An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A, John 11:1-45, April 10, 2011
When some major TV networks featured an Abu Sayaf footage a few years ago, there was much outrage and furor—as well as approval. The TV footage showed machete-wielding Abu Sayaf rebels interrogating captured soldiers before chopping off their heads in an undetermined location at the Basilan jungles. There was much criticism on Malacañang’s decision to release the tapes to the TV networks. People were terribly upset, calling Malacañang insensitive and manipulative in gathering support to the holding of the Balikatan 02-1. Others, however, favored the airing of the footage, saying that it embodies the truth about the Abu Sayaf atrocities. Former President Arroyo herself, defending the decision to release to gory footage, declared that the people have the right to know. But amid the mounting outrage as well as increasing support, a person who called himself “Jun” claimed that the machete-wielding man seen on TV was not an Abu, but he himself who was forced to do it, because if he did not, the Abu Sayafs would have beheaded him instead. He killed others so that he might live.
Today’s Gospel is about Jesus who is the exact opposite of “Jun”—Jesus died so that others may live. But that is going ahead of the point of the narrative. At first blush, it would seem that the story is about Lazarus. But as one reads the story, he gradually notices that it leaves much to be desired. For example, after Jesus raised him from the dead, did Lazarus live a normal life? Did he die again? Why is it that we do not hear about him in the subsequent events in the Gospel? Truth is, these questions are irrelevant, because the story is not about Lazarus, but about Jesus. In the previous Sundays, we noticed that Jesus performed signs—he performed acts of power that brings the reader who has faith to spiritual realities. The water of Jacob’s well was a sign of the water of life, and the cure of the blind man was a sign of Jesus as giver of light. In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus once again performs a sign—the seventh—to bring the mind and faith of the believer to another spiritual reality: Jesus is the giver of life.
But what is life, in the first place? Does it simply mean a power that animates something or someone? It may be noticed that the word “life” occurs 36 times in the Gospel of John, 13 in the Johannine Letters, and 17 in Revelation. Since it is found 107 times in the Johannine writings and 135 times in the entire New Testament, the concept is therefore relatively important. But what does the term signify? Of course, there are various meanings of the word. Metaphorically speaking, for example, one might say that Jennifer is his life, or money in his life, or teaching is his life. In the Johannine usage, however, life is what God himself and Jesus possess: “Indeed, just as the Father possesses life in himself, so has he granted it to his Son to have life in himself” (John 5:26). Jesus has it from the Father: “Just as the Father who has life sent me, and I have life because of the Father…” (John 6:57). Life is therefore the fellowship of the Father and the Son, and this fellowship cannot be destroyed: “Whoever believes in me, though he should die, will come to life, and whoever is alive and believes in me will never die” (John 11:26). If we may attempt at a short description, we say that life is the experience of God in our lives, and this life is one of wholeness that is shared with others. In this life there is integrity of body and soul, and there is fullness of joy. In the letters of Paul, this seems to be akin to the indwelling of the Spirit: “You are not in the flesh, you are in the spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom 8:9).
In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that anyone who believes in him will live (John 11:26). This means that a person, even here on earth, can already share or possess this life of fellowship with God if he puts his faith in Jesus (1 John 1:3). And the seventh sign—the story of Lazarus—is meant to illustrate this teaching. If Lazarus is Jesus’ close friend, he represents the Christian who believes in Jesus and, like Lazarus and his sisters, is loved by him. But who does Jesus love? According to John, he who keeps the commandments of love: “He who obeys the commandments he has from me is the man who loves me; and he who loves me will be loved by my Father. I, too, will love him and reveal himself to him” (John 14:21). John categorically states that Jesus loves Lazarus (John 11:3), and therefore one can assume that Lazarus, while he was living, obeyed the commandments of love. For this reason, Jesus gives him life. Because life has not been taken away from him, though he died, Lazarus’ death is only a form of sleeping (John 11:43-44). In this narrative, therefore, the physical death of Lazarus is simply meant to signify a spiritual reality. It is a sign of who Jesus is—he is a giver of life. At the same time, it is a sign of what he can do to those who believe in him—one does not die if he possesses the life of Jesus.
The story of Lazarus is narrated to challenge the hearer to believe in Jesus (John 11:26), and to believe in him is to love, for it is in love that faith is shown: “His commandment is this: that we are to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and we are to love one another as he commanded us” (1 John 3:23). By believing in him and loving him in the community of believers, the believer receives life from him. But if he rejects Jesus and even hates him, one dies. But if one receives life because he believes and loves, he is no longer in the realm of death, but even here on earth, he receives divine life: “That we have passed from death to life we know, because we love the brothers” (1 John 3:14b). For John, this is the only kind of life that endures—others perish with death. Life of wealth will go bankrupt, life of beauty will fade, life of popularity and fame wanes. If there is anything that persists even after death has occurred, this is our fellowship with God. And because this assumes that one loves his brothers, one cannot follow the example of a certain “Jun” who, if his story is true, blindly obeyed the Abu Sayaf to chop off the head of the soldiers, in order to have life. Such life would end soon in death. If Christ is able to give life because he died, so is a Christian: he must offer his life for others so that others may live, and in that way, he will surely receive a hundredfold life.