Dearly Beloved in Christ
As we draw closer to the great celebration of Triduum; Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, you may notice that the readings are getting longer to prepare us for the reading of the passion, next week at Palm Sunday. Today’s rather lengthy reading leaves us with the question: Who in the heck in Lazarus? He’s not one of the twelve apostles. His conversion or calling to ministry is not mentioned anywhere in the scriptures. He doesn’t even live in one of the towns often associated with Jesus: Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem, or Capernaum. He lives two miles away from Jerusalem in a suburb called Bethany, just over the mount of Olives. The only other story that uses the name Lazarus is from the gospel of Luke used for a poor man who lay for years outside a stingy rich man’s house. That, however, is just that, a story. It’s a response to the Pharisees who are sneering at Jesus and his ability to teach authoritatively about the law. It’s possible that Jesus had this man whom he loved in mind as he was telling that story but, as I learned while researching this homily, Lazarus was a common name at the time. It is a shortened form of Eleazar, a name frequently used in the Old Testament, and it means “God Helps.” So, let us ask God to help us understand this man because he seems to come from nowhere and never be mentioned again.
Yet, a second look at the readings today may make us want to turn away from Lazarus and focus, instead, on the disciples. They very well could be the point of the story. They are the ones to whom Jesus thanked God that they could be with him when he awoke the man so that they may have faith. They would, likewise, have known the first reading from the Prophet Ezekiel that assured a previous generation of Israelites that they would know God when sealed graves were opened and when the dead rose. They should have been the first to trust that Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he said he wanted to go to Jerusalem. But they let fear get in the way of their faith. They reminded Jesus that the Jews had just tried to kill him so it isn’t safe for him to return. But, Jesus knows that this lack of faith will be rewarded when they see the dead man, Lazarus rise. Even Doubting Thomas’s’ comment made in frustration, “Let us also go to die with him” cannot stop Jesus from doing what he needs to do.
But, I don’t think this really a story about the disciples. They fall into the background after Thomas’ comment and aren’t mentioned again. Maybe it’s a story about Martha and Mary, the dead man’s sisters. I imagine he expected Martha’s reaction. You may remember these two from the gospel of Luke. Martha, the hard working nagging older sister, and Mary the gentle, contemplative obedient disciple of Jesus who sat at his feet while Martha wished Jesus would make her help with the chores. When Martha approaches and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” he must have been excited to hear her add, “But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” There’s hope, in the midst of hopelessness. If Martha can evince faith in the midst of tragedy, then Mary, the contemplative, must likewise be ready for a miracle. So it must have been a real kick in the pants when Mary approached without any hope at all repeating her sister’s past-tense verse, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” and when Martha does want him to remove the stone in front of the cave because of the stench it becomes clear that, with these two, there is so much doubt, so little trust.
No, these two can’t be the real focus of the story, the ones on whom we are to fix our gaze. Perhaps Lazarus’ silence and lack of storyline isn’t meant to indicate unimportance in his role as disciple inasmuch as to invite us to see ourselves as Lazaruses. Lazarus died, just like we all will do. It is an inevitable consequence of living. And, sadly, we know that all of us will one day long to hear the very words Jesus says today, “Lazarus, come out!” (“other names, come out”) “Dennis, come out!” But, when Lazarus does come out, he is bound, both by the burial clothes and the knowledge that he will have to go through this again. He is still in what St. Paul calls the world of the flesh not the realm of the Spirit. Lazarus has to be freed from what binds him in order to live again. We, too, must look into our hearts and find what needs to be freed; jealousy, anger, lust, hatred, all those sins of the flesh that bind us in and to this world and we must be freed by God from them. We are coming to the end of this forty day retreat we call Lent so, I invite each of you to take advantage of the sacrament of reconciliation this week to walk free from what binds us so that we, Lazaruses, can hear Jesus say, “untie him and let him go.”