Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (2 April 2017)

Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (2 April 2017)

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill. 3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” 4 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.”

5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. 7 Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” 8 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” 9 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. 10 But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” 11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.”12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. 20 So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. 31 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. 32 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.” 33 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. 34 And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus wept. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 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.” 43 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” 44 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.”

45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him. (John 11:1-45 – ESV)

Introductory notes


For John, Jesus’ presence and teachings, but particularly his miracles, are ‘signs’. They signal the identity of Jesus and his relationship with the Father. In them all the Father is glorified. This particular text telling of the raising of Lazarus, is the longest narrative in any of the Gospels – 44 verses. It is the last of the ‘signs’ that Jesus works in order to manifest the glory of the Father and announce the glorification that will be manifest in his own Passover.

The text however presents some significant challenges, mostly because it seems to be at such variance with what we find in the Synoptic tradition. So Raymond Brown argues that “at one stage in the formation of the Fourth Gospel the public ministry ended with what is now 10:40–42, and that chs. 11–12 were a later addition to the plan of the Gospel”. (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29), Yale University Press, 2008, 427.)

Brown calls attention to some aspects of Chapters 11 & 12 to support his case. He does not question that “the material of chs. 11-12 comes from Johannine circles, for it abounds in typically Johannine features (personalities like Thomas, Philip, and Andrew; egō eimi in 11:25; “misunderstanding” in 11:11–14; the theme of being “lifted up” in 12:32; many words of the Johannine vocabulary, etc.)”. (Ibid)

Brown finds a very distinctive use of the word Jews in Chapters 11 & 12, a use that is in obvious contrast to the way the word is used in earlier Chapters: “In the use of the term ‘the Jews’, these chapters differ noticeably from what we have seen in chs. 1–10. In 11:19, 31, 33, 36, 45, 12:9, 11, the Jews are not the hostile Jewish authorities but the ordinary people of Judea and Jerusalem who are often sympathetic to Jesus and even believe in him. We saw this peculiarity in 8:31, a verse that gave every sign of being an editorial addition, and it is possible that chs. 11–12 are an addition made at the same stage of editing”. (Ibid.)

Brown finds even more compelling evidence for his case in the sequence in which the miracle of Lazarus appears: “It is placed between the winter feast of Dedication (10:22) and the spring feast of Passover (11:55), with a suggestion in the latter reference that the miracle took place near the end of this three to four month interval. If we follow this sequence, we must suppose that Jesus left his retreat in the Transjordan (10:40), came up to Bethany, and then after the miracle withdrew again to Ephraim near the desert (11:54). Subsequently he would return to Bethany six days before Passover (12:1), only to go into hiding again after a single day’s preaching in Jerusalem (12:36). This complicated sequence is hard to reconcile with the Synoptic picture wherein before Passover Jesus came from the Transjordan through Jericho to Jerusalem, with Bethany as his domicile. We pointed out on p. 414 that it would be far easier to reconcile the sequence in John with that of the Synoptics if chs. 11–12 were not considered.” (Ibid.)

Brown finds further evidence: “The problem of sequence becomes even more difficult when we realize that John makes the Lazarus miracle the direct cause of the death of Jesus, for it provokes a session of the Sanhedrin (11:46–53) which reaches a decision to kill Jesus. The theme of the Lazarus miracle is also found in Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (12:9–11). What makes all of this startling is that the Synoptics know nothing of Lazarus. They describe in much more detail than John the days preceding Jesus’ death, the speeches that he made in the temple courts, and the session of the Sanhedrin; but they make no mention of the raising of Lazarus. How can such a discrepancy be explained if the Lazarus miracle happened in the sequence in which John has placed it?” (Brown, op cit, 428.)

Brown accepts that the raising of Lazarus – at least in the basic structure of the account – is definitely part of the Johannine tradition. But he argues that the narrative as we have it in the Gospel of John today has a very specific purpose: “We suggest then that, while the basic story behind the Lazarus account may stem from early tradition, its causal relationship to the death of Jesus is more a question of Johannine pedagogical and theological purpose than of historical reminiscence; and this explains why no such causal connection is found in the Synoptic tradition. A miracle story that was once transmitted without fixed context or chronological sequence has been used in one of the later stages in Johannine editing as an ending to the public ministry of Jesus. …. this addition may have occurred in the evangelist’s second edition of his Gospel or, more probably, in the final redaction.” (Brown, op cit, 430.)

Thus, throughout the narrative Jesus teaches various truths: “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.”


Bethany: Bethany near Jerusalem is well attested as the place where Jesus resided when visiting Jerusalem (see Mark 11:11, 14:3). There is no need to search for a symbolic meaning to the name.

It was Mary who anointed the Lord: Most scholars believe this to be a later addition. Raymond Brown writes: “This verse is clearly a parenthesis added by an editor: it refers to a scene in ch. 12 which has not yet been narrated; it uses the term ‘Lord’, which John does not usually use of Jesus during the ministry when describing him in third person narrative. Bultmann, thinks that this verse is a harmonization with the account of the anointing in Mark 14:3–9; yet almost all the words come from the account in John 12:1–3.” (Raymond Brown, op cit, 423.)

Lord, he whom you love is ill”: Some scholars suggest that perhaps this man is John himself, the beloved disciple.

Son of God: On three occasions in John’s Gospel we hear Jesus refer to himself as ‘Son of God’ – 5:24 and twice here, 11:4 and 11:25. But Francis Moloney notes: “This relationship is implicit, however, in much of Jesus’ teaching about himself and the Father.” (Francis J Moloney, SDB, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 336.)

Are there not twelve hours in the day?”: This question introduces a small parabolic section in the narrative. The metaphors of day/night and light/darkness and favorites of John. Recall the opening words of the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” Note especially the abrupt sentence after Judas received the piece of bread and “went out”: “It was night.”

Mary remained seated in the house: Martha “went and met (Jesus)” while Mary remained in the house. Moloney writes: “The two different responses are often noticed, but scholars almost unanimously give all the credit to Martha for her creativity and initiative. They regard Mary’s staying in the house as behaving in a way that one would expect from a person grieving. Far-fetched parallels are drawn between Mary’s sitting in the house and Job 2:8 and Ezek 8:14 to assume that Mary is adopting a state of mourning. This reads too much into the text.” (Moloney, op cit, 338.) There is a striking similarity between this description of the way Mary and Martha behave and that give in Luke 10: 38-42.)

“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day”: Moloney writes: “Martha is accepting a current Jewish understanding of a final resurrection. Belief in “the last day” seems to have its roots in the OT (cf. Isa 2:2; Mic 4:1), and the idea of a final resurrection was a constituent element of Pharisaic Judaism (cf. Dan 12:1–3; 2 Macc 7:22–24; 12:44; Acts 23:8; Josephus, War 2:163; m. Sanh. 10:1; m. Sota 9:15; m. Ber. 5:2; cf. also Mark 12:18–27 and parallels)”. (Ibid.) Martha’s belief is brought into very concrete focus by Jesus’ words: “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ”: Moloney points out that the perfect tense is used here and the therefore the translation ought to be, “Yes Lord I have believed”. In other words, Martha had already come to the belief in Jesus as the Christ. Moloney also notes the conclusion of many scholars, that this profession of faith is the equivalent of that found in Matthew 16:16. There it is Peter, here it is Martha. (See Moloney, op cit, 339.)

he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled: Other translations say “shuddered” and “moved with the deepest emotions”. Raymond Brown writes: “This translates two Greek expressions. The first, rendered by ‘moved with the deepest emotions’, is the aorist middle of the verb embrimasthai, which also appears in vs. 38; here the verb is used with the expression tō pneumati, ‘in spirit’, while in 38 it is used with en heautō, ‘in himself’—these are Semitisms for expressing the internal impact of the emotions. The basic meaning of embrimasthai seems to imply an articulate expression of anger. In LXX, the verb, along with its cognates, is used to describe a display of indignation (e.g., Dan 11:30), and this usage is also found in Mark 14:5. The verb also describes Jesus’ reaction to the afflicted (Mark 1:43; Matt 9:30). In these latter instances does the verb express anger? While it does not seem that Jesus would have been angry at the afflicted, he may very well have been angry at their illness and handicaps which were looked on as manifestations of Satan’s kingdom of evil. (It should also be noted that the use of the verb in such Synoptic passages is associated with the stern command to keep the secret of what Jesus has done and of what he is.) Turning to the passage in John, we find that the Greek Fathers understood it in a sense of getting angry, while most of the early versions soften the emotion to one of being troubled. P45, P66, and Codex Bezae offer a reading which also softens the impact; they read ‘as if’ before the verb. Modern translators offer such interpretations as ‘groan, sigh, chafe’.

“The second Greek expression, rendered by ‘shuddered’, is tarassein heauton. Tarassein, usually intransitive (14:1, 27), implies deep disturbance; here, used with the reflexive, it means literally ‘he troubled himself’. Note the expression tarassein en pneumati in 13:21, which has elements of both the Greek expressions in the present passage. Black, pp. 174–78, suggests that these two Greek expressions are variant translations of the one original Aramaic expression which meant ‘to be strongly moved’. Boismard, EvJean, pp. 49–51, agrees and offers examples from patristic citations of John where only one or the other Greek expression appears.” (Raymond Brown, op cit, 425-426.)

There is a comparable word in the Synoptic Gospels – not used in John: “Splagchnizesthai is the verb which comes from the noun splagchna, which means what are known as the nobler viscera, that is, the heart, the lungs, the liver and the intestines. The Greeks held these to be the seat of the emotions, especially of anger, of anxiety, of fear, and even of love.” (William Barclay, New Testament Words, SCM Press, 1955/1964 1955, 276.) There are three occasions in which the word is used in parables – the unforgiving debtor in Matthew 18:23-35, the parable of the lost son in Luke 15:11:32 and the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:29-37.) However, there are at least nine occasions in which the word is used to describe Jesus’ reaction. For example: when he saw the people like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36), he saw the hunger of the people when they had followed him into the desert (Matthew 14:14), he had compassion on the leper (Mark 1:41) and when he met the widow of Nain (Luke 7:13). There is really no adequate English translation of this word. The translators resort to words like “pity” and “felt sorry” and “compassion”. None of these words comes close to the visceral sense of the original use of the word.


Jesus means freedom! The freedom Jesus offers is the ability to be and do what I must be and do. Jesus tells the religious authorities: “‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’. …. ‘So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed’” (John 8:32-33 & 36).

The raising of Lazarus is a story about the freedom on offer in Jesus. It is a long story – the longest in any of the Gospels. Much theology is taught along the way. The story comes to a climax with Jesus standing at the closed entrance of the tomb shouting in a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out.” What a sight! What a moment! Jesus is, in effect, saying: “Lazarus, you do not belong in that place of death. You are a living man! Get out here immediately!”

Could Jesus perhaps be talking to each of us? Lazarus’ tomb was probably a cave or at least a place that was built for him and perhaps others in death. We can all build tombs for ourselves. If the truth be told, we are remarkably good at it. The building blocks of ordinary everyday tombs can be pretty much anything – a slight here, a lack of affection there, an injustice some time ago, a compliment overlooked, a rude remark, a put down, a failure, a significant disappointment …… Such experiences very easily become places of death in our lives. Their effects – desires for revenge, simmering feelings of regret, a gnawing sense of shame, a chronic anger and cynicism, self-loathing – can imprison us. Perhaps because they can give us a sort of twisted identity, we cling to them? We don’t realize that we are actually living in a tomb. Jesus constantly calls out to us: “Come out!”

We cannot miss the fact that this is not just about Lazarus, it is also about the community. When Lazarus emerges from that place of death, Jesus turns and says to the community: “Unbind him, and let him go.” The real work begins! Lazarus – like the rest – will spend the rest of his days avoiding or emerging from the ordinary, everyday tombs he will frequently be inclined to build for himself.

The unbinding that Jesus calls for is the work of love. Love unbinds. Love liberates. And there is not one of us that does not need unbinding and liberation. Perhaps one of the saddest building blocks of our ordinary, everyday tombs is the belief that I do not need unbinding or liberation. Central to the Bible is the invitation: “Let me love you into freedom!” The reality of Jesus Christ, if it is anything, is an invitation to live outside the tombs that we humans commonly make for ourselves and others. What are the most likely building blocks of your ordinary every day tombs? Can you hear Jesus calling out to you: Come out!