Ezekiel 37:12–14; Romans 8:8–11; John 11:1–45
A man is running late for an important meeting. He hurries to the office, and arrives in the parking lot with only minutes to spare… only to find that the lot is entirely full. He circles around looking for parking, somewhere, anywhere, but to no avail. Finally, in a moment of desperation, he cries out, “God, I know we don’t talk much, but if you open up a parking space for me, I promise that I’ll go back to church. I’ll go every Sunday, and I will tithe my gross income and give even more when the Idaho Catholic Appeal comes around.” Immediately, a car pulls out, and a parking space opens. Quickly, the man adds, “Never mind. One just freed up.”
Now, you might be wondering how this is relevant to the readings today. It has to do with the nature of faith, trust, and disbelief. To paraphrase one writer on the subject, if you have faith, no proof is necessary. If you don’t have it, no proof will suffice. The problem comes when we misinterpret what we see. The driver in the joke clearly doesn’t see God intervening, but that’s because he doesn’t want or expect or maybe even accept anything but an obvious physical intervention in the world. That seems to be the way of our modern atheists, who would dismiss any and all evidence that can’t be observed and measured.
That’s the dilemma with which we’re faced: we can believe only what we see, or we can believe what God reveals to us. This was the dilemma faced by the Prophets of Israel like Ezekiel and the problem faced by Christ Himself.
The Book of Ezekiel contains one of the few allusions to resurrection in Hebrew scripture. The doctrine of the afterlife becomes more pronounced in the Greek books of the Old Testament, which were written in the centuries just prior to Christ’s birth. Before the prophets, you don’t see much mention of eternal life, and you see nothing of this in the first five books, what we call the Pentateuch or Torah. Most of the allusions we have to an afterlife come to us from the Greek books of the Septuagint that we Catholics and the Orthodox churches use but the Protestants reject. So Ezekiel’s text is rather unique.
And his imagery is concrete, physical, and evocative. The passage just prior to this describes dry bones rising and coming back to life: “I will lay sinews upon you, and I will cause flesh to come upon you.” It’s like a complete reversal of the process of decomposition.
Some commentaries will explain that Ezekiel is not referring directly to bodily resurrection here but to bringing back the Hebrews to the land of Israel, and that is true to a degree. The literal sense of the text, which is always the first line of interpretation, addresses the House of Israel prior to the Babylonian captivity. Ezekiel is saying that as a nation, or at very least a kingdom, Israel shall die. But he speaks in this current reading as one seeing the future state of Israel in death, which is really Israel’s exile in Babylon. Their dry bones will be raised, enfleshed, and God’s spirit will revive them. He will bring them back to inhabit their own land
Now, this literal reading is one aspect of scripture, but the tradition of the Church has long admitted four levels of reading in scripture: the literal sense and three other levels of meaning collectively referred to as the spiritual sense. While the literal sense of the text certainly addresses the Nation of Israel, the spiritual senses clearly do allude to bodily resurrection, just as the water crossings in the stories of Noah, Moses, and Joshua all allude to and point forward to baptism. This is precisely how the Church reads scripture—always with a mind toward how the new lies hidden in the old and the old is revealed in the new, to paraphrase St. Augustine.
One of the reasons the Church has always declared itself to be the final and authoritative interpreter of scripture is because we weak, self-interested human beings like to twist God’s word to our own ends. But the best of us can simply misunderstand what the original authors meant to say. Even St. Peter commented on how difficult Paul could be to understand. But scripture does have a definitive interpreter, and it isn’t you or me, but the Church.
And speaking of Paul, we get a rather interesting passage from his letter to the Romans to illustrate the point. Paul is writing to the Christian Jews of Rome, whom he has never met. On face value, what he says in this letter sounds very un-Jewish because he distinguishes between flesh and spirit in such a way as to suggest that they’re separate aspects of the human person—as if we’re just spirits inhabiting a body. But what he is saying is that we can either be preoccupied by those earthly things that are temporary, or we can be focused on the things of God, which are eternal. And just as the Gnostics misinterpreted the letters of Paul in the first century, Christians are still doing the same today without the guidance of an authoritative voice to interpret scripture. So scripture needs a final judge, and that is the Church.
In our Gospel reading today, we get one of those apparent non sequiturs that sort of stops us in our tracks or raises what Scott Hahn calls the “Holy Huh”? It’s one of those passages that, when we read it, makes us stop and go, “Huh?” Let me read the one I mean.
Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”
Now, when I read that passage, my immediate thought is, just what does the number of hours in a day have to do with the Jews stoning Him to death? What is Jesus trying to say here? There must be a way to understand His words. And of course, there is. The letter from Paul has already set the stage for it. The twelve hours on either side simply represent the choice we have to make: the half of the day that’s light or the half that is dark. Those in darkness follow after the things of the flesh. Those in the light follow the things of the spirit. If you are walking in the light, you can trust that you are safe. It’s only if you walk in darkness that you need to fear.
Recall our first reading again. Ezekiel predicts the Babylonian captivity. Why did the Jews have to go into exile? Because they had stopped following the ways of God: the God who had brought them out of Egypt and given them the land of Canaan; the God who made promises and kept them, even when the Jews complained and then rejected Him. The last line is key: “‘I have promised, and I will do it,’ says the Lord.” They had stopped trusting in the very God who had repeatedly delivered them. Even then, God fulfills His promises.
Paul is saying something similar: who are you going to trust? Are you going to put your faith in the eternal, or are you going to ignore all the signs God puts in your way and trust in things that don’t last? The parking lot joke is pretty much the story of most of our lives. We overlook the many miracles of our very existence and see nothing other than chance. But much of what we think of as chance is simply the miraculous working of God. A 19th-century French writer, Théophile Gautier put it this way: “Chance is the pseudonym God uses when he does not want to sign.” Now if you read a lot, you can almost always recognize the writing of an author you love. Their writing voice is their signature. And so it is with God. He creates little miracles in our lives every day, but if we don’t have the eyes to see them, we miss His signature in our lives.
This story from John is all about this matter of trust and proof. Jesus even says in the opening verses, after he is told about Lazarus’ illness, that this illness will not end in death but is for the glory of God the Father. Notice that he says “will not end in death.” He doesn’t say that Lazarus will not die but that the illness he will not end in death.
I’ve always found this story about Lazarus intriguing. The name Lazarus is the Greek form of the name Eleazar, which we see throughout Hebrew and Greek Old Testament scripture, and it means, “God is my help.” So it’s a fitting name for someone who is a friend of Jesus. Lazarus is also the name of the poor man in the story in Luke. If you recall, in that story, the poor man Lazarus is lying in the street in front of the rich man’s house. The rich man is indifferent to him and walks by him without helping him. They both die, and Lazarus is taken up to Abraham’s bosom, which is a good place to be, and the rich man goes to a place that is not good, where he is essentially tormented. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to the world of the living to warn his brothers. Abraham responds to him, “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”
And now, in our Gospel reading, Lazarus dies as well. Then Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Is Jesus sending Lazarus back to warn others? Will they hear him? Those who witness it have one of two responses. Some begin to believe, so they respond to Jesus in faith based on what they witness. But others report back to the Pharisees, the party of Jews who believe that they uphold the teachings of Moses and the prophets, and they are certain that Jesus’ raising of Lazarus is a bad thing. They want to destroy Jesus. So just as Jesus predicts in Luke, these people witness someone who has come back from the dead, and they respond with disbelief. Will they trust Jesus, who has raised the man, or will they follow Caiaphas and have Jesus put to death?
All of us have to make this decision about whom we trust. We can put our trust in the fleeting things of this world, or we can put our trust in a truth beyond this world. As Catholics, of course we should put our trust in Christ, but faith doesn’t stop there. Christ did not leave us as lost sheep. He gave us a Church to guide us in our understanding of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. The Church brings us together here at the altar and preserves for us the sacraments of our unity in the Body of Christ. But we often act as though its authority is arbitrary and meddlesome. But could anything our Savior gave us be intended solely as a stumbling block? Do we look at the gifts of the Church as impediments to us and our relationship with God, or do we trust the gift that Christ has given us?
Who are you going to trust?