces, calling Jesus Rabbi, not Lord, as the sister do. Notice how much the reply Jesus makes to them is like that in 9:2-5. In both replies Jesus insists that his work is done in the light. Readers will instantly recall that Jesus is the light of the world. The work that he does in the light, in this case is plainly stated:

Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.

As usual, his disciples fail to understand and plain speaking is required. Thomas Didymus (“Thomas the Twin”) thinks that death awaits across the river in Judea where Jesus has met serious hostility. He is not far wrong. Every time Thomas is mentioned in John’s Gospel readers and hearers are reminded that Thomas is “the Twin”. In some circles in early Christian Thomas was thought to be the twin of Jesusa piece of fiction that need not detain us.


Scene 3

Jesus and Martha hold the stage. Lazarus has died and many Judaeanshave come to console the sisters. Martha and Jesus engage is an exchange that causes her come to believe what Jesus claims. When he comes to the grave what he brings with him is resurrection. Martha knows that Jesus is Lord. However she must learn that when Jesus is confronted with death this Lord is not powerless. Martha’s faith that her brother will rise again in the resurrection of the dead is admirable but there is more to be told:

I AM the resurrection and the life.
Whoever believes in me,
though he die,
yet shall he live,
and everyone who lives
and believes in me
shall never die.

There is much there for readers and hearers to contemplate. There is that ! AM, the divine identity revealed to Moses on Mount Horeb (Sinai), the holy ground where he met with ”the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”). (Exodus 3:6). It is Jesus, claiming identity with that God, who asks the question at the very heart of all faith:

Do you believe this?

Martha’s response is a perfect creed:

You are the Messiah (Christ)
the Son of God
the one who is coming into the world.

Her faith in the Lord has deepened beyond all understanding. Notice “the one coming into the world”. The “coming” is a continuous present. Grammatically that means an action that has begun, an action continuing, an action not yet complete. Jesus is always coming into the world.

The scene with Martha, longer and theologically more profound than the next scene with Mary, ends with a creed that has enriched Christian understanding from that day in Bethany to every day in our story. One wonders if the author(s) of John’s Gospel were aware of the scene in Luke’s Gospel that seems to underplay the theological insights of Martha over against her sister (Luke 10:38-42).


Scene 4

Mary will have a big scene in chapter 12 of John’s Gospel. In this sorrow-filled scene, she has one line:

Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.

What readers and listeners have to grasp is what the conversations between Mary and Jesus and between Martha and Jesus mean for all our dying. Jesus is present at everyone’s dying, as he is present in all our days. He is the resurrection and life and standing at the bedside of everyone who dies, the same Jesus who gives eternal life to humanity in this life and confirms it into eternity when our days are done.


Scene 5

That does not mean that sadness and sorrow is taken away. It means that sadness and sorrow is transformed and tears will be turned into gladness. It has been said that the whole of the Bible can be summarised in two words: Jesus wept.

Even our Lord who is the resurrection and the life is reduced to tears when faced with death.


Scene 6

Deeply moved, Jesus comes to the tomb. In Bethany village the deep cave venerated to this day as the tomb of Lazarus has, according to my weary count, about thirty-five narrow steps down to where his body was laid. Martha’s second line, “By this time there will be a stink” is a true word. But it is gainsaid by an even truer word that reveals the truth of the whole story:

Did I not tell you that if you believed,
you would see the glory of God?

So they took away the stone.


An Interlude

Before coming to the raising of Lazarus an excursion into the Scriptures is required. First we must turn to one of the most defining stories in the whole of Jewish Scriptures and Jewish faith. Christians so often pass over and misinterpret the accounts in the Bible we share with our Jewish brothers and sisters. This is especially true of the story in Genesis 22 for Christians insist on naming it The Sacrifice of Isaac, blindly forgetting that Isaac is not sacrificed.

The tenth and last test of faith to which God submits Abraham is to demand that the old man sacrifice Sarah’s only child, the young man Isaac. In obedience Abraham takes his beloved son and goes to where God directs and readies everything for the sacrifice:

He laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son.

Genesis 22:9-10

Then angel of the Lord called from heaven and the boy the young man was unbound.

In Jewish faith this incident is called the Akedah which means “binding” and what is celebrated in the unbinding of Isaac. The unbinding of Isaac is a major theme in Jewish theology and finds its place in the daily liturgy of the synagogue. The dramatic story is a model of God’s unbinding of the people from the frequent bindings inflicted on that people throughout their history. It is a model, too, on the bindings the people inflicted upon themselves by failing to live by the demands of God’s covenant of love. There is another unbinding story, this time in Christian Scriptures. On Good Friday Christians traditionally listen to the passion and death of Jesus as told in the Gospel according to John. Here are some sentences from that account:

So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him.

John 18:12

Annas
then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.


John 18:24

So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.

John 19:40

From the moment of his arrest to the moment he was laid in the tomb Jesus is bound. Even in burial he is bound according to “the burial custom of the Jews”. End of story.

Then when Mary Magdalene tells the Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved”, they run to the tomb. This is what they find there:

Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesu ' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.

John 20:4-7

What they found there was that the binding cloths with which he had been bound had been removed and neatly folded and placed to one side. Who did this? Who undid the binding cloths, who neatly folded them, and who laid them to one side?

What we have in the resurrection story as told in John’s Gospel is the unbinding of Jesus by God. We must carry the stories on binding and unbinding of Isaac as we make our way with Jesus to the tomb of Lazarus.


Scene 7

There is a certain reserve in the English translations at this point. The ESV has,

Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb.

Earlier when Jesus saw Martha and the Jews who had come with her to mourn at the tomb, we are told,

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.

John 11:33

The Greek verb used for “moved” in both these sentences is very strong. It refers to someone who, in his innermost being, is deeply troubled and disturbed, overcome by rage and indignation. In the face of death Jesus is not unmoved. He knows the meaninglessness of death if God stands aside. He knows the hurt and pain of those who mourn the passing of people we love, of there is no voice calling us out of the grave. Jesus, the man of God, is not immune from the emotions that all human beings have to wrestle with when confronted with the darkness of the grave. Only Jesus can do something about it.

A Prayer

The stone is rolled back. Jesus pauses to speak to his Father to give hope to the mourners standing around that what is about to happen signifies what will happen to all of them. They must know, they must believe, that the Jesus who calls Lazarus to come out, is the one sent by God to unbind everyone from the bindings of death.

Then three words in Greek as well as in English: Lazarus, come out. The glory of God is revealed. In Jesus God reveals the call made at every grave. We are not destined to lie forever in the cold, dark earth. God’s intentions are profound and glorious: Unbind him and let his go free! The Unbinding of Isaac, the Unbinding of Lazarus, and the Unbinding of Jesus cannot be gainsaid. The Akedah, the Binding of Humanity is destined always to come to the Unbinding of Humanity with the shout of God: Let them go free! When illness and death seek to bind me, I know that Jesus will stand at my grave, shouting to God,

Unbind him, and let him go free!

The story of Lazarus readies us for Holy Week and for the death that happens in those days. But it readies us to face this death with the sure and certain conviction that there will be a third day for Jesus. There will be a third day for every human being. Where there is binding, there must always be an unbinding.


Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.