The Fifth Sunday of Lent (A)
Dear brothers and sisters,
Throughout much of the Gospel of Saint John, those who engage Jesus in conversation address him using the title “Rabbi,” a Hebrew word meaning “teacher.” Among those who address him this way are the two disciples of John the Baptist, Nathanael, Nicodemus, Jesus’ own disciples, the crowd after the feeding of the five thousand, and, as we heard last Sunday, the man born blind (John 1:38, 1:45, 3:2, 4:31, 6:25, and 9:2). The two exceptions to this are the Samaritan woman at the well and the official at Capernaum who both simply call him “Sir” (John4:11 and 4:49). When they learned of Lazarus’ illness, the disciples of Jesus again addressed him as “Rabbi.” If we think about these two forms of address, both rabbi and sir are polite salutations, titles denoting a certain respect.
Today, though, we hear something different, for neither Martha nor Mary addressed Jesus as “Rabbi” or as “Sir” when they spoke to him; rather, they addressed him as “Lord,” a title that clearly means something more than a polite greeting (John 11:8, 11:21, 11:27, 11:32, and 11:39). Why this sudden change of title? What does it signify?
We live within a society and a culture that places little value on titles and postures. In this, we are very different from the many generations who have gone before us. We no longer greet each other as Mister or Misses, as Doctor or Captain, and men no longer tip their hats or stand when a woman or a person of authority enters the room. We even refuse a simple gesture of kindness by refusing to allow someone else to hold the door open for us. What was once expected is now surprising and we, as a whole, suffer for it. In our pursuit of lesser formality, we strove for a deeper familiarity with each other but have instead grown more distant and frequently no longer recognize one another’s humanity. We even went so far as to extend this desire for less formality into the spiritual life and in our pursuit of a deeper familiarity with the Lord we have instead grown more distant from him and too frequently fail to recognize his divinity.
Martha and Mary, however, recognized both Jesus’ humanity and his divinity and were not concerned about a lesser formality; they were instead concerned with the truth. They counted Jesus among their friends and yet addressed him as Lord. “They call[ed] him Lord and not teacher, for they were requesting a miracle, not teaching.” Yet even when making their request, they did not presume to impose their own wills upon Jesus. “They revered his majesty, and therefore did not dare to ask that he issue a command [from] where he was that would be fulfilled where they were, as was the case with the centurion. They hoped in his goodness, and so they hinted and suggested.” All of this is signified in their use of the title, “Lord.”
Given Jesus’ friendship with Lazarus and his sisters, we might be surprised by this, but that is only because we do not know Jesus as well as Martha and Mary knew him. We seek to treat Jesus as we would treat anyone else, but those two sisters knew that Jesus is not like anyone else. They greeted him with a greater respect and honor than we do because their love for him was greater than our love for him.
Just as we are surprised at the way in which they greeted their friend, we might also be surprised at Mary’s posture in the presence of Jesus. Saint John tells us that “when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet” (John 11:32). This, however, should not surprise us because Mary “is always at the feet of the Lord” (cf. Luke 7:38 and 10:39). Whereas we might walk right up to Jesus and embrace him or give him a fist bump, Mary, in her humble and loving devotion, a devotion warmer than that of Martha, shows us a more right and just posture. Her external posture gave physical expression to the interior sentiments of her heart. What does our posture in the presence of Jesus say about the sentiments of our hearts?
When the Lord visited their house on another occasion, Martha “was distracted with much serving” and complained to the Lord, asking, “do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone” (Luke 10:40)? He answered her with those words we know so well: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41-42). Mary was content to embrace the feet of Jesus as a devoted servant or a loving child and whereas Martha often spoke much with Jesus, Mary spoke little with him and remained quiet, though she remained always near to him in order to listen to him.
When Jesus came to them, after waiting two days after receiving their message of Lazarus’ illness, Martha and Mary did not rebuke Jesus for his delay, nor did they blame him for Lazarus’ death or ask why he delayed because they trusted in his goodness. Would we remain so quiet, or would we instead demand answers to our questions. Lest we be tempted to think Jesus a poor friend, the reason he did not go to Lazarus until after his death is because it was more important that Jesus show his power over death than that he show his power over illness.
In all of this, Mary’s grief was no less than that of her sister, for they both said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21 and 32). They made this statement of fact because they knew Jesus’ power and because they knew his love. Hidden within this statement is an implicit request Martha and Mary asked of the Lord. Jesus, though, did not go to Lazarus’ tomb because of the words of Martha, but because of the tears of Mary (cf. John 11:33-34). Moreover, he himself was moved to tears and shared in their grief over the death of their brother and his friend (cf. John 11:35). In this, we see that “the Lord more readily hears a groan from the heart than a sound from the mouth.”
Soon we will enter into Holy Week when Holy Mother Church urges us to imitate Martha’s profession of faith in Jesus’ power and to imitate Mary’s devotion to his love. It will be a time for us to silence our words and to allow our hearts to groan. Let us, then, not be afraid to fall down at the feet of Jesus, there to weep over our sins and to trust in his power and love and so be counted among his true and faithful friends. Amen.