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Sunday, April 02, 2017

2 April 2017 - The Fifth Sunday of Lent

Today's gospel is quite lengthy, so I'll confine my comments to a brief explanation of the reference to “two days” and “four days” mentioned in the gospel reading and my thoughts on faith and emotions for followers of Jesus.

John's uses “two days” in reference to Jesus remaining two days longer from the time he hears of Lazarus' death. These two days plus the two day travel time to Bethany make up the four days referenced in v. 39, where Martha says the Lazarus has been in the tomb for four days. Four days is significant because as scripture scholar, Moloney, informs his readers: “As well as the physical decomposition of the body after four days…there is a widely held Jewish opinion that the soul hovered near the body for three days, but by the fourth all hope of resuscitation was gone.”i Therefore Jesus revelation of the power and glory of God are all the more indisputable because there could be no doubt in the minds of the witnesses that Lazarus had truly been dead.

As I have send before each gospel was written by the author for a specific community. It appears that in John's community women and men were viewed as equals. His gospel considered discipleship and belief in Jesus as foremost and included women as “first-class” disciples. He drives this point home by telling us in today's gospel reading that Jesus loved Martha and Mary. Similarly, later on in John's gospel, the Evanglist writes, “Mary Magdalene was one of “his own” sheep whom he called by name.”ii Martha and Mary illustrate, being a disciple of Christ “involves faith, courage, tenacity, honesty, genuineness with emotions, recognition of needs, humility to seek help from [Jesus], and willingness to confront doubts and long-held beliefs that may be in error”iii. In my opinion, They are symbols for the spiral stages in a life of discipleship: beginning in faith, then challenged by doubt or crisis, which emerges as a stronger faith. The exchange between Martha and Jesus are an example of this progression.

I agree with Gail O'Day, who calls the conversation between Martha and Jesus, the “theological heart of this story.” O'Day describes Martha as having “a bold and robust faith,” that empowers her to speak freely to Jesus and that even her brother’s death can’t shake her trust that Jesus can “make God’s gifts available.” iv According to O’Day when Martha declares “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” it reflects the Fourth Gospel’s central question: Will we continue to keep Jesus in our own predefined boxes or will we “allow Jesus to shatter those categories and thus offer [us] the radical fullness of his grace? v Martha allowed Jesus to shatter her preconceived ideas and received “the fullness of his grace” and therefore was able to “see” and to “know” reality of Jesus.

Many of us know about the five stages of grief, which are: 1. Denial and isolation; 2. Anger; 3. Bargaining; 4. Depression; 5. Acceptance. When denial and isolation begin to fade, reality and its pain re-surface. It can be overwhelming. The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger. The anger may be aimed at anyone or anything, including our deceased loved one and God. We may resent the person for causing us pain or for leaving us and/or we may be angry at God for letting it happen. Then we feel guilty for being angry, and this makes us more angry. But death even made Jesus angry.

Emotions play a key role in today's gospel. Several scholars suggest that the use of embrimasthai , which was translated in our reading as “perturbed” implies an outward expression of anger. However, the Greek reads, “he became perturbed in spirit”. So in v. 33, Jesus’ anger is internalized by the addition of “in spirit.” In v. 38, in himself” which has also been omitted from this translation refers to a deep, internal and spiritual experience.vi Raymond Brown suggests, While it does not seem that Jesus would have been angry at the afflicted, he may very well have been angry at the illness and untimely death which were looked on [by Jesus' contemporaries] as manifestations of “Satan’s kingdom of evil.” vii Similarly, Macpherson suggests that the distress of the sisters and their friends enraged Jesus because it emphasized the evil of death.viii

Did the words were of Mary and Martha to Jesus have overtones of anger? Mary in v. 11.32 and Martha in v. 21, say, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We can't tell from the text. But we do know that these are expressions of grief and faith. The sisters grieve but they don’t despair, showing us that in time of trial, grief and faith are not mutually exclusive, and that a ‘dark night of the soul’ can deepen faith.

With regard Jesus’ weeping in v. 35, Schneiders’ writes

Jesus' tears are an honest sharing in Mary's grief and perhaps in her anger at death, the enemy of all life. Jesus, in his most fully human moment in the Fourth Gospel, legitimates human agony in the face of death … This episode roots the spirituality of the community in the realism of human experience…. Faith is not compatible with despair, but it is no stranger to tears.ix

Jesus' emotions in this chapter demonstrate that Jesus is compassionate and feels our pain. In my opinion, as well as being compassionate, today's gospel also emphasizes the humanity of Jesus. He experiences human emotions—love, grief, anger, and sadness. He weeps at the loss of his friend and weeps—sharing the grief and sadness of a family he loves. We Christians too often forget the humanity of Jesus and concentrate all of our attention on the divinity of the Christ. As we come to the last weeks of Lent, let us remember in our prayers and reflections that Jesus was human as well as divine. He fully understands our humanity and as temples of the Holy Spirit we share in His divinity.

i Moloney, Francis J., and Daniel J. Harrington. The Gospel of John. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998, p. 337.
ii Brown, Raymond Edward. "Roles of women in the Fourth Gospel." Theological Studies 36, no. 4 (December 1, 1975): 688-699, p. 699
iii Howard, John M. "The significance of minor characters in the Gospel of John." Bibliotheca Sacra 163, no. 649 (January 1, 2006): 63-78, p.78.
iv O'Day, Gail R. “John” in Newsom, Carol A, and Sharon H. Ringe (eds.). The Women's Bible Commentary. Louisville: Westminster J. Knox Press, 1992, p. 298
v Ibid.
vi Moloney, Francis J., and Daniel J. Harrington. The Gospel of John. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1998, p. 340-1.
vii Brown, Raymond Edward. The Gospel According to John (I - XII, Vol. I). Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966,p. 425
viii Ibid., p. 29
ix Schneiders, Sandra M. "Death in the community of eternal life : history, theology, and spirituality in John 11." Interpretation 41, no. 1 (January 1, 1987): 44-56, p. 54

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