Fifth Sunday in Lent Cycle A
Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45
Miscommunication is so easy. I think we’ve all experienced, probably many times, how we said something that we thought was very clear only to learn later, sometimes comically and sometimes more tragically, that the person we spoke or wrote to not only didn’t understand what we had meant but they understood it as meaning something very different. On this topic, I found the following headlines that were actually used by publications. (I got them from the internet – how could they possibly not be true?)
One headline read, “Teacher Strikes Idle Kids.” Now I think they meant that union bargaining activities resulted in the schools being shut down, but who knows? Maybe they are bringing back corporal punishment. I’m not quite sure who the target audience was for the article with the headline, “Kids Make Nutritious Snacks”: maybe parents teaching their children life skills they will need later, but then again maybe there’s a market for witches wondering how to spice up their Hansel and Gretel meals. Another headline should have read “Two Sisters Reunited in Checkout Counter after 18 Years,” but I think the editor was angry about something at his local grocery store, and the headline that was actually published read “Two Sisters Reunited after 18 Years in Checkout Counter.”
So, I don’t think that I am going out too far on a limb to say that we should all be careful when we read anything, and especially something so important as Scripture. What we first understand on an initial reading may not be the only or the best interpretation of what God is trying to tell us through the writer. All of today’s readings can certainly fall under this category.
The first reading from Ezekiel is probably the most difficult to understand. With the imagery of opening up graves and rising from them, said not once but twice [Ezekiel 37:12-13], it sounds to the casual reader that this is a discussion of the end times, the prelude to the final judgment. Compounding this, the verses just before the ones read in the reading talk about a desert covered with dry bones. And Ezekiel is a prophet, a word which in common English usage today means one who can foresee the future. He must be talking about some age yet to come.
Then in the Gospel, Lazarus is raised up. Everyone sees the foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection which will happen shortly after he leaves the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and goes on his final journey to Jerusalem. That certainly is one of the messages and helps the Apostles to understand Christ’s death and resurrection as a continuance of his earthly ministry. And therefore we might understand Lazarus to be an example of what is promised to us some day. But this second understanding is not the only lesson we should draw. If we see mainly predictions of future events, we are missing the larger lesson that is meant for us in our present lives here on earth.
There are multiple clues to this. I will note that the term “prophet” as used in the bible, both in the Old Testament as well as the New, such as Paul speaking about the gift of prophesy, is not talking about ability to have insight into future events. A prophet is one who is able to simply and declaratively communicate the will of God. In this case, Ezekiel is telling Israel about God’s plan to restore Israel, not in a future life but in the present reality of their exile to Babylonia. He uses some very poetic images to get this across, but such images are easy to misinterpret. Then in the Gospel, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life” [John 11:25 NABRE]. Jesus is not speaking in the future tense “I will be…”; he uses the present tense “I am ….” Jesus also tells Martha that, “everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” [John 11:26]. He’s not promising us that we will die and then rise, but that we will never die. Paul in the second reading comes to our help here and puts it in different and clearer language: the spirit that lives within us will give us life, even though the flesh may not. So that there is not further miscommunication, I am not saying that any or all of these readings don’t have implications for our future, or even allude to the promised life in heaven – they clearly do. What I am saying is that if you stop there, at that limited understanding of what was proclaimed as the Word of God just now, you have mistaken the last few chapters of a book for the entire thing.
You have heard me often speak on the theme of reading the message of Christ into our lives as we are living them in the present, and that the Church teaches that the joy of Christ starts in this life and is not just a promise in the next. I preach this often because I know it firsthand: in my early adult life I lived in the present when it came to career and personal development but lived in the future when it came to my relationship to God – I’d get around to that someday. And it’s not just me: I hear it said after many retreats or other events, events have sparked a spiritual insight, something to the effect that “I wish I would have done this years ago.” Jesus is telling Mary and Martha, and through them us too, that it is never too late if you trust in the Lord and live by his word. Through prayer and study we slowly evolve in our faith and develop a more full and deep understanding of what it means to be alive in Christ. And what better time to focus on that, as we move into Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter, all of which have profound lessons for us on how we live our lives today. Lazarus died again, and Jesus knew that he would. But he wanted him and his sisters to be there with him as he suffered and died, and then was raised in glory. He wanted Lazarus to have this in his earthly life, and he wants that for us, too.
As we continue with our Mass, let the Eucharist, which is Christ entering our lives in a material way at this present moment, be for us the grace for him entering our lives in a more spiritual way this Lent. May we all experience a revival, a rebirth, to any part of our lives that is not fully alive to the Spirit that Paul assures us is within us in Christ. Let us all take the time to reflect on the word of God and not misunderstand the command, “Lazarus, come out!” [John 11:43 NABRE] – it is a command to each and every one of us to come and join with Christ right here, right now.