ACTA LECTIONARY COMMENTARY
FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT YEAR C
YEAR OF LUKE
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A reading from the prophet Isaiah 43:16-21
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 126. R/. v.3
A reading from the letter of St Paul to the Philippians 3:8-14
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 11:1-45
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Let’s pause for a little reflection on where we have been so far this Lent. We started on the First Sunday with the Testing of Jesus and discovered who he is: the Son of God. We learned of his utter obedience to God. Recall what he announced to the world to be the foundations of his faith:
Man shall not live on bread alone.
You shall worship the LORD your God,
and him only shall you serve.
You shall not put the LORD your God to the test.
These were the life principles by which he lived. They are the life principles that align our lives to his and do in our time what he did in his time.
Then, on the Second Sunday of Lent, we found ourselves on the mountain, the place of transfiguration. Jesus is utterly transformed before his disciples. We learn that we, too, will be transformed. The way to our transformation is shouted to us from the clouds of heaven:
Listen to him!
Next, on the Third Sunday of Lent, we sat down at a well and listened to a most amazing conversation between Jesus (who is, remember, the way, the truth and the life) and a woman heart-scalded with the truth of her life. But in the weary man looking for a drink of water she finds someone who listens, who tells her things to lift her heart, and who sends her off to tell a new story.
This is the first person in John’s Gospel to be sent to tell who it is she has met at the well. Hers is an apostolic mission. In speaking to his disciples of the fields ripe for harvest, Jesus speaks of the need for the seed to be sown and it is the seed she has sown that causes the people to hasten to come to Jesus and request that he remain with them. This is what apostles are for and she is the first.
On the Fourth Sunday we find Jesus who sees a blind man. Here the light of world meets the darkness of distress and pain. But all it takes is to obey and, as the man tells us again and again, I went, and I washed, and I see. His new sight turns to new insight. His insistence on the truth of what has happened to him brings him to the true light, the light of the world. For we too can come to the light and we, too, can fall down and worship the Lord who opens our eyes to the glory of God.
Now here we are at the tomb of Lazarus. Here we will learn the destiny of our story. Our eyes have been opened. We have seen that we can’t truly live by bread alone. We must listen to voice of God and to hear the voice of God we must listen to the Son. We must sit with the weary man at the well and think and argue and discuss with him and to receive from him the water that will become a spring within us, welling up to eternal life. Then we must go and tell the story. But to what purpose? Why are we anxious to invite people to a grave, a stinking body, and a lot people crying their eyes out? Perhaps we should listen to Mary, the sister of Martha:
Lord, come and see
It is always a good idea to invite the Lord into our troubles and woes, and to remind him,
Lord, if you had been here …
The story of Lazarus readies us for Holy Week and for the
death of Jesus. But it readies us to face this death with the sure and certain conviction that there will be a third day for Jesus. There will be a third day for every human being, for we, gathered around the supper table on Holy Thursday, receive the bread of life that is the sure and certain promise of eternal glory when humanity’s story reaches its final chapter.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah 43:16-21
Thus says the LORD,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings forth chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
“Remember not the former things,
nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I am doing a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild beasts will honour me,
the jackals and the ostriches,
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
that they might declare my praise.
The word of the LORD.
The General Instruction to the Lectionary tells its readers that there is “harmony between the Old and the New Testament readings”. The Instruction declares:
The present Order of Readings selects Old Testament texts mainly because of their correlation with New Testament texts read in the same Mass, and particularly with the gospel text.
Therefore it is advisable, when preparing for Mass, to read the Gospel first and try to grasp its message. Then tackle the first reading, almost always from the Old Testament, and try to see any compatibility it may have with the Gospel reading.
There is one question we must ask whenever we open a Bible and read a passage or when we hear a reading proclaimed at Mass. It is this: What kind of God is in this reading trying to get out? We may not be familiar with the context from what we have read or what we have heard. But if we start with the God-question, we will not go far astray. The same is true when we read or listen to the New Testament: What kind of Jesus is in this reading trying to get out? That is, of course, trying to get out and into our hearts and minds.
Our Old Testament reading today begins with a prophet announcing what God is thinking. God asks that those who listen to the words of Isaiah recall the past. God provided a way through the waters to lead the slaves to safety. That was terrific. Learn from what God did to save his people in those ancient days. But don’t live in the past. God doesn’t.
Instead, God (as always) is doing something new. I will save them from whatever new trials and tribulations befall them. If there are new challenges, then God will meet them. And God’s saving activities will surely lead the people to sing God’s praises.
So what emerges from the first reading is a God on the look out, a God who wakes up everyday determined to save. However, when we come to the Gospel reading, our question is not about a God who saved in the dim and distant past slaves who served to ancient Pharaoh in Egypt. Our question is this: Can that God save us from death?
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 126. R/. v.3
R/. The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad.
When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy. R/.
Then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad. R/.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD
like streams in the Negeb desert!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy! R/.
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
R/. The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad.
Psalm 126 confronts us with the very contrast we found in the reading from Isaiah. We have a God of the past. Indeed, this God is merely a God of our dreams. We laugh and sing because the LORD has done great things. But is it just a dream? Can we turn to prayer and find our prayer answered?
Will those who sow in tears reap with songs of joy? As the sower casts the seed will he come back carrying his sheaves? Will God restore our fortunes even when we are placed in the ground? Can we trust the God in the psalm to meet us at the graveside? The Gospel word today is this:
Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.
Then it is over to us:
Do you believe this?
A reading from the letter of St Paul to the Philippians 3:8-14
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
The word of the LORD.
Do you believe this?
Today’s second reading is Paul’s answer to that question. But before exploring Paul’s faith it may be helpful to know how there came to be a Christian presence in Philippi.
King Philip II of Macedonia, the father of Alexander the Great, in 356 B.C, founded the city of Philippi in northeastern Greece. The Romans conquered the region in 168 B.C. This is where Mark Antony defeated Brutus and many veteran soldiers were demobbed and settled in the city. In everything but name Philippi became a Roman city and was given the privilege of being ruled by Roman law. St Paul came here in or around 50 A.D. This is what happened:
So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptized, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.
Acts of the Apostles 16:11-15
A little community of women formed a house-church in Lydia’s house where she would have presided over that little Christian foundation. It was Paul’s favourite church, though the little community did have troublesome times (read 3:2-7). As far as the records go Lydia was the first European Christian.
Despite the troubles in the community, Paul did not lose faith. Conservative Jewish Christians were active in the area and were a threat to the little church that Paul and Lydia had founded in the city. In 3:2 Paul calls them “dogs” and sarcastically refers to their circumcision calling them “those who mutilate the flesh”. Not very nice, but these early Christians were not saints all the time.
Whatever the difficulties Paul clings to his deep faith in Christ, strengthened by the Spirit of God (3:3). His trust is not in circumcision but is in “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord”. For in and through Jesus Paul has come to have a personal relationship. His hope is that that relationship will deepen day by day until the day when it is complete. Paul keeps the hope and vision of that day steadfastly before him. He desires to be filled with the righteousness of God, that is, to be totally at one with God’s will for him. If this means suffering, then it is suffering as Christ suffered. If he meets death as Jesus did, then he will come to resurrection from the dead.
John’s Gospel was written about fifty or sixty years after Paul was executed in Rome. But he would surely have shouted with joy when Jesus shouted, “Unbind him and let him go free”.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 11:1-45
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”
Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. 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?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”
When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.
The Gospel of the LORD.
To ready ourselves for Chapter 11 that brings us to the tomb of Lazarus we must remind ourselves of what we are taught in chapter 10. Following the newly-sighted man worshipping Jesus (9:38), some Pharisees renewed their questioning of Jesus and this continues into chapter 10. The theme of the shepherd and the sheepfold in introduced by Jesus who presents himself as the good shepherd.
While guarding against sheep-stealers, Jesus assures “the sheep”, that he knows their voice, he calls them by name, and he leads them out to fresh pastures. Indeed, he claims to be the very door of the sheepfold, blocking the possibility of any harm. Why this total pastoral care? Because twice Jesus insists:
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. John 10:11
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. John 10:14
God’s concern for the sheep, in the fold and outside the fold, is delegated to Jesus. He is the pastor who “lays down his life for the sheep” (10:15).
Then the location, the audience, and the occasion change. We must be aware of these changes in time and place in order to fathom the rest of chapter 10:
At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly. John 10:22-24
The fact that the location of the discussion that follows is mentioned reminds readers and hearers to be alert. Major sections in John’s Gospel are marked off by reference to Jewish holydays and annual feasts. In chapter 6 we have the Feast of Passover and during this, the greatest of the feasts, Jesus presents himself as the Bread of Life (6:4-71). Then in chapter 7 Jesus leaves Galilee and goes to Jerusalem for the Feast of Booths. There are many disputes as to who Jesus is. The arguments go this way and that until Jesus declares,
Amen, Amen, I say to you,
before Abraham was,
I AM. John 8:58
The healing of the man born blind follows and in turn is followed by further arguments with some Pharisees. The coming of another feast marks a change. Jesus is still in Jerusalem and still walking in the Temple area but now it is the Feast of Dedication.
[A short note on the various feasts will, I hope, help, as again in John’s Gospel we are approaching the Feast of Passover. As we shall see, after raising of Lazarus from among the dead, the author(s) of the Gospel issue this ominous warning:
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him… John 13:1
The observance of the Sabbath is the cornerstone of Jewish faith. The account of creation in the first chapter of the Bible reaches its conclusive highpoint with the creation of the Sabbath:
And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. Genesis 2:2-3
The observance of the Sabbath goes back much further than the writing of the account in Genesis. The earliest accounts of Israel’s religious practices and the insistence on observances that marked off this people from other people mention the Sabbath:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. Exodus 20:8-11
Long before the Temple in Jerusalem became the national shrine, the Sabbath was a feature of Israel’s faith. Eventually the community observance focused on the synagogue (the Greek word itself means “an assembly of people”) and liturgical services emerged based mainly on the ancient Scriptures. However, it is the community of people that is important. There can be a synagogue without a building as the long and often tragic history of the Jewish people bears witness. Archaeologists have struggled in vain to find the remains of a synagogue building in Nazareth at the time of Jesus. This does not mean that there was no synagogue, no community at prayer, in the little hamlet.
The Sabbath was a bone of contention throughout the ministry of Jesus as the Gospel accounts record. Read John 5:1-18 and 9:14 in the story of the man born blind.
Feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread (John 13:1)
The Feast of Passover celebrates the victory of God in delivering Jewish people enslaved in Egypt. The Hebrew name for the feast is pesach, which means to pass over, recalling that the God passed over the Jewish people when he inflicted Egyptians with plagues:
I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt. This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast. Exodus 12:13-14
Only unleavened bread is eaten during Passover Week to remember that that was the only bread available to those
who journeyed out of slavery into the desert:
You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. As I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. Exodus 23:15
The death of Jesus occurred at Passover time.
Feast of Tabernacles or Booths or Tents (John 7:2)
This feast occurs about six weeks after Passover. It is a harvest festival, usually called Sukkôt (huts). The feast lasted for seven or eight days. As well as a harvest thanksgiving, it commemorates the fact that their ancestors had only tents to live in as they crossed the desert into the freedom of the land flowing with milk and honey:
On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest. And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. Leviticus 23:39-40
This feast celebrated the victories won by the Maccabee family and their allies against the tyranny of the Syrian Antiochus IV. For three years (167 - 164 B.C.), the Temple in Jerusalem was turned into a shrine to Zeus. This desecration was undone when Judas Maccabeus rededicated the Temple and built a new altar. The account of these events is to be found in I Maccabees 4:41-61).
When these feast, including the Sabbath, are mentioned din john’s Gospel there is usually a divisive discussion on who Jesus and the nature of the discussion is coloured by the feast being celebrated.]
The Feast of Dedication recalls and celebrates the returning to life of the Temple. Jesus is surrounded by “the Jews” demanding to “be told plainly~’ whether he is the Messiah, the Christ. Jesus points out that his works bear witness to his true identity. Those people who see and understand all that is done come to follow Jesus and I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. The accusation that Jesus is making himself God is made as he is “walking in the Temple”, the very place where God has placed his Name. The presence in the Temple is at the heart of the faith of the people who charge Jesus with blasphemy. Jesus does not calm the situation by claiming that the Presence is elsewhere:
…the Father in in me and I am in the Father. John 10:38
It is this Jesus who “escaped from their hands” (10:39) as they tried to seize him. It is this Jesus, the one who gives eternal life” who makes his way to the tomb of Lazarus.
The Death of Lazarus
The account of what I insist on calling The Unbinding of Lazarus (to be explained below) is given is a series of shifting scenes. Each scene increases the tension as we move from outside the Temple in Jerusalem to beyond the Jordan River. Jesus leaves his own land of Palestine and his own people. Many people beyond the borders of his own country come to believe in him, the very people who had believed what John the Baptist had told them about Jesus (John 1:19-38). It is from this location that Jesus will return to Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.
Three people are introduced: Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. Lazarus is ill. Mary is identified as the woman who anointed the Lord with perfumed oils (but, strangely this does not happen until the next chapter). Mary, for the moment, is just Martha’s sister. It is important to notice that we are told that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus”. Only later are we introduced to “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved” (19:26 and 20:2).
The sisters send an urgent message to Jesus, saying, Lord, he whom you love is ill. Notice they call Jesus Lord. These women know who Jesus is and have already come to believe in him. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, they make no request. They just state the fact. As the mother of Jesus said, “They have no wine”, so the sisters simply say, “Lord, he whom you love is ill”. These women know who it is and into whose hands they can place their worry and pain with utter confidence.
Instead Jesus remains where he is for two days before he sets out to return to Judea. His disciples warn him of hostile forces, calling Jesus Rabbi, not Lord, as the sister do. Notice how much the reply Jesus makes to them is like that in 9:2-5. In both replies Jesus insists that his work is done in the light. Readers will instantly recall that Jesus is the light of the world. The work that he does in the light, in this case is plainly stated:
Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.
As usual, his disciples fail to understand and plain speaking is required. Thomas Didymus (“Thomas the Twin”) thinks that death awaits across the river in Judea where Jesus has met serious hostility. He is not far wrong. Every time Thomas is mentioned in John’s Gospel readers are reminded that Thomas is “the Twin”. In some circles in early Christian Tomas was thought to be the twin of Jesus!
Jesus and Martha hold the stage. Lazarus has died and ”the Jews” have come to console the sisters. Martha and Jesus engage is an exchange that causes her come to believe what Jesus claims. When he comes to the grave what he brings with him is resurrection for he is “the resurrection and the life”. Her confession of faith is brought to completion. Jesus is,
Son of God
The One coming into the world.
The scene with Martha, longer and theologically more profound than the next scene with Mary, ends with a creed that has enriched Christian understanding from that day in Bethany to every day in our story.
Mary. Everyone remembers Mary from the scene in Luke’s Gospel where she is sitting at the feet of Jesus and Martha is in the kitchen (Luke 10:38-42). She will have a big scene in chapter 12 of John’s Gospel. In this sorrow-filled scene, she has one line:
Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.
What readers and listeners have to grasp is what the conversations between Mary and Jesus and between Martha and Jesus mean for all our dying. Jesus is present at everyone’s dying, as he is present in all our days. He is the resurrection and life and standing at the bedside of everyone who dies is this same Jesus who gives eternal life to humanity in this life and confirms it into eternity when our days are ended.
That does not mean that sadness and sorrow is taken away. It means that sadness and sorrow is transformed and tears will be turned into gladness. It has been said that the whole of the Bible can be summarised in two words:
Even our Lord who is the resurrection and the life is reduced to tears when faced with death.
Deeply moved, Jesus comes to the tomb. In Bethany village the deep cave venerated to this day as the tomb of Lazarus has about thirty-five narrow steps down to where his body was laid. Martha’s second line, “By this time there will be a stink” is a true word. But it is gainsaid by an even truer word that reveals the truth of the whole story:
Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see
the glory of God?
So they took away the stone.
Before coming to the raising of Lazarus an excursion into the Scriptures is required. First we must turn to one of the most defining stories in the whole of Jewish Scriptures and Jewish faith. Christians so often pass over and misinterpret the accounts in the Bible we share with our Jewish brothers and sisters. This is especially true of the story in Genesis 22 for Christians insist on naming it The Sacrifice of Isaac, blindly forgetting that Isaac is not sacrificed.
The tenth and last test of faith to which God submits Abraham is to demand that the old man sacrifice Sarah’s only child, the young man Isaac. In obedience Abraham takes his beloved son and goes to where God directs and readies everything for the sacrifice:
He laid out the wood; he bound his son Isaac; he laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. And Abraham picked up the knife to slay his son. Genesis 22:9-10
Then angel of the LORD called from heaven and the boy was saved.
In Jewish faith this incident is called the Akedah which means “binding” and what is celebrated in the unbinding of Isaac. The theme of the unbinding of Isaac is a major theme in Jewish theology and finds its place in the daily liturgy of the synagogue. The dramatic story is a model of God’s unbinding of the people from the frequent bindings inflicted on that people throughout their history. It is a model, too, on the bindings the people inflicted upon themselves by failing to live by the demands of God’s covenant of love.
There is another unbinding story, this time in Christian Scriptures. On Good Friday Christians traditionally listen to the passion and death of Jesus as told in the Gospel according to John. Here are some sentences from that account:
So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him. John 18:12
Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.
From the moment of his arrest to the moment he was laid in the tomb Jesus is bound. Even in burial he is bound according to “the burial custom of the Jews”. End of story.
Then when Mary Magdalene tells the Peter and “the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved”, they run to the tomb. This is what they find there:
Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus ' head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. John 20:4-7
What they found there was that the binding cloths with which he was bound have been removed and neatly folded and placed to one side. Who did this? Who undid the binding cloths, who neatly folded them, who laid them to one side?
What we have in the resurrection story as told in John’s Gospel is the unbinding of Jesus by God.
We must carry the stories on binding and unbinding as we make our way with Jesus to the tomb of Lazarus.
There is a certain reserve in the English translations at this
point. The ESV has,
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb.
Earlier when Jesus saw Martha and the Jews who had come with her to mourn at the tomb, we are told,
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. John 11:33
The Greek verb used in both these sentences is very strong. It refers to someone who, in his innermost being, is deeply troubled and disturbed, overcome by rage and indignation. In the face of death Jesus is not unmoved. He knows the meaninglessness of death, the hurt and pain of those who mourn the passing of people we love. Jesus, the man of God, is not immune from the emotions that all human beings have to wrestle with when confronted with the darkness of the grave.
The stone is rolled back. Jesus pauses to speak his Father to impress on the mourners standing by that what is about to happen signifies what will happen to all of them. They must know, they must believe, that the Jesus who calls Lazarus to come out, is the one sent by God to call everyone from the bindings of death.
Then three words: Lazarus, come out. The glory of God is revealed. In Jesus God reveals the call made at every grave. We are not destined to lie forever in the cold, dark earth. God’s intentions are profound and glorious: Unbind him and let his go free! The Unbinding of Isaac, the Unbinding of Lazarus, and the Unbinding of Jesus cannot be gainsaid. The Akedah, the Binding of humanity is destined always to come to an Unbinding and a shout of God: Let them go free! When illness and death seek to bind me, I know that Jesus will stand at my grave, shouting to God,
Unbind him, and let him go free!