Updated: Apr 2, 2020
Fifth Sunday of Lent – Year A
Today’s readings all focus on being lifted up to life. Authentic life is life in the spirit, which means being alive to a close relationship with God through our commitment to the values of the Spirit.
Ezekiel’s vision is set in Babylon during the 50-year period of exile. The prophet Ezekiel was born into a priestly family, lived in Jerusalem and was taken to exile with other leading citizens of Jerusalem, probably around 597 BCE. He received the prophetic call in Babylon and was consulted by members of the expatriate community, which tells us he was accepted as a significant identity among the exiles.
Today’s reading is introduced by the scenario where Ezekiel is mystically transported to a battlefield strewn with the unburied bleached bones of dead warriors. This visionary scene is symbolic of the people in exile who feel dead, abandoned by God and stateless outside their own land. Their lack of hope and optimism is reflected in the impossible question God puts to the prophet, ‘Can these bones come back to life?’ Ezekiel doesn’t answer with the obvious ‘No!’ but demurs with, ‘O Lord God, you know.’
There is new vigour in our lives when we are re-energised by the Spirit
The imagery then changes from bones on a field to corpses in graves, as we read in today’s extract. God then promises that the people in exile will be restored to their homeland and will live again. Their new life will be vigorous because it will be re-energised by the spirit of God. The fulfilment of this almost impossible hope will convince the Jerusalemites that they are being rescued by their all-powerful God.
A few verses beyond today’s reading the prophecy goes on to say that people restored to life will secure their situation by living according to the spirit of God, living in harmony with the expectations of their covenant with God.
A key word that is repeated in these verses is ruakh, which means spirit. The scene progresses from unburied bones that have no spirit to the prophet who utters his prophecy, namely, that continued trust in the Lord and commitment to a life of goodness and justice will contribute to a new life with God’s spirit.
This comes finally to complete restoration when the nation and individuals will live by the values of the spirit of God.
The psalm encapsulates the plight of the exiles who cry out for rescue. Most English translations use the word ‘salvation’ with its Christian overtones of release from the power of sin and evil into the freedom of forgiveness and eternal life. For the people of ancient Israel salvation was more concrete in the form of rescue from enemies and deliverance from oppression, exile, suffering. Because the ancient Israelites saw misfortune as a punishment for their sin then salvation was also tied to being drawn from evil to goodness. The prophets repeatedly accused the nation of condemning itself to spiritual slavery through idolatry of various kinds, corruption, injustice and general flouting of the Mosaic law. The poet here is assuring us that there is compassion and forgiveness with the Lord if only people would let go of controlling and accumulating and turn to the Lord with open hearts.
Paul is being very explicit about life according to the Spirit in this short extract from his letter to the Christians in Rome. He reminds the community that they have embraced Jesus as their Lord and therefore possess the Spirit of Christ. The hope he offers of divine compassion and rescue is much the same as the prophet Ezekiel passed on to the exiles in Babylon.
But Paul insists that to be one with Christ we need to be open to the movement and inspiration of the Spirit in our lives.
In an earlier letter to the Galatian communities he pinpointed those qualities that indicate we are listening to the Spirit. He wrote, ‘...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ (Galatians 5:22–23).
This reading presents us with a well-known story about restoration to life and it is in this episode that the John writer is at his most sensitive in drawing out the tenderness of human relationships. Vital to understanding this story is our ability to hear the writer delivering spiritual lessons through the words of Jesus, and at the outset we learn that the condition of Lazarus will be instrumental in glorifying the Son of God.
In this gospel Jesus performs seven signs. In the three Synoptic gospels Jesus heals a good number of people with various physical and mental illnesses. We generally refer to these as miracles, which is an unfortunate term because it conjures up ideas of magic. The Synoptics call them ‘deeds of power’, which more accurately conveys the notion that the power of God is working through Jesus. In the fourth gospel, however, the writer describes these extraordinary deeds as signs, and he deals with only seven. Six of the signs are paired, two happen in Cana: the wedding wine and the cure of the official’s son; two in Jerusalem: the cure of the sick man at the pool of Beth-zatha and the man born blind; two in Galilee: the feeding of the crowd and walking on water. These signs all point to the person of Jesus and make us think about who he is. Today’s gospel describes the last and most spectacular of the seven signs
The main characters are introduced, and Mary is identified as the woman who anointed Jesus. The problem is this has not happened yet; it takes place in the next chapter. This is called a prolepsis where the author anticipates an event in his narrative but assumes that the readers already know about it. It serves to unite two ideas that Jesus is moving towards his death while raising his friend back to life. A crucial fact is missing from our reading and that is the writer’s account, in the previous chapter, of the Jewish religious leaders conspiring against Jesus’ life. This resurfaces at the end of the Lazarus story. The other irony here is that restoring a person to life is the act of Jesus that will trigger the plot to end his own life.
Jesus displays deep personal emotion as he identifies with grief
Jesus’ discussion with Martha gives the narrator a chance to highlight Jesus as the resurrection and the life and that those who commit themselves to him with find true life. This, of course, is the key to interpreting the whole of the gospel of John, which is the gospel of life. A natural consequence of this is Martha’s confession of faith, and at this point Martha recedes as Mary moves to centre stage.
Going with Mary to get closer to the tomb Jesus displays deep personal emotion as he identifies with the grief of the two sisters and weeps so that those present come to appreciate how much he loved Lazarus. The primacy of love and authentic life are brought together in this scene.
In the Synoptic gospels it is Jesus’ action against the moneychangers in the temple that accelerates the plot to kill him. In the fourth gospel it is the raising of Lazarus that initiates his demise because it lays open the whole issue of his identity. By restoring life to Lazarus Jesus has made an outrageous claim to be resurrection and life. He has done what only God could do, and this seriously challenges everything the chief priests stand for. This is much greater than a religious issue; it is a political confrontation in which Jesus defies the values and the leadership of his opponents. In the end his crucifixion was a political stroke on the part of the chief priests to eliminate a threat to their power and prestige. They tried to kid themselves it was their clash with blasphemy, but Pilate would have dismissed that in a heartbeat. Ultimately it was power defending itself against justice and what is right.
Relying on Jesus as the resurrection and the life dispels the gloom of stress and hopelessness in the face of death. But this does not take away pain and tears when we go through times of mental, physical and emotional suffering.
Live in the present. Do the things that need to be done. Do all the good you can each day. The future will unfold. - Peace Pilgrim
I learned if you don’t take a risk, you don’t grow. If you don’t grow, you can’t be satisfied, you can’t be happy. - Phyllis George (American businesswoman and actress)
A passenger jet was going through a severe thunderstorm. The passengers were being bounced around by the turbulence. A young woman was aware that she was sitting next to a minister, so she turned to him and, with a nervous laugh, asked,
‘Reverend, you’re a man of God, can’t you do something about this storm?’ The minister replied, ‘Lady, I’m in sales, not management.’