“Master, The One You Love Is Ill”
In this wonderful homily for 5th Sunday of Lent, Year A, Father Hanly explains that the key to understanding the gospel about the raising of Lazarus can be found in the words “Master, the one you love is ill.”
Readings for Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A
- First Reading: Ezekiel 37:12-14
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
- Second Reading: Romans 8:8-11
- Gospel: John 11:1-45 or 11:3-7, 17, 20-27, 33-45
The stories that lead up to the end of Lent, the gospels, and the beginning of Holy Week, are really some of the best stories, not only from the gospel, not only in the Bible, but are well known throughout the world. One reason, of course, is the great skill of the writer John.
Another reason, of course, is that the kind of material that John is presenting to us of Jesus the Saviour, the one who has promised that we should have eternal life, is someone that is more than just a story, but he enters into the very reality and the heart of our own lives.
Martha knows how to capture the Messiah. You remember how the story begins. It’s very interesting. Martha sends for Jesus, who is a great distance away at this time because his public life was over and he has settled quietly with his disciples. And he knows that he has been rejected by the chief priest and the Pharisees and the people that meant the most to him.
And so when Martha sends for him, she says, “Master, the one you love is sick.” That’s all. She doesn’t tell him to come. She doesn’t tell him how bad it is. And immediately you know that Jesus, who was fond in a very special way because Jesus loved Martha and loved Mary and he loved Lazarus and he used to stay at their house in Bethany, a stone’s throw from the temple of Jerusalem, when he went there to pray.
And so it is that the first word in John’s description of what is to take place is Jesus loved her. And that’s the keynote of understanding this whole gospel. It is love. Jesus loves her, Jesus loves Lazarus and he loves Mary, and he loves his disciples and he loves people, and that’s what he does. He has come to bring the love of God and to help them understand that he has come to show forth that love in the ordinariness of their lives.
And so it is he says to his disciples that he will linger for a while. And he has a very good reason for that. The reason is he already knows that the illness is very severe and he knows that already Lazarus has passed away. And so he waits, and finally he decides to go in the middle of the wake — the ceremony is really a burial — and then he appears.
And, of course, Martha rushes out to meet him and she’s a little annoyed because she felt that if he had come, he would have healed, like he’s healed so many others, he would have healed her brother and her brother would be alive.
And she says to Jesus,
“Lord, if you had been here,
my brother would not have died.
But even now I know that whatever you ask of God,
God will give you.”
She’s kind of hoping that he will do something very special.
Jesus said to her,
“Your brother will rise.”
Martha said to him,
“I know he will rise,
in the resurrection on the last day.”
And then Jesus said these words,
“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.”
And then he says to her,
“Do you believe this?”
And she says,
I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,
the one who is coming into the world.”
“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.” What does he mean?
He means exactly what he says. He means that he himself can give eternal life to all who come to him, but they must believe.
And if they open their hearts and they believe in him, they already have eternal life, because he is the Son of God, and God represents life, not death. There is nothing about death in God. He lives and His Son comes down to tell us that he lives and he continues to live after he dies, and we will live.
So death now becomes a passageway. It doesn’t become a terrible event that has to be some kind of wonderful thing happened. What Jesus is revealing to Martha, who loves him, is that all are destined for eternal life, that death is only a transition. It’s a movement. It is moving from one place to another. But death is not the end because Jesus says, “I am the way, I am the truth and I am the life.”
And then they take him to the tomb and he does something very strange. He mourns. And you say, “Why? If Lazarus is with God and he’s safe, there’s no need for mourning.” But he knows different.
He knows that when he passes from us and that we can no longer reach him in the ordinariness of daily life and goes on a distant journey into a darkness we do not understand, we mourn, because we have lost something. But our mourning is in faith and we believe that he has gone home to a God who loves him more than, perhaps, we do.
But what Jesus mourns for is something different. He mourns for the fact that this world is a rough and cruel place. And it isn’t God who has made it that way, but we ourselves. People’s lives are full of loneliness, full of difficulty. There are so many fears and, even in this day when we seem to have material things at our beck and call, our hearts hunger and sometimes fear and sometimes get lost in the malaise that comes with just being a human being.
We were created to love. That’s what Jesus says and that’s what the gospel says. Someone who loves you is sick and Jesus goes to him to heal him. It is the love story of God. God loves us, God cares, God is concerned, so much that He allows His Son to take on the pain of us, because only through the Incarnation could the pain of our daily existence be experienced by God Himself.
And to what extent? We will know next week when we celebrate the Last Supper, the supper of love where he says he will always be with us and, even though he will die, he will be with us, because we are destined for life, not death. And then he will be nailed to a cross and he will die. And yet they will remember he did not die in the sense of disappearing into the nothingness of existence. He lives and he is risen.
And, out of that, we begin to understand what we were created for. We were created for life. But in this world, there is one thing, in order for us to reach out to this truth, this truth that is true whether we believe in it or not, to reach out to this truth, we must put our faith in something besides ourselves. For our little world, we must put our faith in love with each other.
And for those who love and for those who have faith, we have no trouble understanding the words of Jesus, “I am the light of the world. I am telling you what you really are and I am the truth and the truth will make you free. And I am the life and you must know that you might pass through many darknesses, not necessarily death, but the darkness of on the edges of despair, of disappointment, of feeling all alone, all rejected, everything that it means to be a human being, as well as rejoicing and praising God for the great things in life.
When those times come, you must know that he is with you and you must turn to him in faith.
Believe in him? No. This faith isn’t just believing that he exists. This faith is giving yourself into his hands like a lover to someone he loves, becoming a part of him that we might become truly like him, calling God our Father, sharing the spirit that he himself has given to us.
And this is the lovely story that is given to us today. It is to prepare us for the betrayal of the Saviour of the world, for the nailing of him to the cross through our own sins, and to put our belief that he has risen as he said.
And this is what the importance that John wants us to understand. In Lazarus, it’s the sign and symbol of the truth of every human being, that we are not created for a time, die and disappear into nothingness, but we are created to love God and to love each other and, most of all, to love this world.
Then why did he have such pain at that time? It seems like such a simple thing. And I’ll end with this.
I went to Jerusalem in the spring of 1997 and I’m in a grocery store in Jerusalem, of all places, doing some last minute shopping there. And it’s the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when all the Jewish people come to the place of worship in order to repent of their sins.
And I picked up, in the grocery store, in the vegetable counter of all places, among the potatoes and the scallions and everything else that’s there, I picked up a little magazine that tells you how much everything costs. And in the back of this little newsletter from the grocery store, this is written, it’s the words of a Rabbi calling his people back to God:
“As the shadow of Yom Kippur nears, I fear that my Jewish people are in deep trouble. The source of my fear is this: God is crying and we are not there to wipe away His tears.”
And what he is saying is Jesus is crying. He is crying for all the people that were at the tomb, those who were wondering who he was and what he was. He was weeping though, most of all, because he saw the world as in need of God, and God crying to become a part of it and being rejected, and the world turning into something that He would have destroyed did He not love the people in it.
And the feeling that the Rabbi has, and the feeling that we should bring into Holy Week, is to love God and to be one with Him and to be one with His world.
It’s a responsibility. And it’s a responsibility that calls us to look around us and see what makes God weep. And see what makes not only God but ourselves weep. And look at the immense task of turning this world into a world that cares, a world that loves, a world that is touched by Jesus who weeps for Lazarus and every Lazarus that has been ever born in this life.
And it is the image of Jesus crying and knowing that his Father waits to have His tears wiped away, that makes this day and this celebration so special.
For it is in the mourning of Jesus and the weeping — he does not weep over himself, he weeps over us, that we might finally bring this world and bring each other to a world that it was created for: a world of forgiveness, a world of caring, a world not without its problems, but a world based on the faith of Martha.
Martha doesn’t say, “Do something.” She just says, when she sends her message to Jesus, she says, “Master, someone you love is sick.”