Reflection on the Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
I went down into the countries underneath the earth, to the peoples of the past. But you lifted my life from the pit, Yahweh, my God.
(Jonah 2:7, The Jerusalem Bible (1966), English Translation, J.R.R. Tolkien)
The prayer of Jonah from the belly of a whale symbolizes Israel’s state of desolation, crying out to God in exile. When the Israelite prophet Jonah foretold the impending destruction of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, the Ninevites repented and were spared. The cruel irony consists in that Israel, who did not repent of her sin and turn back to God at the preaching of her own prophets, was not spared destruction at the hands of the Assyrians (to whom the prophet Jonah had preached). It would not be long before history would repeat itself with the Judean exile followed by the destruction of their Temple at the hands of the Babylonians, despite ample warnings from their prophets.
In this Sunday’s first reading, Ezekiel’s prophecy reiterates Jonah’s sentiments of being lifted from the pit. The desolate scene in Ezekiel 37 is that of an arid landscape covered with bones that are scattered and broken, long past dead: the emblem of hopelessness. What prospect for salvation could there be at that point? Yet the Lord promises not only to raise them from the grave, but to put his spirit in them and restore them to their land. All of this is to be understood both literally and allegorically.
The literal sense of this passage is one of the first indications in the Old Testament of the Jewish belief in the resurrection of the body. At the time of Christ, not all Jews held this doctrine. The Sadducees, for example, who only accepted the first five books of the Bible (the books of Moses) as their Holy Scripture, rejected the resurrection of the dead. In contrast, Martha professes her faith in the resurrection to Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel. When Jesus tells her, “Your brother [Lazarus] will rise,” Martha replies, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”
But Jesus’ response to Martha indicates a deeper layer of meaning, which she was not yet ready to understand.
Jesus told her,
“I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord.
I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world.” (John 11:25-27)
Martha obviously had great spiritual understanding. But despite her profession of faith, she still did not fully understand what Jesus meant, or who he really was, for that matter. If you think that you don’t fully understand either, you’re in good company, with Martha. After all, wasn’t he asking her to take a leap of faith even beyond the extraordinary? Her brother’s corpse was literally rotting in the grave.
To understand better what Jesus is asking of her, we need to go deeper into the text of Ezekiel:
Thus says the Lord GOD:
O my people, I will open your graves
and have you rise from them,
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD,
when I open your graves and have you rise from them,
O my people!
I will put my spirit in you that you may live,
and I will settle you upon your land;
thus you shall know that I am the LORD.
I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD. (Ezekiel 37:12-14)
The Book of Ezekiel begins with Ezekiel is sitting on a river bank in Babylon, in the fifth year of the exile. He was among the first wave of Judeans, carted off in chains along with King Jehoiachin. Without warning the prophet sees the “Appearance of the Likeness of the Glory of the LORD” mounted on a giant wheeled chariot composed of the heads of multiple winged beasts – as puzzling as it is horrifying – there before him in Babylon (not in Jerusalem where God’s Glory belongs).
The LORD commissions Ezekiel to accuse Israel of breaking their covenant with God and to warn them that if they do not repent, their destruction is imminent (at this point the Babylonians had not yet destroyed Jerusalem or burnt the Temple). Then the LORD tells him exactly what every prophet already knows but is afraid to hear: “But the house of Israel will refuse to listen to you, since they refuse to listen to me.”
The book of the prophet continues with Ezekiel acting out several bizarre and highly dramatized, yet futile prophetic scenes before the exiles in Babylon. Eventually, Ezekiel’s visions return and take him back to the Temple in Jerusalem, where priests and women are committing open acts of gross idolatry inside and outside of the Temple. The prophet then sees the “Likeness of the Glory of the LORD” seated upon the same fearsome chariot as before, departing from the Temple, signifying God’s judgement on Jerusalem.
For the Jews, this ghastly scene would be analogous to a soul leaving its body – the sight God abandoning his earthly throne, seemingly abandoning his people. But he didn’t abandon his people. Instead, he joins them in exile in Babylon and promises to restore a remnant back to Israel with transformed hearts, to worship him rightly.
In the meantime, though, Ezekiel learns that God’s judgment is definitive when he receives news that the Babylonians have burned Jerusalem and demolished the Temple, reducing it to a smoldering pile of rubble. By analogy, this not just a soulless corpse, but a heap of skinless bones, long past dead, crushed and scattered, a sign of utter desolation. The humbling message conveyed by all these horrifying images – which no other prophet conveys better than Ezekiel – is that no one is righteous enough to stand before God, yet God raises us up!
Which brings us back to the passage for this Sunday’s first reading from Ezekiel 37. As Ezekiel surveys the Valley of Bones, God commands him to Prophesy:
“Thus says the Lord GOD to these bones: Listen! I will make breath enter you so you may come to life.” (Ezekiel 37:5)
The scene is reminiscent of the creation of Adam and Eve (the latter having been created from one of Adam’s bones as he slept).
“The LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (Genesis 2:7)
Immediately after this line, God places Adam into the Garden of Eden. Compare that now with these lines from this Sunday’s first reading:
“I will put my spirit in you that you may live,
and I will settle you upon your land;
thus you shall know that I am the LORD.
I have promised, and I will do it, says the LORD.”
The Hebrew word “Ruah” means both spirit and breath in these passages. “Ruah” is the very breath/spirit of God that hovers over the waters in the first chapter of Genesis, on the first day of creation. The imagery clearly suggests God’s unwavering intention to create us anew and restore us to our homeland with him in Paradise. (Revelation 21:5)
In Ezekiel 37, God promises Israel to do the seemingly impossible, by giving flesh, and life, and spirit to dead men’s bones: to create them anew. This is just the opposite of what they deserve, so why would he do it? Here’s why: “Thus you shall know that I am the LORD.” It is simply because of who he is. He is the God who keeps his promises, the God who loves his people. This is his message to Martha, Mary, and Lazarus in the Gospel reading. This is his message for you.
Ultimately, we must respect that it is a great mystery, when Jesus has to justify his behavior to his Apostles and says that he allows a tragedy to occur, “so that you may believe.” That is the reason Jesus gives for letting two days to pass before attending to his sick friend – “whom he loved” – thus allowing Lazarus to die and causing Martha and Mary – “whom he loved” – to grieve, and ask “Why! Why Lord, did you allow this to happen?” Dear friend – who Jesus loves – you can place yourself in any character’s shoes in this Sunday’s Gospel and don’t be afraid to ask him “Why?” He wants to answer but can’t if you don’t ask the question.
The big reveal at the end, when Christ’s actions confirm his words, both in today’s Gospel and in the first reading, is the resurrection of the dead. On account of that miracle, many would come to believe (John 11:45), others would harden their hearts even more, thus separating themselves further from God (John 11:46-54). Which should come as no surprise, for if they did not listen to God’s prophets, why would they believe even if someone should rise from the dead? (Luke 16:31) The “Appearance of the Likeness of the Glory of the LORD,” or rather, God himself, stood in before them in the flesh and performed astounding miracles before their eyes, and they still could not see it.
As a continuation of my series on the Scrutinies, in my next post we will go deeper into the Gospel passage from John 11, to help us place ourselves in the character’s shoes (except I doubt they buried Lazarus with his shoes on), and ask those deeper questions, that will allow us to grow in our knowledge of Christ and ourselves, so as to love him more dearly and follow him more nearly. If you have not been following my series on the Scrutinies for Lent, I recommend that you read that post, before you read my Gospel meditation tomorrow. See you then and God bless!