Lent

 

ACTA COMMENTARY

OUR SUNDAY LECTIONARY

The Year of Mark   

FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT YEAR B: YEAR OF MARK

 

In keeping with my selection of Lenten Sunday readings in line with the Introduction to the Lectionary §97, the readings for the Fourth Sunday are as follows:

A Reading from the prophet Jeremiah                                           31:31-34

Responsorial Psalm                             Psalm 50 (51): 3-4. 12-15. R/. v.12

A Reading from the letter the Hebrews                                   5:7-9

A Reading from the holy Gospel according to John            11:1-45           

 

Again, a reminder:

When we have long Gospel readings, as often happens in Lent, there is no reason why a number of people should not proclaim the text, as on Good Friday.  The drama of these Lenten readings demand that we pay attention to how they are proclaimed to the congregation.  If we are permitted to do this on Good Friday, I see no reason why we should not do so on other occasions.   In the very dramatic account of the raising of Lazarus from the grave we have high-powered theological exchanges and each participant deserves an individual voice.  We have,

Narrator

Jesus

The disciples

Thomas the Twin

Martha

Mary

Jewish mourners

The story needs to be told in a way that is not only listened to but is heard in the heart.  That is, dramatized, or, as Pope Francis would advise, proclaimed.

A Reading from the prophet Jeremiah                                           31:31-34

Here is a quotation from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples,

“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

And they said to him,

“Some say ‘John the Baptist’,

others say,      

‘Elijah’,

and others say,

‘Jeremiah’,

or

‘one of the prophets’”.                    Matthew 16:13-14

Now why, of all the prophets, of all the great heroes and saints of Jewish history, why should some people think that Jesus was Jeremiah come back to life?  Why Jeremiah?

          The answer is that of all the men and women of faith who grace the pages of our Scriptures, Jeremiah is more like Jesus than any other great religious figure coming from God to shepherd or to teach God’s holy people.

Consider this:

Jeremiah of Anathoth

Jeremiah taught in parables

Jeremiah was scourged

Jeremiah was imprisoned

overnight

Jeremiah was put on trial

Jeremiah was stoned

Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem

Jeremiah prophesied the destruction of the Temple

Jeremiah promised

a new covenant

Jeremiah was put to death by authorities of his own people

Jesus of Nazareth

Jesus taught in parables

Jesus was scourged

Jesus was imprisoned

overnight

Jesus was put on trial

Jesus just escaped stoning

Jesus prophesied the destruction of Jerusalem

Jesus prophesied the destruction of the Temple

Jesus fulfilled the promise of

a new covenant

Jesus was put to death by authorities of his own people

Jeremiah’s promise of a new covenant, a new beginning, a new start for faithless people who had been driven into exile to Babylon after three defeats and three clear-outs of people into exile in Babylon (597, 587, and 582 B.C.).  But Jeremiah was a priest and he knew the God he served as priest and prophet.  He knew that the story begun with Abraham and Isaac, and Jacob, the story hallowed on Mount Sinai when God spoke face to face with Moses, could not end by the rivers of Babylon.   What was written on tablets of stone will one day be written on hearts of flesh.   After the days of exile are over, a new covenant will be made: 

It is the LORD who speaks:

“I will put my Law within them,

and I will write it on their hearts.
And I will be their God,

                            and they shall be my people”.          Jeremiah 31:33


And how shall all the disheartened, broken people, trudging back from Babylon, know this God who insists on being their God and insists that these wretches are his people?  They will not have to go to catechism class.  No, everyone of them, from the least to the greatest, will know in their hearts, from their experience of coming home, as each step brings them nearer to their broken city, and their broken Temple, that it is the LORD who speaks:

I will forgive them their iniquity,

     and I will remember their sin no more.   31:34

The people will know that when they meet God, they meet forgiveness.  They will meet their God, the God who does not store up memories of sin, the God whose steadfast love endures forever.

The Book of Jeremiah is the longest book in the Bible.  It is full of wars, destruction, and banishment.  His own life ended brutally and in exile in Egypt.  He was, so an ancient legend records, killed by his own people.  But he knew, and he taught his people to know, and he teaches us to know, that we know God through the mercy we receive.   And so we sing …

Responsorial Psalm                             Psalm 50 (51): 3-4. 12-15. R/. v.12

Many, but not all, of the Psalms have an introduction.  Some have a heading “A Psalm of David”, and, indeed, there is good reason to believe that David the King may also have been David the poet.  Many psalms are attributed to the “Choirmaster” and again there is no reason to doubt that the Temple choirmasters wrote some psalms/hymns for the Temple singers.  Some psalm headings are more informative than a mere indication of authorship.  Today’s Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 50 (51 in the Vulgate numbering), is particularly interesting:

For the Choirmaster.

A Psalm of David,

when Nathan the Prophet went to him,

after David had gone in to Bathsheba.

The story, to be found in 2 Samuel 12:1-25, is a sordid one.  Kind David saw Bathsheba washing herself, lusted after her, and “lay with her” (read all chapter 11 for the details).  Her husband Uriah, a foreigner, was fighting in David’s army and the King contrived to have him killed.  Nathan a fearless friend of David, but also a fearless prophet of the LORD, told the King a parable (well worth reading - 2 Samuel 12:1-15).  David, says the psalm, is forced to plea for mercy,

Have mercy …

Blot out …

Wash me …

Cleanse me…

Purge me …

Create in me a clean heart …

Give me  the joy of your help …

David, bending the knee of his heart, knows to whom he prays:

O God, …

… according to your steadfast love (hesed)[1].

… according to your abundant compassion.

A contrite heart must always hope that, as Jeremiah prayed, God will transplant a new heart and remove hearts of stone.

A Reading from the letter the Hebrews                                   5:7-9

The letter to Jewish Christians is, in my opinion, the most sophisticated in the whole of the New Testament.  The Council of Trent insisted[2], and the old Roman Missal proclaimed in its introduction to a reading from this work as follows: A Reading from the Letter of St Paul to the Hebrews.

It was wrong on three counts.  First, it is not a letter.  Secondly, Paul didn’t write it, and, thirdly, it was not written to “Hebrews”, if by that is meant “Jews”.  It is a homily (that may have been circulated around various churches after initial delivery).  It was sent into the world by an unknown hand. It was preached to Jewish Christians.  All of this is important if you seek to analyse the work from beginning to end. 

Using the understanding and language of the Old Testament, the author of Hebrews emphasises the purging of all that is morally unclean, the making holy (sanctifying) of all that must be holy if humanity is to enter into God’s presence, atonement whereby God and humanity are reconciled, and outlining a future for humanity in God’s eternity.  The human response to this work of God in Christ is faith, that is, trust in God that all will be well, all manner of thing will be well, as the great lady said. 

Today’s word from the ancient sermon is that as Jesus lived and died in obedience to God, and so became the source of life for all humanity, so ought Christian witness to be a life of obedience to God, and witness to humanity.

A Reading from the holy Gospel according to John            11:1-45           

Read chapter 10 in preparation for the Lazarus story.  What does the “open door” mean in the face of death?  What can the Good Shepherd bring to the tomb of Lazarus?  How are Martha and Mary cared for by the Good Shepherd?  And the people?

Setting:  Getting the Theology Straight

The opening paragraph sets the characters in place and the effect of illness among them.  Mary and Martha, sisters to the man who is stricken, are close to Jesus.  It will be Mary who intimately anoints the feet of ‘The Lord” (oddly in chapter 12).  The message to Jesus is plain:  “Lord, he whom you love is ill”.

          Jesus delays for two days (keep a count of the days in the story).  Note, too, his disciples address Jesus as “Rabbi”.  Not so Martha and Mary.  Jesus himself proclaims the meaning of what he knows will happen.  He knows that “This illness does not lead to death.  It is for the glory of God, so that the Son  may be glorified through it”.  Be careful here.  The raising of Lazarus led to Caiaphas deciding that “it was expedient that one man should die for the people” and the glory that came to Jesus was his crowning on the Cross.  The Unbinding of Lazarus will lead to the Binding of Jesus.  And where will that end?

          To readers of this Gospel, the death of Jesus is as much at the heart of this story as the death of Lazarus.  Jesus himself, as everywhere in John’s Gospel, supplies the theology.  When he is raised on the cross, far from being overcome by agony and death, he “will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32).   The death of Jesus in John’s Gospel, unlike the accounts in the other three Gospels, is not a brutally cruel execution of a helpless man.  John proclaims the victory of Jesus and inaugurates the triumph of Jesus as he dies gloriously on his throne of a cross.  This is not easy to grasp but most of it is teased out in his long conversation with Pontius Pilate.  

                   Jesus delays his coming to Bethany and the conversation which fills in the time between the message of Lazarus’s illness and the arrival at the village is well spent.  Dramatically it is suspenseful.   Jesus use the time to educate his disciples, his learners.   After two days delay Jesus sets out, explaining on the way that he is returning to Judea with true light, not in the darkness that prevails there.   Anyone, who walks in the light, that is, in the sunlight, does not stumble.  But through the image Jesus is saying that anyone who walks in the true light of the world, in the light that Jesus is and gives, will not stumble.  Therefore, it is quite right to step bravely ahead even into the depth of black hatred that will be met in the leadership in Jerusalem.  In God’s design, Jesus will reign from the cross.

          When Jesus announces that Lazarus is dead, the disciples are relieved that his sleep indicates he is on the mend.  But Lazarus is indeed dead.  What is required now is faith.  Thomas the Twin (whose twin?) hasn’t much faith but admirable courage as he says to his fellow apprentices, “Let’s go and die with him”.  Of course, as we know, Thomas the Twin is Thomas the doubter.

Two Women Theologians

Martha

Lazarus is now four days dead.  His spirit, according to local belief, has departed his body..  But now Jesus comes.  Dramatic tension begins to build.  The village of Bethany is located.  Family friends of Martha and Mary come from the city “to console then concerning their brother”.   Martha goes to meet Jesus.  Mary stays at home, even remaining seated.  All these exasperating details heighten the tension and underpin the pain of the sisters, expressed first by Martha:

Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.  But even now I know whatever you ask from God, God will give you.

Which is part rebuke and part misunderstanding.  The misunderstanding is that Jesus does not have to ask God for life, for himself or for all who are in need of the light of life.  Jesus is life itself.  So when Jesus declares clearly,

You brother shall live again,

Martha has her answer, an answer propagated by Pharisees but not by the priestly Sadducees,

                             I know that he will rise again

in the resurrection on the last day.

To her faith Jesus issues an amazing clarification, establishing the basic fact of humanity before God in the new humanity made by God-in-Jesus:

I AM the resurrection and the life.

Therefore:

Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.

                Do you believe this?

Then there is an explosion in Martha’s faith, an epiphany, that is pregnant with eternal possibility:

Yes, Lord!  I do believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.[3]

This I AM who gives from himself to every human heart and soul resurrection and life everlasting is the Christ, the Messiah, the very Son of God who is and forever is coming into our world to rescue life from death, to shine light into darkness, to restore glory where glory has been defaced.

And this wonderful woman, having made the most amazing declaration of Christian faith, goes to call her sister.

Mary

There is a delightful detail not to be missed.  After all the fireworks, Martha calls Jesus “Teacher”, underlining that she has been taught by her “Lord”, and in telling her sister that “He is calling for you”, she indicates that Mary will be similarly enriched.  This is delightful when you compare it with what is always called  “The Mary and Martha Story”, with Martha in the kitchen in Luke’s Gospel 10:38-42.

          “The Jews in the house”, “who were consoling her”, supposing that “she was going to the tomb to weep there”, follow Mary to where Jesus is.  Mary falls at his feet and repeats exactly the words of her sister:

Lord, if you had been here my brother

would not have died.

Jesus, deeply moved by her weeping and the distress of Jewish friends, asks to be brought to the tomb. 

          Anthony de Mello once wrote of an Indian Hindu guru who had never read the Bible but declared that it was possible to understand the whole of the Bible by understanding its shortest verse:

Jesus wept

He might have been right.

          You will have noticed that the folk who had come to Bethany to comfort Martha and Mary have been called “the Jews” throughout the drama.  At this juncture “the Jews” recognise the love Jesus has for Lazarus.  Others of them enter a stinging criticism.  The term “the Jews” is used in John’s Gospel to embrace those Jewish people who were opposed to Jesus and who were the instigators of charges against him and therefore complicit in his death.  These were mainly the Temple authorities in Jerusalem.  We must know that the writer(s) were not intending to include all Jewish people in that ominous phrase “the Jews”.  But John’s Gospel has made a significant contribution to anti-Semitism over many centuries and we must beware of continuing the blasphemy.[4]

          Deeply moved, Jesus approaches the place of the tomb, a cave with a stone blocking the entrance.  Martha points out the obvious fact in reply to the request of Jesus to take away the stone.  It is four days since his death and his corpse will stink.   Again as throughout the whole story, the drama is slowed to embrace theological teaching, teaching which acts as a commentary on what is happening.  The final exchange with Martha (not Mary!) is the epiphany, the revelation of all that is going on here.  People are about to see the glory of God:

Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see

the glory of God!

         

So we are told they lifted away the stone.  And Jesus raises his eyes to his Father in heaven giving thanks that the ears of God are always open to him.  For the people’s sake, that they may believe that God has sent his Son into the world, Jesus makes his loud address to the Father.  Then with a loud voice:


                   Lazarus, come out!

The man who had died came out, his hands and his feet bound in linen strips and his face covered with a cloth.

Jesus says to them:

Unbind him,

and let him go free!

 

Unless you read the story of the The Binding and Unbinding of Isaac (Genesis 22:1-19), unless you read The Story of the Unbinding of Lazarus, unless you read The Story of the Binding of Jesus (John 18:12; 18:24; 19:40), and unless to you peer into the empty tomb of Jesus and see there the binding cloths laid neatly to one side (20:5-7), you will never know what is going on in the world of God.

-0-               -0-               -0-               -0-

   

Joseph O’Hanlon

 

13 March, 2018

[1]  Hesed is a Hebrew word that is used in the Hebrew Scriptures to describe God’s love.  It is uniquely reserved for God’s love and English is obliged to stress that uniqueness by an additional adjective, steadfast.  For God’s love is steadfast, as it says again and again, twenty-six times in all, in Psalm 136.  God’s love is steadfast love because it endures forever.  God is love and God’s love never fails.  God who is Love is the God who must, therefore, do mercy.

[2]  On April 8, 1546, the Council of Trent erroneously included Hebrews in, as it declared, the 14 letters of St Paul.  

[3]  The Lectionary Jerusalem Bible translation reads “the one who was to come into the world”.  The verb here is a present participle and means “is coming”, meaning that the coming of Jesus into our world (not our going into his world) is a process, an eternal process which  assures the eternal safety of all humanity.

[4]  The Fourth Gospel, as we have it, was not written by Saint John the Apostle or by the so-called Beloved Disciple, or, indeed by anybody we know by name.  But it does come from writers who were dangerously careless with their use of language.  Certainly, they left themselves open to being read in an anti-Semitic  way.

Please Login to post comments