The Walking Dead – Fifth Sunday of Lent (A)

Lectionary: 34

  • Ezekiel 37: Lessons from the valley of dry bones
  • Psalm 130: Souls crying out from the depths
  • Romans 8: The body is dead because of sin
  • John 11: Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead

This week’s readings point out that

  1. God wants to give us life
    Paul, writing to the Romans, tells us that the body is dead because of sin, but the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies also.
  2. He can
    The bones are dry and buried. The souls cry out from the underworld. Lazarus died, was buried, and rotting before Jesus arrives. Jewish tradition holds that on the fourth day, the body begins final decay as the soul finally departs. All hope is lost. And yet, Lazarus is raised to life.

The message for me, this Sunday, is:

There is no situation, or person, without hope.

This promise of life is not just for those entirely dead, but also for those of us who are “a little dead” due to the effects of sin. From God’s perspective, there is no difference, between sleeping Lazarus, rotting Lazarus, and a valley of dry bones.

Some side notes:

I’ve often wondered why Jesus didn’t arrive until the fourth day.

Let’s review the chronology: Jesus got the message Lazarus was ill, waited two days, traveled two days, and arrived on the fourth day that Lazarus was buried. Lazarus, therefore, died on the same day Jesus got the message Lazarus was ill.

Jewish law and custom require immediate burial (within 24 hours, Sabbath excepted).  The first stage of mourning, for immediate family, is aninut. The bereaved do absolutely nothing, including travel, as if it were a Sabbath, until the departed loved one is buried. 

Once the burial is complete, a seven day period of mourning begins, called a shiva. During the shiva period, there are various signs of mourning. Many are what I might expect: not bathing, wearing dirty clothes, not shaving, etc. But one pairing I noticed struck me. Refraining from sexual relations, and from studying the Torah… Is studying the word of God such a pleasure for me that it deserves to be listed in this context? Is it the greatest pleasure of my intellectual and spiritual life, just as marital relations are the greatest pleasure of the physical?

During shiva, visitors come to console the bereaved at the home of the bereaved or the nearest relative. It is most courteous to delay the visit until on or after the third day after interment.  When visitors arrive, they come in to the bereaved, who sit on a low bench in mourning, and do not come out of the home. So, why did Martha and Mary come out to Jesus? Does the strict 1st century Jewish hierarchical male/female relationship take priority over the customs of grieving, or is there something else here?

Is it possible that Jesus is simultaneously: 

  • expressing his intimacy, and the depth of his love for Lazarus by observing aninut as his immediate family until Lazarus is buried, then allowing the sisters to come to him, the most bereaved
  • showing perfect courtesy by timing his arrival at the time most appropriate
  • demonstrating the glory and power of God by raising Lazarus after all hope of revival departs with his soul

I cannot (nor am I qualified to attempt to) assert these confidently, but it has been fruitful meditation for me, nonetheless.


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