Fifth Sunday of Lent
Today’s gospel proclaims the truth that Jesus is gives life but calling us out of our tomb. There is a stench in the tomb that emanates from the suffering, injustice and death where people are being threatened by fear, racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, exploitation, and many other death-dealing powers which destroy lives and rupture relationships. It is constantly before us in the media - just like it does for Martha, Mary and indeed for Lazarus in today’s Gospel.
Ezekiel assures us that even the driest of bones can be brought back to life. Israel had been defeated and humiliated by Babylon. Her leaders and population abducted and taken far from home to live among foreigners. Not only was there death and killing but a feeling of being abandoned by God. It was like cultural death. Ezekiel addresses a people with death as their companion. It still is the constant companion of people in modern Iraq, Yemen, Palestine (Gaza) and Syria. Death is the companion of people who live with poverty and natural disasters; people who were sexually and physically abused as children living with their ‘secret’ until opened up; of the victims of human trafficking, slavery, and other forms of injustice; of people whose reputation is killed by gossip, devaluation, prejudice, negativity, meanness, ignorance, homophobia, racism, sexism, etc. We may not be dead but still need to be raised up. Jesus calls us all away from making the tomb our natural habitat. That habitat may we our indifference to the plight of others, to share with them or weep with them. It can be like living in a tomb.
Ezekiel did not share the people’s despair and coined the idea of resurrection to regenerate hope. Resurrection was a political metaphor promising a new and vital future despite appearances to the contrary. It was about choosing how to respond to one’s situation and doing life differently. Liberation from Babylon would come. Return home from exile would occur. The experience of rebirth was to be made concrete in attempts to find justice, harmony, and reconciliation within the community inclusive of beautiful and broken people with all its complexities. Death and life take many forms. There are people who have stopped living because they have stopped being for others or caring for themselves and Jesus is calling us away from making the tomb our home.
St Paul refers to two fundamental orientations. One seems to be that proclaimed by the majority world which says, "Pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, it's everyone for themselves and there is no free lunch." This is the life of "the flesh," where fear and avoidance of vulnerability makes self-protection the first priority. The other orientation derives from the perspective of the spirit that realises our interconnectedness. Such people live with the assurance that life is a gift to be shared.
When Mary says to Jesus, ‘the one you love is ill’, we must ask who is ill in our circles. Should we look to the church and society that continues to push people to the margins? Both Ezekiel and Jesus proclaim life when to all appearances Israel is dead and seemingly unable to escape the heel of the Romans. Pope Francis embraced Ezekiel’s spirit in his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG) when he proclaims a Reign that belongs to the poor, and not those who prioritise the prosperity gospel. In the Philippines, for example, the war on drugs was in fact a war on the poor. The poorest of the poor face a constant threat of starvation. Political prisoners languish in prison for crimes they did not commit. Human rights defenders and political dissenters are murdered. The indigenous Lumad are forced off of their lands when they defend the mountains, lands, rivers and natural resources. Is this not one example of the stench of suffering and death in the tomb?
In the face of this hopelessness, Jesus proclaimed an upside-down future as characterised by the Beatitudes and Mary’s Song (the Magnificat) where the poor would be in charge; the last first; the first last; the rich made poor and the poor well fed. The powerless and gentle would have the earth for their possession. In the parables, the Reign of God was unstoppable as with the leaven in bread which is unseen but active and transforming; like the mustard seed that sprouts up everywhere impervious to all efforts of eradication; like the precious pearl discovered in a rubbish bin; like a coin a poor woman loses and then rediscovers.
Pope Francis has implied that socio-economic conservatism has killed or hidden the Jesus of the gospel. Much of the world lives under capitalist systems that have prioritised the needs the rich and wealthy and powerful over the poor and vulnerable. There is a subtle and sometimes blatant ‘preferential option for the rich’ that embraces free-market capitalism, meritocracy, trickle-down theory of wealth that does not happen, cut-backs in social welfare, health care and education.
Jesus awakens us to be revolutionary in our fight for the dignity of every person; to be a beloved friend that loves so deeply that is capable of weeping at the deaths people face every day. We have found, as with the abuse of so many innocent children and vulnerable people, many afraid to open the tomb because of the heaviness of the stone or fear of the smell or having to deal with what is inside the Church.
Pope Francis has in The Joy of the Gospel made clear that we cannot claim to follow Jesus when people neglected. The Pope is calling the church back to life from the tomb and shows us the Jesus who calls us to welcome the stranger, respect all people irrespective of gender or sexual orientation, that lives with reality and respects diversity and though all fail, hear that they are loved by God. Francis is calling us back to life as church – a church that is humble, messy, respectful and listening to all people and the Earth. It is a completely pro-life vision. It touches on the promotion of nonviolence and peace; the well-being of people in terms of employment, education, health and accessible housing.
The readings carry a message of hope and rebirth. Clearly, there are times when death, destruction and dehumanisation are so powerful, that the path forward is not clear. All we can do is cry out to God and remember that Jesus loves us and weeps with us outside the tombs calling us gently to come out. Others among us are invited to be onlookers or spectators at tomb but work to make rebirth – resurrection – happen by taking away the stone and unbinding people. This is our part in the creation of a world of life. In a time of anxiety as we are experiencing now, let us free each other from fears and doubts about death.