The Use of Irony in John’s Gospel

Last Sunday’s Gospel about the raising of Lazarus points to a supreme irony in the Gospel of John: Jesus’ very act of raising Lazarus from the dead confirms the Jewish temple leaders in their conviction to kill Him. The contrast could not be clearer. Jesus, who brings life, is opposed by the death-dealing conviction of His opponents. This is but one example of Johannine irony serving to highlight the differences between Jesus and His opponents.

As we approach Holy Week we encounter a lot of contrasts and ironies in John’s Gospel account of the Passion. We do well to look at some of them.

Irony is a literary technique that highlights a striking difference between two or more situations; this difference is known by the audience or readers while the characters in the narrative are unaware.

Another form of irony uses words to express something quite different from their typical meaning. A blind man may “see” better than those with vision. One considered a teacher may be ignorant of truths apparent to the most unlearned and simple of people.

The irony in the story of Lazarus comes several verses after the portion we read this past Sunday. The pertinent passage reads,

Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in Him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, everyone will believe in Him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” Caiaphas did not say this on his own. Instead, as high priest that year, he was prophesying that Jesus would die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also for the scattered children of God, to gather them together into one. So from that day on they plotted to kill Him. As a result, Jesus no longer went about publicly among the Jews, but He withdrew to a town called Ephraim in an area near the wilderness. And He stayed there with the disciples (John 11:45-54).

Yes, this passage is dripping with irony. The occasion of Jesus raising a man from the dead causes the Pharisees to plot His death. He who gives life must be put to death.

A second irony is that Caiaphas “accidentally” speaks the truth. He conspires in murder, but his office of prophet remains! He cannot help but speak the truth because he is High Priest. His prophecy is true, but only in a way very different from what he intends. He is like Balaam’s donkey, which spoke the truth, but as a beast, knew not of what it spoke. Thus Caiaphas is a prophet, but only in an accidental, unknowing way.

Yes, John’s Gospel is rich with irony—in a gleeful, sharp, sarcastic way. We human beings are prone to becoming fodder for irony because we are so fickly and inconsistent; we often play into divine plans even as we resist them!

Consider some other examples of Johannine irony:

I. Straining gnats and swallowing camels – Jesus has been brought before Pilate on trumped up charges. Yes, they have an innocent man on trial and conspire to have him murdered. Yet despite this wickedness, John reports, the Jewish leaders did not enter the Praetorium [the Governor’s palace] to avoid being defiled and unable to eat the Passover (Jn 18:28).

They are more concerned with the ritual impurity of entering the house of a Gentile than the fact that they are conspiring to murder an innocent man (who happens to be the Son of God)!

Yes, this is dripping with irony, a kind of sarcastic and tragic irony. In their foolishness and blindness, they will consider themselves worthy to eat the Passover because they did not enter the house of a Gentile. Never mind that they have conspired to murder an innocent man.

II. Who is really blind here? – In the story of the man born blind (John 9) there are numerous ironies. The blind man himself says to the Pharisees who interrogate him, That is remarkable indeed! You do not know where He is from, and yet He opened my eyes (Jn 9:30). In other words, who is really the blind one here? Why should the student have to teach the teacher?

The blind man (who ironically can now see better than the supposed teachers and enlightened ones) instructs them of what they should know: Never before has anyone heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, He could not do anything like this (Jn 9:32-33).

Jesus later doubles down on the irony by declaring, within earshot of the religious leaders, For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind may see and those who see may become blind (Jn 9:39). They then continue, foolishly and blindly, to take the bait: Some of the Pharisees who were with Him heard this, and they asked Him, “Are we blind too?” “If you were blind,” Jesus replied, “you would not be guilty of sin. But since you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (Jn 9:40-41).

The caustic irony cannot be missed. The rhetorical question remains, “Who is really blind here?”

III. The “enlightened” ones stumble about in the dark – One of the themes in John’s Gospel is the battle between light and darkness. This theme is announced in the prologue: The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (Jn 1:5). Jesus is the Light of the World, but men have shown that they prefer the darkness due to their wickedness (See John 3:19).

Jesus also says, Are there not twelve hours of daylight? If anyone walks in the daytime, he will not stumble, because he sees by the light of this world. But if anyone walks at night, he will stumble, because he has no light (Jn 11:9).

When Judas leaves the Last Supper to betray Jesus, John merely says, “It was night.” He is not just telling us the time of day. Darkness now has its hour. Although Judas and his conspirators consider Jesus misguided and dangerous, they think that they are the enlightened ones, knowing better than Jesus, who is the true Light.

Here comes the irony: Jesus is in the garden of Gethsemane. He and His apostles made it there by the light of Passover moon and because Jesus is the light of the World. In a scene dripping with irony, John notes that as Judas approached the moonlit garden he brought a band of soldiers and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees. They arrived at the garden carrying lanterns, torches, and weapons (John 18:3). Yes, they stumble about on a moonlit night needing torches and lanterns to find their way.

IV. The arresters are arrested – Jesus, knowing their intentions and noting that they have trouble seeing, stepped forward and asked them, “Who are you looking for?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they answered. Jesus said, “I AM.” And Judas His betrayer was standing there with them. When Jesus said, “I AM” they drew back and fell to the ground (Jn 18:4-6).

This is a kind of comedic irony. Sent to arrest Jesus, they are arrested by Him! The implication is that He almost needs to help them up from their fall. They are so overwhelmed by the authority of Jesus and His Divine Name that they fall backwards to the ground.

Some argue that their falling to the ground is a voluntary sign of reverence for the Divine Name. Maybe, but if so, then this is merely another supreme irony: that they would show reverence for the Divine Name while at the same time assisting in an act of betrayal and in the arresting of an innocent man.

V. The decider is indecisive – The description of the trial before Pilate in John’s Gospel is an ironic portrait of Pilate. Though possessed of great local power and the ability to decide Jesus’ fate in a way that will be unquestioned, Pilate is weak and vacillating. He is this way because of his ambition. He fears the crowd and their capacity to riot. Such an occurrence would be a huge blot on his record and likely prevent his future advancement.

Deep within his conscience, Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent of the charges. He correctly suspects that the Jewish leadership has brought Him up for unjust reasons and are serving their own interests more so than justice or religious conviction.

In chapters 18 and 19, John paints a physical picture of Pilate’s vacillation by describing his going in and out of the Praetorium (Governor’s palace) numerous times. In 18:28, Pilate goes out to address the Jews. In 18:33 He goes back into the Praetorium to speak with Jesus. In 18:38, Pilate goes back out to the Jews to say that he finds no guilt and tries to negotiate Jesus’ release. In 19:1, Pilate is back in the Praetorium and yet another compromise indicates that Jesus should be scourged but not killed. In 19:4, Pilate goes back out to the Jews hoping that the scourging of Jesus will have satisfied them. Though he said he had found no guilt in Jesus, he presents Him again after His scourging! Why have Jesus scourged (a terrible punishment) if he found no guilt in Him? Of course the Jewish leaders were still not satisfied and demanded Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate’s fears grow and in 19:9 he goes back into the Praetorium to speak yet again with Jesus. Although Pilate asserts that he has the power to kill or release Him, Jesus looks at this deflated and fearful man and reminds him that he would have no power at all if God had not bestowed it on him. Finally, Pilate emerges one last time in 19:13 and in anger violates his own conscience and hands Jesus over to be crucified.

The dramatic irony is hard to miss. Here is a seemingly powerful man with the office to decide life or death, yet indecisive. He is a vacillator, swaying in the breeze of public opinion. On seven different occasions he goes into or out of the Praetorium. John’s portrait of this leader is dripping with irony. Pilate is more a follower than a leader.

VI. The judge is put on trial – John describes another irony within this irony. Although Jesus is on trial, at a key point He turns the tables on Pilate and it is Pilate who is on trial.

Usually in a trial the defendant is required to answer questions. Pilate begins by asking, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Jn 18:33) Jesus turns the tables on Pilate and asks him, “Are you saying this on your own, or did others tell you about Me?” (Jn 18:34) Later, when Pilate asserts his authority to pass sentence on Jesus, Jesus reminds him that he would have no authority if God had not granted it to him.

Finally, when the critical moment to pass judgment comes, John writes, When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and he sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (Jon 19:13). The Greek text is ambiguous as to who is sitting on the judge’s seat. Does the “he” who sat down on the judge’s seat refer to Pilate or to Jesus? Historically, it was Pilate who sat in the judge’s seat, but grammatically it is ambiguous.

John underscores the irony: Who is really being judged here? Clearly it is actually Pilate who has come under judgment for violating his conscience and succumbing to fear. Yes, it is another dramatic irony wrapped in a grammatical ambiguity.

There are other ironies in John’s Gospel (such as Nicodemus, the enlightened teacher who comes to Jesus by night but needs to be taught Jn 3:10), but allow these examples to suffice.

The use and uncovering of irony is a memorable way to teach. John and the Holy Spirit who inspired him do not hesitate to make use of it. Ultimately, irony exists because we human beings are fickle and often pretentious. Such qualities are the fuel of irony.

The Anatomy of Sin

The first reading from Monday’s Mass (Monday of the 5th Week of Lent) is the story of Susanna, an extraordinary moral tale from the Book of Daniel. The full passage (which is quite lengthy) can be found here: Daniel 13:1-62. Interestingly, it is missing from Protestant bibles, which use a truncated version of the Book of Daniel. It is not well-known among Catholics, either, because it is only read once each year, at a weekday Mass.

The story is of a beautiful young woman, Susanna, who is married to a man named Joakim. One day as she is bathing in a private garden, two older men who have hidden themselves there try to seduce her. When Susanna rebuffs their brazen overture, they threaten to falsely accuse her of having committed adultery with a young man in the garden if she does not submit to their desires. She still refuses and they follow through with their threat, even demanding that she be stoned. Things look bleak for Susanna until Daniel comes to the rescue; through crafty interrogation he exposes their lie. The story is a small masterpiece; if you have never read it, I recommend you do so.

In the course of this engaging tale is a lesson on the anatomy of a sin. In a remarkable description, the story describes three sources from which their sin springs. The text says, They suppressed their consciences; they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven, and did not keep in mind just judgments (Daniel 13:9). I’d like to take a look at each of these three sources in turn.

1. They suppressed their consciences.What is the conscience? The Catechism puts it in this way: Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. … For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. … His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) # 1776). In effect, the conscience is the voice of God within us. God has written His Law in the heart of every human person.

We have a basic understanding of right and wrong; we know what we are doing. There may be certain higher matters of the Law that the conscience must be taught (e.g., the following of certain rituals or feasts days), but in terms of fundamental moral norms, we have a basic, innate grasp of right and wrong. We see and salute virtues like bravery, self-control, and generosity; we also know that things such as the murder of the innocent, promiscuity, and theft are wrong. For all the excuses we like to make, deep down inside we know what we are doing and we know that we know what we are doing. I have written substantially about conscience here.

Notice that the text says that they “suppressed their consciences.” Even though we know something is wrong we often want to do it anyway. One of the first things our wily mind will do is to try to suppress our conscience.

The usual way of doing this is through rationalizations and sophistry. We invent any number of thoughts, lies, and distortions to try to reassure ourselves that something is really OK—something that deep down inside we know is not OK.

We also accumulate false teachers and teachings to assist in this suppression of the truth. St. Paul wrote to Timothy, For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths (2 Tim 4:1-3).

Suppressing one’s conscience takes quite a bit of effort, and I would argue that one cannot ever do it completely. In fact, the whole attempt to suppress the conscience is not only a substantial effort, but also very fragile. This helps to explain the anger and hostility of many in the world toward the Church. Deep down they know that we are right. Often, even the slightest appeal to the conscience awakens its voice, causing an eruption of fear and anger.

So this is the first stage in the anatomy of a sin: the suppression of the conscience. In order to act wickedly without facing the deep psychological pain of significant guilt, the men in the story suppress the conscience in order to shut off the source of that pain.

2… they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven … – In order to sustain the rationalizations and sophistry necessary to suppress the conscience, one must distance oneself from the very source of conscience: God Himself.

One way to do this is to drift away from God through neglect of prayer, worship, study of the Word of God, and association with the Church, which speaks for God. As time goes own, this drifting may increase and the refusal to repent become more adamant. Drifting can finally lead to absence, which often manifests as outright hostility to anything religious or biblical.

Another way that some avert their eyes from Heaven is by redefining God. The revealed God of Scripture is replaced by a “designer God,” who does not care about this thing or that. “God doesn’t care whether or not I go to church, or if I shack up with my girlfriend.” On being shown Scripture contrary to their distorted notions, they often respond that St. Paul had “hang-ups” or that the Bible was written in primitive times.

Culturally, the refusal to look heavenward is manifest in the increasing hostility to the Catholic Christian faith. Demands that anything even remotely connected to the faith be removed from the public square are becoming increasingly strident. According to radical secularists, prayer in public, nativity sets, Church bells, any reference to Jesus or Scripture, etc. must all be removed; they refuse to turn their eyes heavenward or even have anything around that reminds them to do so.

The cumulative effect is that many people are no longer looking to Heaven or to God. Having suppressed their consciences, they now demand a public square absent any reference to God. Still others reinvent a fake God, a false kingdom, an idol. Either way, the purpose is to isolate and insulate the self from God and what He reveals. This makes it easier to maintain the rather exhausting effort of suppressing the conscience.

3… and did not keep in mind just judgment. Finally let’s throw in a little presumption that dismisses the consequences of evil acts. This, of course, is one of the biggest sins of our current age. There are countless people, even among Catholics in the pews and Catholic clergy, who seem to deny that they will ever have to answer to God for what they have done. This is completely contrary to Scripture, which insists that we will indeed answer one day to God for our actions.

This final stage is meant to eliminate the salutary fear that should accompany evil acts. At this stage, the sinner has had some success in alleviating the psychic pain of guilt and in eliminating a lot of the fear that used to accompany sin.

However, even after suppressing the conscience and refusing Heaven’s influence, some fear still remains. Now, an attack is made on any notion of consequences. Perhaps the sinner exaggerates the mercy and patience of God to the exclusion of His holiness, which sin cannot endure. Perhaps he denies the reality of Hell, which God clearly teaches. Perhaps he denies that God exists at all and thus holds that there is no judgment to be faced. Regardless of how he does it, the sinner must push back the fear the punishment and/or judgment.

Here, then is the anatomy of a sin. Having suppressed the conscience, having muted the voice of God to the extent possible and removed oneself from Heaven’s influence, and finally having denied that any negative consequences will ensue, one feels freer to sin. It is as though one has taken a number of stiff drinks to anesthetized oneself sufficiently to proceed.

Guess what, though, the pain is still there, deep down inside. The voice of conscience remains. Despite all the attempts to insulate himself from the true God, deep down the sinner still knows that what he is doing is wrong. Even the slightest thing that pricks his conscience causes unease. Increasingly, he resorts to anger, projection, name-calling, and/or ridiculing of anyone or anything that awaken his conscience. Sin is in full bloom now; repentance seems increasingly difficult and unlikely. Only the prayers and fasting of others for his sake will likely spring him loose from his deep moral sleep. Pray for the conversion of sinners!

On Going to Our Own House

The Gospel for Mass this past Saturday contains one line that deserves some attention from us, especially in a time like this. On one level it seems like a mere scene-ender, a line that ends the section and has the dramatis personae (cast of characters) walk off the stage. But as most who are familiar with Scripture know, there is rarely a wasted syllable, particularly in John’s Gospel. There is not one word or syllable that should be dismissed as “filler” when the Holy Spirit is at work inspiring the sacred authors.

The line in question appears in the 7th Chapter of John’s Gospel, at the end of a debate among the temple leaders as to the identity of Jesus. They wrestle with the question of who Jesus is: is the coming Messiah, and whether He or not He is the eternal Son of the Father as He claims.

The majority of the interlocutors reject Jesus out of hand because He comes from Galilee and “no Prophet has ever come from Galilee!” One of their number, Nicodemus, encourages them to be more open to the possibilities and to have greater command of the facts before rendering judgment. The pericope (passage) ends in this way:

Then each went to his own house (John 7:53).

This sentence ought not to be overlooked because it invites great significance. We can distinguish three rather separate understandings of the line: an inward meaning, and outward meaning, and an eternal meaning.

1. Inward – Each one returning to his own house can be understood as describing how we must ultimately enter into the “house” of our soul. We must all go into the inner room of our heart and mind; that place where we are alone with God; where we ponder, reflect, deliberate, and discern. Many of us have more time to do this just now and it is surely more important than ever to do so. 

It is in this place that we must answer for ourselves the deepest questions of life: Who am I? Who is God? What is the meaning of my life? What am I doing and why? Who is the man/woman God made me to be? Yes, this is the inner sanctum, the holy place where we are alone with God.

When we are with others we tend to posture. We seek to conform in response to peer pressure or other social influences. There is often undue influence from persuasion, excessive human respect, group pressure, and group dynamics.

But there comes a moment when we are summoned by the Lord to separate from others, to go into our own house, to enter into that quiet place inside us and listen carefully to voice of God that echoes in our heart (cf Catechism # 1776).

At the point in the Gospel cited above, the temple leaders have had their debate. They have sought to influence one another. Some have experienced pressure and persuasive argumentation. Many of them probably exhibited the human tendency we all have: to try to ingratiate ourselves to others by speaking so that others will think highly of us.

Now that all the posturing is over, it is time for each man to go to his own house and there privately ponder and decide what he really thinks. Yes, it is decision time. The Lord is asking a question: Who do you say that I am? It is time for each man to go to his own house and be face-to-face with God.

Sadly, many today reject this requirement to go to our own “house” and reflect deeply. Most take little time to enter the room of their own soul. In our modern world, with its myriad distractions, most prefer to flip on the television instead.

Ultimately we cannot evade this call from God to decide, in that inner room of our own “house,” who God is and how we will respond to Him. And for those who go on for too long refusing to go to their own house, God has ways of forcing the issue. Maybe it’s one of those sleepless at 3:00 AM. Maybe it’s a time of crisis that provokes soul-searching. But ultimately, at some point, each of us must go to his own house and reflect quietly with God, away from social pressures, away from posturing. There, alone with God, each must face the deepest questions.

2. Outward – There is a different perspective from which one can read this text, and it provides an insight that is almost exactly opposite. For while it is of critical importance to go to that secret place, that house of our own soul and there reflect with God, it is also of vital to stay connected to the reality that is outside our house. Thus, this passage may also be viewed as a commentary on the human tendency to retreat into our own little world, to shrink from any evidence we don’t like, to avoid anything that challenges our worldview.

Jesus had earlier confronted these temple leaders with evidence of His divinity and His identity as Messiah and Lord. He spoke to them of His miracles, of His fulfillment of prophecy, of the testimony of John the Baptist, and of the Father’s voice echoing in their hearts (cf John 5:31-47).

But we all share the human tendency to retreat into our own world, our own house, despite the evidence. In effect, we retreat from reality into our own made-up little world.

There is an old saying, “Don’t believe everything you think.” We tend to believe that something is so just because we think it.

There is another saying, “Who is an adviser to himself has a fool for a counselor.” Yet too easily we take only our own counsel. Or, we surround ourselves only with teachers who “tickle our ears.”

Thus, though these temple leaders have been confronted with many facts pointing to the veracity of Jesus’ identity as Lord and Messiah, they choose instead to brush off the evidence and retreat into their own houses, their own little worlds.

Further, they err with the facts: they argue that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem whereas Jesus came from Galilee. But of course Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

But never mind all that; each just goes off to his own house, to his own little world. And too often many do exactly this.

The challenge for us all is to live in reality, not merely in the confines of our own house, our own little world, our own (sometimes flawed or incomplete) thoughts.

3. Eternal – The third interpretation of the “house” referred to in this line is our ultimate home, the destination to which we all journey. Thus, when the text says they all went each to his own house, it may also refer to that place where they will dwell for all eternity. Where that house is, in Heaven or Hell, depends on each man’s stance regarding Jesus.

Having scoffed at Jesus, each of the temple leaders now heads off to his own home. But no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, and thus their home is somewhere other than the heart of the Father.

There is an old saying, “You made your bed, now lie in it.” You and I must choose where to make our home. Where that home is will depend upon our acceptance or rejection of Jesus.

There will come a day when each of us will have said of us, Then [he] went to his own house. Where will your house be?

Untie Him and Let Him Go Free – A Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent

In today’s Gospel, we hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The story marks a significant turning point in the ministry of Jesus: it is because of this incident that the Temple leadership in Jerusalem resolves to have Jesus killed; a supreme irony to be sure.

As is proper with all the Gospel accounts, we must not see this as merely an historical happening of some two thousand years ago. Rather, we must recall that we are Lazarus; we are Martha and Mary. This is also the story of how Jesus is acting in our life.

Let’s look at this Gospel in six stages and learn how the Lord acts to save us and raise us to new life.

I. HE PERMITS. Sometimes there are trials in our life, by God’s mysterious design, to bring us to greater things. The Lord permits these trials and difficulties for various reasons. But, if we are faithful, every trial is ultimately for our glory and the glory of God.

Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary, and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to him saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Notice that Jesus does not rush to prevent the illness of Lazarus. Rather, He permits it temporarily in order that something greater, God’s Glory in Jesus, be made manifest. In addition, it is for Lazarus’ own good and his share in God’s glory.

It is this way with us as well. We do not always understand what God is up to in our life. His ways are often mysterious, even troubling to us. But our faith teaches us that His mysterious permission of our difficulties is ultimately for our good and for our glory.

  1. Rejoice in this. You may for a time have to suffer the distress of many trials. But this so that your faith, more precious than any fire-tried gold, may lead to praise, honor, and glory when Jesus Christ appears (1 Peter 1: 10).
  2. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold (Job 23:10).
  3. For our light and momentary troubles are producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:17-18).

An old gospel hymn says, “Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand, all the way that God will lead us to that blessed promised land. But He guides us with his eye and we follow till we die, and we’ll understand it better, by and by. By and by, when the morning comes, and all the saints of God are gathered home, we’ll tell the story of how we’ve overcome, and we’ll understand it better by and by.”

For now, it is enough for us to know that God permits our struggles for a season and for a reason.

II. HE PAUSES. Here, too, we confront a mystery. Sometimes God says, “Wait.” Again, this is to prepare us for greater things than those for which we ask.

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.

Note that the text says that Jesus waits because he loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus. This of course is paradoxical, because we expect love to make one rush to the aid of the afflicted.

Yet Scripture often counsels us to wait.

  1. Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD (Ps 27:14).
  2. For thus says the Lord God, the holy one of Israel, “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet an in trust, your strength lies” (Isaiah 30:15).
  3. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance … God’s patience is directed to our salvation (2 Pet 3:9).

Somehow our waiting is tied to strengthening us and preparing us for something greater. Ultimately, we need God’s patience in order for us to come to full repentance; so it may not be wise to ask God to rush things. Yet still his delay often mystifies us, especially when the need seems urgent.

Note, too, how Jesus’ delay enables something even greater to take place. It is one thing to heal an ailing man; it is quite another to raise a man who has been dead four days. To use an analogy, Jesus is preparing a meal. Do you want a microwave dinner or a great feast? Great feasts take longer to prepare. Jesus delays, but he’s preparing something great.

For ourselves we can only ask for the grace to hold out. An old gospel song says, “Lord help me to hold out, until my change comes.” Another song says, “Hold on just a little while longer, everything’s gonna be all right.”

III. HE PAYS. Despite the design of God and His apparent delay, He is determined to bless us and save us. Jesus is determined to go and help Lazarus even though He puts himself in great danger in doing so. Notice in the following text how the apostles are anxious about going to Judea; some there are plotting to kill Jesus. In order to help Lazarus, Jesus must put himself at great risk.

Then after this he said to his 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.” He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.”

We must never forget the price that Jesus has paid for our healing and salvation. Scripture says, You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Pet 1:18).

Indeed, the Apostles’ concerns are borne out: because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the Temple leaders plot to kill him (cf John 11:53). It is of course quite ironic that they should plot to kill Jesus for raising a man from the dead. We can only thank the Lord who, for our sake, endured even death on a cross to purchase our salvation by His own blood.

IV. HE PRESCRIBES. The Lord will die to save us. But there is only one way that saving love can reach us: through our faith. Faith opens the door to God’s blessings, but it is a door we must open, by God’s grace. Thus Jesus inquires into the faith of Martha and later that of Mary.

Martha said 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.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “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. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”

Jesus prescribes faith because there is no other way. Our faith and our soul are more important to God than our bodies and creature comforts. For what good is it to gain the whole world and lose our soul? We tend to focus on physical things like our bodies, our health, and our possessions; but God focuses on the spiritual things. And so before raising Lazarus and dispelling grief, Jesus checks the condition of Martha’s faith and elicits an act of faith: “Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe.”

Scripture connects faith to seeing and experiencing great things:

  1. All things are possible to him who believes (Mk 9:23).
  2. If you had faith as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, “Move from here to there” and it would move. Nothing would be impossible for you (Mt 17:20).
  3. And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith (Matt 13:58).
  4. When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith will it be done to you” (Mat 9:28).

So Jesus has just asked you and me a question: “Do you believe this?” How will you answer? I know how we should answer. But how do we really and truthfully answer?

V. HE IS PASSIONATE. Coming upon the scene Jesus is described as deeply moved, as perturbed, as weeping.

When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.”

In his human heart, Jesus experiences the full force of the loss and the blow that death delivers. That He weeps is something of mystery because He will raise Lazarus in moments. But for this moment, Jesus enters and experiences grief and loss with us. Its full force comes over Him and He weeps—so much so that the bystanders say, “See how much He loved him.”

But there is more going on here. The English text also describes Jesus as being perturbed. The Greek word used is ἐμβριμάομαι (embrimaomai), which means to snort with anger, to express great indignation. It is a very strong word and includes the notion of being moved to admonish sternly. What is this anger of Jesus and at whom is it directed? It is hard to know exactly, but the best answer would seem to be that he is angry at death and at what sin has done. For it was by sin that suffering and death entered the world. It is almost as though Jesus is on the front lines of the battle and has a focused anger against Satan and what he has done. Scripture says, by the envy of the devil death entered the world. (Wisdom 2:23). And God has said, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ez 33:11)

At the death of some of my own loved ones, I remember experiencing not only sorrow, but also anger. Death should not be. But there it is; it glares back at us, taunts us, and pursues us.

Yes, Jesus experiences the full range of emotions that we do. Out of His sorrow and anger, He is moved to act on our behalf. God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. And Jesus is about to act.

VI. HE PREVAILS. In the end, Jesus always wins. You can skip right to the end of the Bible and see that Jesus wins there, too. You might just as well get on the winning team. He will not be overcome by Satan, even when all seems lost. God is a good God; He is a great God; He can do anything but fail. Jesus can make a way out of no way.

He cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth.

I have it on the best of authority that as Lazarus came out of the tomb he was singing this gospel song: “Faithful is our God! I’m reaping the harvest God promised me, take back what devil stole from me, and I rejoice today, for I shall recover it al1!”

VII. HE PARTNERS. 

So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go free.”

Notice something important here: Although Jesus raises Lazarus, and gives him new life, Jesus also commands the bystanders to untie Lazarus and let him go free. Christ raises us, but He has work for the Church to do: untie those He has raised in baptism and let them go free.

To have a personal relationship with Jesus is crucial, but it is also essential to have a relationship to the Church. For after raising Lazarus, Jesus entrusts him to the care of others. Jesus speaks to the Church—parents, priests, catechists, all members of the Church—and gives this standing order regarding the souls He has raised to new life: “Untie them and let them go free.”

We are Lazarus and we were dead in our sin, but we have been raised to new life. Yet we can still be bound by the effects of sin. This is why we need the sacraments, Scripture, prayer, and other ministries of the Church through catechesis, preaching, and teaching. Lazarus’ healing wasn’t a “one and you’re done” scenario and neither is ours.

We are also the bystanders. Just as we are in need of being untied and set free, so do we have this obligation to others. By God’s grace, parents must untie their children and let them go free; pastors must do the same with their flocks. As a priest, I realize how often my people have helped to untie me and let me go free, strengthened my faith, encouraged me, admonished me, and restored me.

This is the Lord’s mandate to the Church regarding every soul He has raised: “Untie him and let him go free.” This is the Lord’s work, but just as Jesus involved the bystanders then, He still involves the Church (which includes us) now.

A Plea From Moses for Mercy Is Needed for Us As Well.

The first reading from Thursday’s Mass (of the 4thWeek of Lent) features the golden calf incident. God, likely trying to draw mercy from Moses, threatens to destroy the people for their infidelity. But as the text says,

But Moses implored the LORD, his God, saying, “Why, O LORD, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand? …Let your blazing wrath die down; relent in punishing your people. Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self, saying, ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky… (EX 32:7-14)

The Responsorial Psalm (106) for Thursday summarizes things well.

Our fathers made a calf in Horeb
and adored a molten image;
They exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bullock.

 They forgot the God who had saved them,
who had done great deeds in Egypt,
Wondrous deeds in the land of Ham,
terrible things at the Red Sea.

 Then he spoke of exterminating them,
but Moses, his chosen one,
Withstood him in the breach
to turn back his destructive wrath.

And all this, in our current crisis inspires also a model for prayer. I want to be clear that I am not concluding that God is directly punishing us, but he has permitted this. And, as we know, the people of Bible used times like these to repent and call on God. As I prayed these readings today at a private Mass the following prayerful thoughts came to mind:

Lord God we are in a great crisis, a worldwide crisis. I am going to guess we probably had this coming. For, we have collectively forgotten you, we have been ungrateful and done every sort of wicked deed. We have been greedy, wasteful, worldly, unchaste, unfaithful to marriage and family life, and have aborted our own children by the tens of millions. Yes Lord we have sinned and been stubbornly unrepentant. But Lord, I am, like Moses, asking your mercy. Even though we may not deserve it, I ask it anyway. Please Lord spare us from this disease and the economic collapse that will cause additional lives and harm. A miracle Lord, yes, we need a miracle. Please Lord, as you once did for King David and stopped the pestilence of that day at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, please do this now for us. Save us also from our excessive fears which have so seized many of us. For the sake of Christ’s sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world;  Have mercy.

Saving for a Rainy Day (like today) as Modeled in Scripture

In the young adult Bible study at my parish (conducted on Zoom during the current crisis) we have been reading through the Book of Genesis. Most recently, we’ve been studying the story of Joseph the Patriarch. Genesis 41 features the memorable story of how Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream of the seven cows and the seven sheaves of grain. God’s word always seems to be right on time: this story gave us an opportunity to discuss the anxiety brought about by the pandemic, with a particular focus on the fact that most of us were caught unprepared.

Let’s ponder a very simple yet often-forgotten principle taught in Chapter 41 of Genesis.

The basic story is that Pharaoh is having troubling dreams that his advisors cannot explain. In the dream, Pharaoh sees seven fat cows near the banks of the Nile. These cows are devoured by seven skinny cows, who nonetheless remain skinny. He also sees seven sheaves of plump, ripe wheat devoured by seven withered sheaves (cf Gen 41:17-24). Pharaoh is told that a gifted man named Joseph, currently in jail, is able to interpret dreams.

Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream as follows (as poetically rendered in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat):

Seven years of bumper crops are on their way
Years of plenty, endless wheat and tons of hay
Your farms will boom, there won’t be room
To store the surplus food you grow

After that, the future doesn’t look so bright
Egypt’s luck will change completely overnight
And famine’s hand will stalk the land
With food an all-time low

Noble king, there is no doubt
What your dreams are all about
All these things you saw in your pajamas
Are a long-range forecast for your farmers

And I’m sure it’s crossed your mind
What it is you have to find
Find a man to lead you through the famine
With a flair for economic planning

But who this man could be I just don’t know
Who this man could be I just don’t know
Who this man could be I just don’t know!

Joseph advises Pharaoh to decree that one-fifth of the harvest be set aside during the seven years of plenty to prepare for seven years of famine. All other excess should also be stored rather than squandered. In this, then, are some lessons for us:

First, famines, economic crises, and other disasters will inevitably come for us who live in this Paradise Lost. It is important to expect them and to plan for them. It’s been quite some time since something this serious has befallen us in the United States. Even September 11, 2001, a tragedy to be sure, didn’t keep us down for long; we recovered rather quickly. In retrospect, this quiet period made us a bit complacent; we stopped storing provisions “for a rainy day.”

My grandparents’ generation (“The Greatest Generation”) endured numerous hardships and disasters: two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Spanish Flu epidemic, which alone killed 675,000 Americans. They were more accustomed to the vicissitudes of life than we seem to be, and it affected them in many ways. One thing that I especially recall of that generation was that most of them were frugal; they were relentless savers. Even when I was very young, my grandparents made sure I had a savings account. My maternal grandmother opened an account on my behalf and seeded it with a modest sum. My siblings and I were encouraged to learn the discipline of saving money for the future.

And all of this is well rooted in the biblical teaching of Joseph, who admonished Egypt to save in plentiful times because difficult days were inevitable.

More recent generations, including mine, have fallen short in this. We tend to spend whatever we have, and the only saving we do is for retirement. But unexpected events often come before retirement. Many of us spend more than we earn and use credit foolishly. In doing this, we fail to respect the biblical wisdom taught by Joseph.

With the heavy restrictions imposed (rightly or wrongly, properly or excessively) by civil authorities, too many people have found that they have little to nothing set aside to get them through business declines or temporary unemployment. Government payments/loans may be justly offered because the economic downturn was driven by an external event. But the current situation still illustrates a problem: most of us are unprepared for even a few months of reduced or no income.

Perhaps we can learn the lesson our ancestors lived: we must save for the proverbial rainy day. With Joseph the patriarch to encourage us, we need to rediscover the merits of saving. This is perhaps a small and obvious lesson, but apparently it hasn’t been obvious enough.

Mulier Fortis – A Homily for the Feast of the Annunciation

In preparation for the Feast of the Annunciation I picked up Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. 3 (The Infancy Narratives), by Pope Emeritus Benedict. I was very moved by a brief reflection that he made on Mary as the Angel Gabriel left her. His remarks consider her faith in a very touching manner.

I must say that I have always been moved—and intrigued—by the faith of the Blessed Mother. She is mulier fortis (a strong woman) and  “a woman wrapped in silence,” a phrase that forms the title of an excellent book by Fr. John Lynch. The pope’s words capture both her faith and her mystery:

I consider it important to focus also on the final sentence of Luke’s Annunciation narrative: “And the angel departed from her” (Luke 1:38). The great hour of Mary’s encounter with God’s messenger—in which her whole life is changed—comes to an end, and she remains there alone, with a task that truly surpasses all human capacity. There are no angels standing around her. She must continue along the path that leads to many dark moments–from Joseph’s dismay at her pregnancy, to the moment when Jesus is said to be out of his mind (cf. Mark 3:21; John 10:20) right up to the night of the cross.

How often in these situations must Mary have returned inwardly to the hour when God’s angel had spoken to her, pondering afresh the greeting: “Rejoice, full of grace!” And the consoling words: “Do not be afraid!” The angel departs; her mission remains, and with it matures her inner closeness to God, a closeness that in her heart she is able to see and touch (Jesus of Nazareth, The Infancy Narratives, Kindle edition (loc 488-501)).

I am moved by this image of Mary, there all alone, perhaps wondering how it would all unfold and whether what she just experienced had really happened. The angel departs and she is alone (and yet never alone).

As background, I would like to say that I have read some accounts of Mary’s life that placed her in such rarefied air that I could no longer relate to her. I vaguely remember reading some accounts of visionaries saying that Mary did not even have to do housework because the angels swept the house, did the dishes, and so forth. Some other accounts spoke of how she had detailed foreknowledge of everything that would take place in her life as well as in Jesus’ life. I even recall one purported visionary who wrote that Mary had extensive theological discussions with Jesus even while He was still an infant. I do not remember who these alleged visionaries were or if any of them were even approved visionaries. Yet in the early 1980s a large number of books were published containing the observations of various “visionaries.”

Such accounts often left me cold and made me feel distant from our Blessed Mother. They also did not seem to comport with the Scriptures, which present Mother Mary as a woman of great faith, but one who has to walk by faith and not by perfect sight, just as all of us do. She wonders at Gabriel’s greeting, is troubled, and does not understand how it will all work out (cf Luke 1:29).

Yet she presses on and we next see her having made haste to the hill country, rejoicing in ecstatic praise with her cousin: My spirit rejoices in God my savior! She still does not know how it will all work out, but in spite of that she is content to know the One who holds the future; it is enough for now.

Years later, when she finds Jesus teaching in the Temple after days of agonized searching for the “missing” boy, she does not fully understand His explanation (Luke 2:48-50), but ponders these things within her heart (Luke 2:51).

At the wedding feast at Cana, Jesus seems almost to rebuke His mother. Although the text omits many of the details, there must have been something in her look, something of the look that only a mother can give to a son. By now, Mary’s understanding of her son has surely deepened; she has known Him and pondered and reflected in her heart over Him for more than thirty years. She simply looks at Him, and He at her—a look that only the two would have known. Something passed between them, a look of understanding. Whatever it was remains wrapped in silence; it’s none of our business, something that only she and her Son could know. Whatever it was, it prompts her to turn and with confidence, knowing the situation will be well-handled, says to the stewards, “Do whatever he tells you” (Jn 2:5).

Of the three years to follow we know very little. We know that she is not far away. We see her in Mark 3:31 as she asks after Jesus, seemingly concerned that others are saying “He is beside himself!”

Now we find her gently and supportively present at the foot of the Cross. The sword that Simeon had prophesied (Lk 2:35) is thrust through her heart. More than thirty years earlier she could only wonder what Simeon meant when he said that her child was destined for the fall and the rise of many in Israel and that a sword would pierce her heart (Luke 2:33). In the intervening years her faith had surely deepened; now, here she is at the foot of the Cross. It is her darkest hour, but surely all those years of pondering and reflecting on these things in her heart helps to sustain her.

Yes, Mother Mary is a woman wrapped in silence. We know so little, for she is reflective and quiet. She says little, silently standing by, silently supportive of Jesus in His public ministry. Now, again silently, she is at the foot of the Cross.

Yes, this is the Mary, this is the Mother that I know: a woman of faith but also a human being like you and me. As the Pope Benedict suggested, she is a woman who had to make a journey of faith without knowing how everything would work out, without the omniscience that some visionaries ascribe to her. She knew what the angel had said, but it seems clear that she did not know how it would all come to pass. She, like us, walked by faith and not by earthly sight.

Mary is the perfect disciple, the woman of faith, the one who presses on, not knowing all, but pondering and reflecting everything in her heart.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: A Woman Wrapped in Silence – A Meditation for the Feast of the Annunciation