John 11:1-45; Ezekiel 37:1-14

 

If you wanted to put across a sense of utter hopelessness, which image would you choose?  A desert valley full of skeletons where the bones had turned chalky and had been scattered across the sand?  Or a corpse, still intact, but well along in the process of decomposing?  Either image is meant to reflect a desperate inner state of being.  In today’s world it could be a sense of the sheer hopelessness of our political situation.  More personally, it could be a sense of the hopelessness of a marriage gone dry and dead, or an addiction.  God is saying through images: you think your situation is hopeless?  Look at these dry bones; look at this rotting corpse.  I brought new life to them and I can do the same for you.  Take heart!

I’ll return to that thought, but first I want to look more closely at the story as John tells it.  The story is long, and rich with loving details.  For instance, initially, Jesus held off responding to the sisters’ call for help, because he wanted to use the opportunity to increase their faith, to show them the extraordinary extent of God’s power to heal.  Also, the sisters’ compassionate friends and neighbors gathered around them to ease their grief.  Add to that Jesus’ astonishing statement of faith: “Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  This story percolates love and beauty.

In fact, the whole story is so full of love and beauty that we scarcely notice that John has a second story slithering through the first.  Cruel references to the Jews coil in and out through the first story.  It starts when John has the disciples say, “…the Jews were just now trying to stone you….”    Then he has Jesus say that the Jews walk at night and stumble,”because the light is not in them.”  John goes further, suggesting that Jesus and his people were not Jews.  For instance, he wrote that Jesus saw Mary weeping, “and the Jews who came with her also weeping.”  And again he refers to “the Jews who were with her in the house.”  Were Jesus and Mary not Jews?

We know that these cruel references to the Jews have born poisonous fruit down through the ages in every form of persecution.  During the first crusade in 1096 crusaders killed thousands of Jews.  Why?  One of the leaders of the crusade put it this way: he said he swore “to go on this [crusade] only after avenging the blood of the crucified one by shedding Jewish blood and completely eradicating any trace of those bearing the name ‘Jew’….”  Who can calculate the extent of the suffering borne by the Jews through the centuries as a result of what some modern writers have called these “toxic texts”?

My purpose here is not to heap blame on John.  His people, Jesus-following Jews, constituted a tiny minority within a tiny minority.  In other words, Jews made up a tiny fraction of the Roman empire; and within that tiny fraction Jesus’ followers made up a small percent.  At the time John wrote, there were no Christians; the word had not been invented; the separation between Jews and Christians had not yet occurred.  John’s Jews were trying to gain followers; but most of the Jewish people chose to follow the rabbis.  You can hear John’s frustration over this throughout his Gospel.  He’s trying to persuade his readers to take sides, and he was up against many people who thought they could follow Jesus and still worship in the synagogue.

The question is not: how could John have written such toxic things.  The larger question is: how could God have allowed this invective into the Bible?  I see an answer to that in the story of Adam and Eve.  In that story, too, details of beauty and love abound.  And yet…  there’s a snake.  How could God have allowed that snake into the garden?  It’s like asking how God could allow that invective against the Jews into the Gospel.

In the case of the Garden of Eden it seems clear that the snake is there to test Eve and Adam.  But what is the test?  Was it to test if they would obey?  Or was it to see if they were able to trust God’s goodness and love?  Think about it.  Eve wasn’t limited to two choices: eat or don’t eat the apple.  She could just as well have said to the snake, “Let me consult with God.  I’m not sure of God’s reasoning on this.”  Perhaps she didn’t do that, because she didn’t trust God not to be angry with her for asking.  Perhaps she didn’t trust God’s goodness and love, and that was the test she failed, not a test of obedience.

Let’s go back to the question: how could God have allowed that snake into the garden?  Perhaps God meant Eve and Adam to learn something about their relationship with God.  Perhaps God is not so much interested in obedience as dialogue.  After all, it’s impossible to have a mature relationship of intimacy when one party must obey the other.  A relationship of obedience puts us in an infantile relationship, a parent-child relationship.  There can be love, but there will always be a gap.  In contrast, a relationship of dialogue grows out of a deep desire for understanding, for probing into the depths of the other’s heart and mind, knowing we can always go deeper.  This is true intimacy; I believe this is what God wants with his people; and this is impossible when the relationship is one of obey-or-incur-my-wrath.

If this is so, what is the parallel to today’s episode in John’s Gospel?  What learning or insight might the the invective against the Jews give rise to?  What about this: Beware of surface readings?  Beware of literal readings.   Suppose John’s readers, starting with his own congregation, and following on from his era to ours, had not read his Gospel as the literal word of God.  Suppose they had looked at his polemics and asked, “How can this square with ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’”?  Jesus said that was the second commandment.  Or what about this from the sermon on the mount?  “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.”  Reading on the surface level makes the intimacy of dialogue impossible.

Let’s go further and put together the Adam and Eve story on the one hand, with today’s Gospel on the other hand.  Isn’t this the lesson: Beware of reading the Bible like a rule book, a book that puts you in an obey-or-be-punished relationship with God.  Beware of falling into a relationship with God that cuts you off from your own responsibility and your own wisdom.  Rather, read it as one half of a dialogue, which may go on for a long time; in fact, a lifetime.  For surely God is not so much interested in how many mistakes we make, but how much we listen and love.

Now let’s finish where we began, with the dry bones and the decaying body, and how they may stand for a truly hopeless situation.  Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you surely feel hopeless about our country’s political stagnation, even paralysis.  If we take John’s Gospel and its treatment of the Jews literally, God’s clear commandment would be: Drive out your enemies; show them for the blackguards they are; bear false witness against them; defame them.  It’s a recipe for disaster and endless suffering.

Instead, let us take John’s Gospel as pointing us toward dialogue — not only with God, but starting with God and gradually spilling over to our family, our friends, and even our enemies.  The invitation is to make the reading of Scripture into a regular practice of dialogue, what Robert Bellah called a “habit of the heart.”  That practice has the power to transform us.  It will allow God to put new flesh on dry bones, and that will be a true response to Jesus, who says, not only about Lazarus, not only about us, but about our nation, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

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