The raising of Lazarus from the dead is the final, last-gasp, over-the-top sign that John’s Jesus does. John’s point is clear: if the people don’t believe Jesus is the Messiah after this, they won’t believe him even if he comes back from the dead himself. John makes sure his listeners know that Lazarus was seriously dead. Lazarus’ sister Martha warns Jesus against taking the stone away from the entrance to the tomb. “But Master, by this time the body will stink; it’s been four days.” But Jesus looks up and thanks God for hearing him. “I know you always hear me, but I say this because of the people standing here, so they’ll believe that you sent me.” Then he shouts for Lazarus to come out, and out he comes, with his hands and feet still bound in strips of burying cloth, and his face covered. Jesus says, “Free him (from the cloth) and let him go.” Literal minds might notice that the dead body must have had to float out of the tomb, given that Lazarus was bound hand and foot; nor could he have seen where he was going, with his face covered.
No way this story walks on all fours, regardless of the century in which it was invented. But – tellingly – the “chief priests and Pharisees” believed it. For purely political reasons they decide they will have to kill Jesus. “If we let him go on like this, everybody will come to believe in him. Then the Romans will come and destroy our (holy) place and our nation.” Caiaphas – the famous capo di tutti capi — convinces the Council that they would be “better off having one man die for the people than having the whole nation wiped out” – which is precisely what happened in the year 70. Generations of Christians already know the symbolism of Caiphas’ seemingly prophetic words, because the writer tells us explicitly in a literary aside: “(He didn’t say this on his own authority, but since he was that year’s chief priest he could foresee that Jesus would die for the nation. In fact, he would die not only for the nation, but to gather together all God’s dispersed children and make them one people.)”
At the end of chapter 11, John sets up the final Act. “It was almost time for the Jewish Passover . . . ‘he certainly won’t come to the festival, will he?’” . . . stay tuned . . . .
For Revised Common Lectionary followers, Christian churches are now in Year B (the Year of Mark) and at the third Sunday in Lent. John 11 is only read on the fifth Sunday in Lent, Year A (the Year of Matthew). The Elves combine John 11 with Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; and Romans 8:6-11. The following is from a series developed for Lent in Year A, Repent for the Kingdom.
Repent for the Kingdom V: Redeeming the Bones — 5th Sunday in Lent
“Dem bones dem bones dem-a dry bones . . . Now hear de word of de Lord.”
The sermon for this week is a cake-walk for literalists. Ezekiel: “And you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves . . . I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil. . . .” John: “Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to [Jesus], ‘Lord already there is a stench because 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] cried in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out . . . .” Psalm 130: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord . . . If you, O Lord should mark my iniquities, Lord, who could stand? . . . I wait for the Lord, my soul waits . . . more than those who watch for the morning. . . . For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities.” Apostle Paul: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”
All we have to do is repent from our post-modern skepticism and sin and believe that just as Ezekiel raised the army of dry bones in the desert using God’s command, so Jesus, the son of God, in his most astounding miracle of all, raised Lazarus from the dead with his own divine power. God in turn raised Jesus from the dead, and so also will the spirit of the Christ who is now one with God raise bodily – physically – those who believe. Those who don’t believe, as cherry-picked Paul says, “cannot please God. . . . To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
Is that really all we need, heading into the denouement of Holy Week and Easter Sunday?
Very little of Ezekiel is ever included in the Lectionary readings. Five selections are used in Year A, and three in Year B. The prophesy about the army of dry bones is used for two of the five celebrations in Year A: the fifth Sunday in Lent, and the Easter vigil. It is used again in Year B at Pentecost. None of these are combined with readings that deal with the subject that Ezekiel was most concerned about, which is Exile. They are all used to bolster the Christian interpretation of salvation from hell through belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus, and the conveying of the holy spirit upon those who believe.
In the post-modern, post-Enlightenment, post-Christian 21st Century, these readings are in real danger of being lost to ignorance of what they may have meant to the ancient Hebrew world and the early Christian way, and therefore lost to indifference about any prophetic relevance they may yet hold. But in a world bereft of meaningful metaphor that reflects current cosmology, Paul and Ezekiel may possibly be reclaimed. The story about the resurrection of Lazarus is more problematic.
Second Century people were no more likely that Twenty-First Century people to take such a story as literal truth, but nonetheless, to put it in contemporary terms, the story of the raising of Lazarus is perhaps about as useful as Elvis Presley sightings – except for one word that John’s Jesus says to Martha: I AM the resurrection and the life. The verb is present tense, not past or future. The power of Jesus’s message is the certainty of eternal life here and now, not there and then. That is a weak point to hang an argument on, even though Marcus J. Borg does so. “Martha spoke of the resurrection as future, as ‘on the last day.’ Jesus’s response shifts to the present tense. . . Martha thought of the resurrection as a future event at the end of time; but Jesus’s response corrects her misunderstanding and speaks of resurrection as a present reality.” Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary Harper One, 2006, p. 199. Nevertheless, Borg is the biblical scholar who has done the research. If the writer of John’s gospel had Paul’s extraordinary theology to refer to, all of Jesus’s I Am sayings have to be about present reality – realized eschatology – and are an invitation to join him in raising the dead.
Raising the dead is not about bringing back Elvis. Raising the dead is about returning from Exile.
Millions of people on this Planet are in political, physical, and economic Exile from homelands, and from the basic needs for human survival: food, clothing, shelter, education, and medical care. Millions more are in spiritual or religious exile, no longer able or willing to suspend disbelief in the premodern gods and cosmologies that continue to prevail. Still more are in personal exile from sustainable relationships, estranged from family, friends, and social networks. Nearly all of us think we are exiled from the interconnected web of our own biosphere.
For this reason, it is vastly unfair – if not unconscionable – to cherry-pick Paul’s words from Romans 8 in order to perpetuate the very misunderstanding that John’s Jesus gently pointed out to Martha. It is equally unfair to the shamanic experience of the ancient prophet Ezekiel, whose purpose was to encourage – that is bestow or invoke courage – on the demoralized Hebrew captives in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. We in 21st Century United States are no less exiles than those of the 6th Century B.C.E. from distributive justice, represented of old by the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus, and described by Jesus and interpreted by Paul as “the Kingdom of God.” God will act to restore the people to their own land, promises Ezekiel. God will act to restore distributive justice-compassion, and the writer of John’s Gospel and the Apostle Paul proclaim that God has acted through the life and death of Jesus, and continues to act to this day whenever anyone – believer or not – chooses to accept the invitation.
If the Elves had allowed us to read to the end of Romans 8, the entire argument for this 5th Sunday in Lent would have been moot. “[I]n all these things we are more than conquerors,” says Paul – more powerful than imperial rulers, because “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The exile is over. The dead have been raised. The bones of the martyrs to injustice are redeemed and justified.
Further, if John Dominic Crossan’s interpretation of Paul’s letters is correct – or at least on the track – the dry bones raised by Ezekiel become a metaphor for those who died in the service of God’s justice; those who died working to restore God’s distributive justice-compassion to God’s earth, and who themselves never saw the transformed earth. The army of dry bones is an army exiled from justice. Fairness demands that if Jesus was resurrected into an earth transformed into God’s Realm of justice-compassion, then all the other martyrs who died too soon should also be raised with him. “But in fact,” Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 15:20, “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” It is the Christ – the transformed and transfigured post-Easter Jesus – who has started that general resurrection, which restores justice-compassion to a transformed earth. The transformation has begun with Jesus, and continues with you and me – IF we sign on to the program.
This is a far cry from feeling sorry about petty sin, (which is the dumbed down meaning that most people think “repentance” means); it is also a very far cry from the deep and unforgivable sorrow that somehow we are personally responsible for Jesus’s crucifixion (substitutionary atonement). Petty sin, feeling sorry, even deep sorrow over an impossible responsibility, do nothing to empower people to radically change the way we live. Further, when that sorrow is experienced as “unforgivable,” the whole point of Jesus’s message is overturned.
Finally, there is a fascinating anachronism in John 11:2, if John’s Gospel is to be read as a chronological narrative: “Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair.” This only makes sense if John was writing to a group of Christians who already knew the stories from Mark. Borrowing for a moment from the readings for Monday of Holy Week (John 12:1-11), perhaps this time before Holy Week would be an appropriate time to create a ritual of commitment to follow Jesus into and through the coming days.
Invitation to Participate in the Kingdom Community
There is a story in the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 14, about when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. . . . Jesus said, ‘Truly, I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’ And what was it that she did? Knowing she would probably not have the chance to do so if Jesus were executed by the Romans – which was highly likely – she anointed his body in advance for burial. So I invite us – in remembrance of her – to anoint one another as a symbol of our commitment to do what we can to live in a community of non-violent justice-compassion, knowing that the struggle never ends.
[Start the oil among the people]
Invitation to the Meal
In Paul’s first letter to the community in Corinth, he scolds them for falling out of the practice of justice-compassion, and getting side-tracked by the normalcy of injustice. He reminds the people that he received from the Lord what he also handed on to them. Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed by those who were trapped in the very same forces of injustice that affected the Corinthians, and all of us, “took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘this is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” If the Earth belongs to God, then participating in God’s distributive justice means a radical denial of our own self-interest. As we share this bread, we share ourselves and make no distinction between them and us.
[Start the Bread among the people]
Then Paul says, “In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying ‘This cup is the new covenant written in my blood. Do this as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’” Again, in case we didn’t get it when he broke the bread, Paul’s Jesus says, the new covenant – the new partnership with one another in God’s Kingdom – is written in blood.
[Pour the wine and juice]
Whenever we eat this bread and share this cup, we proclaim our participation in God’s ongoing, continuing work of justice-compassion until it is accomplished.
[Start the Wine and juice among the people]