Thursday, April 7, 2011

Something Worth Dying For

Our Lectionary texts for this fifth Sunday in Lent are Ezekiel 37:1-14, Psalm 130, and John 11:1-8, 14-48, and 53. This selection from John differs slightly from the listed Lectionary, so you may want to go here and read it as we will be reading it. The rest of the passages, as usual, are here.

What is worth dying for?

This is among the many questions this week's Gospel passage raises for me. You see, in the other Gospel stories, it is Jesus' cleansing of the Temple that is the straw that breaks the Pharisees' backs, so to speak. In Mark and Luke, it is stated explicitly that this is the act of Jesus (usually seen as happening the day after Palm Sunday) that makes the Pharisees determined to kill him by the end of the week (see Mark 11:15-18, Luke 19:45-48), and in Matthew it is certainly implied by the mounting anger of the religious leaders as Jesus invades their space and turns over the tables of their work and their beliefs that it is his Temple presence that gets him killed.

John, however, sees things incredibly differently. John has Jesus cleansing the Temple earlier in his ministry; and though Jesus has some serious brushes with death after that time (see especially John 10:31, 39), the Pharisees are not yet set in their plan to kill him. In John's Gospel, the act that ultimately gets Jesus killed is his decision to raise Lazarus. This is part of why we have adjusted the scope of the lectionary reading, for it is in verse 53 that we find the fear the disciples had of Jesus being killed if he returned to Judea and raised Lazarus early in the chapter confirmed at its end: "So from that day on they determined to put him to death." How could a joyful, colorful scene of resurrection like the one above merit death?

It's a question worth pondering on a couple of levels. First, why did Jesus choose this to be the thing worth dying for--or, at least, worth setting his death in motion? After all, though Lazarus got a few more years on earth, perhaps, he would die again--he was not resurrected to eternal life, as best as we can tell, but simply raised to continue life on this earth for a while. And this is heightened by the fact that the authorites not only want to kill Jesus for raising Lazarus, but Lazarus himself so evidence can be erased (John 12:9-11). What if Jesus getting killed for raising Lazarus only results in Lazarus getting killed as well--perhaps by a much more torturous, painful death than he'd suffered in the first place? What sort of statement was Jesus trying to make here--I mean, if he was really trying to save the sisters from the pain of losing their brother whom they all loved, wouldn't he have not allowed the death to happen in the first place? What is Jesus' motivation here?

Then there's this layer of the question: why would the Pharisees choose to kill someone for bringing life? Wouldn't this be a person it would be amazing to have around--one who could undo even physical death? Wouldn't you want them on your side rather than snuffing them out? What of this act motivated the Pharisees to see it as the final nail in Jesus' coffin? I think there are probably layered answers to this one. One possible key emerges in Eugene Peterson's translation of verse 48:"If we let him go on, pretty soon everyone will be believing in him and the Romans will come and remove what little power and privilege we still have." our needs for power and control really run that deep...that they could compel us to take a life, and to reject life springing forth right before our eyes?

In John's telling of the story, Jesus chose to perform this miracle with full knowledge that it would probably lead to his death. Why was this act of raising Lazarus worth dying for in Jesus' eyes? And in the Pharisees' eyes, why did bringing about life make Jesus worthy of death? Questions worthy of our wrestling as we continue this Lenten journey of coming clean with hard questions and even harder realities.

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