Gospel Reflections

5th Sunday of Lent

John 11:1-45

Sunday Gospel Reflection by Sister Magdalen Lawler

Published: April 02, 2017


Today’s Gospel is a profoundly theological story and two women are at the centre of the narrative. The events are set in a frame of love. It is unique in that the Gospel writer, John, describes the closeness of the relationship that Jesus had with this family of Martha, Mary and Lazarus in their village of Bethany. The two women are the only ones named in the Gospel as being the object of Jesus’ love. Lazarus, too, is described as being much loved. ‘See how much he loved him!’ the Jews exclaim at the tomb. This would seem to imply that these women, and Lazarus, were among the close disciples of Jesus. Both women are given prominence in the narrative, despite it being a miracle concerning Lazarus. At the very beginning we are reminded of the anointing story that will follow, when Mary will anoint Jesus and wipe his feet with her hair. The anointing may have been a trigger leading to betrayal by Judas. Such a reminder in the Gospel leads us to believe that Mary’s action was treasured and well known among the community of John’s church. Martha, too, features strongly, making the first and most effective response to Jesus’ newest ‘I AM’ claim to be the Resurrection and the Life.

Taking the Jericho road, Jesus set out, at last, to make the journey to Bethany that he had postponed. Bethany lay on the south easterly flank of the Mount of Olives and was fairly close walking distance from the Temple Mount. We can accompany Jesus on the road, which some of the male disciples hesitated to take, knowing that Jesus had faced stoning in Jerusalem in the recent past. The road can be trodden in the memories of bereavement we have all encountered - an experience that sometimes tests faith to the utmost, as it tested Martha and Mary. Martha’s faith is particularly scrutinised and she is the recipient of one of Jesus’ most direct statements about himself, ‘I am the Resurrection. Do you believe this?’ 

It was customary among the Jews, and still is, for close relations of the deceased, to ‘sit shiva’ after a bereavement. A week is usually observed in this way. Lazarus’ sisters would sit indoors, on the ground, and their friends and neighbours would see to all their needs. It was unusual for women to go out during this time, yet we find Martha making her way out to meet Jesus. She is outspoken in her sorrow and appears to reproach Jesus. We can all recall the multiplicity of emotions that come with grief. We can also feel bereaved in a way that has little to do with physical death; times when we cannot cope and feel as though we are lacking a life-giving purpose. Martha engages with Jesus and is candid with him. When he responds with a question, Martha goes on to make a heartfelt and accurate response to his claim to be the Resurrection at least equalling the proclamation of Peter. She proclaims him to be the Christ, the One who has come into the world.

Martha then returns to the house and calls Mary to be with Jesus. Mary leaves and goes out too. She makes the same greeting to Jesus, expressing loss and grief. Her tears move Jesus to tears and the Jewish bystanders remark on his loss. We can approach the tomb with them all, feeling their loss. Reaching out we can touch the stone and feel how unyielding it is. We can also touch the unyielding places in our hearts and in our world. Martha is still hesitant when Jesus asks for the tomb to be opened. ‘If you believe, you will see the glory of God’ says Jesus. Jesus calls forth Lazarus and the ‘You’ and ‘Me’ who are called with him to new life. Like Lazarus we all need to be called forth from darkness and death into life in Christ, especially at challenging times. Lazarus was called forth by the perfect prayer of Jesus, not by any effort of his own. We hear Jesus cry out in a loud voice, ‘Come out!’ Let us hear also in our hearts the words of Jesus that give us complete freedom and life.

‘Unbind her, let her go free’   

      ‘Unbind him, let him go free’.

 

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