Sunday Homily: “Lazarus come forth!” Pope Francis Brings Jesus Back to Life

Lazarus

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent: EZ 37: 12-14; PS 130: 1-8; ROM 8:8-11; JN 11: 1-45 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/040614.cfm

A few weeks ago, Fortune Magazine identified Pope Francis as first among the World’s “Fifty Best Leaders.” President Obama did not even make the list. Bono and President Clinton were among the top ten.

Whatever the magazine’s reasons for selecting the pope, it’s clear that the “Francis Effect,” is real. Seventy-seven percent of Catholics say they have increased their church donations since the new pope took office. Francis has brought the Catholic Church back from the dead. More importantly, he has returned to life the Jesus of the gospels whom conservatives have long since hijacked and buried – the very one our world’s poor majority needs as never before.

That’s relevant this fifth Sunday of Lent where our readings have Ezekiel coining the highly political metaphor of God’s “raising the dead” to refer to Israel’s impending liberation from its own despair during its Babylonian Captivity. Ezekiel’s metaphor reappears in today’s gospel reading where John the evangelist’s presents his familiar parable about Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave where Jesus’ friend lay moldering for more than three days.

Consider the hopelessness of Ezekiel’s Israel. His sixth century was the saddest of times – the era of his nation’s Great Exile. The Hebrews had been defeated and humiliated by Babylon (modern day Iraq). Its leaders and a large portion of its populace had been abducted to that enemy state. The exiles felt as if they had been slaughtered culturally. They were far from home, controlled by foreign masters, and apparently abandoned by God.

But the prophet Ezekiel did not share his people’s general despair. So in an effort to regenerate hope, he coined the idea of resurrection. Ezekiel loved that concept. [Recall his Vision of Dry Bones (EZ 7: 1-14).] For Ezekiel resurrection was a political metaphor that promised a new vital future despite appearances to the contrary. Israel, he said, would be liberated from Babylon, return home and experience rebirth. They would come back to life.

In his Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel (JG), Pope Francis embraces not only Ezekiel’s spirit, but that of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. To repeat, he actually revivifies Jesus and the Gospel. The pope does so by rescuing them both from conservative forces whose version of Christianity has held center stage for the last 35 years. It’s the version, the pope strongly implies, that has metaphorically killed the Jesus of the Gospels, who proclaimed the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom which belongs to the poor, not to the rich whom the conservatives prioritize.

Like Ezekiel, Jesus made his proclamation when all appearances indicated that Israel was dead. It was entirely under the heel of Roman jackboots and there seemed no escape. Yet Jesus described a horizon of hope that enlivened the spirits of the poor who were crushed by the Romans and by their rich Jewish collaborators who headed the temple establishment.

In such dire straits, Jesus proclaimed a new future where everything would be turned upside down. He said audacious things. In God’s realm, he insisted, the poor would be in charge. The last would be first, and the first would be last. The rich would be poor and the poor would be well–fed and prosperous. The powerless and gentle would have the earth for their possession. Jesus’ unemployed and famished audiences couldn’t hear enough of that!

So he elaborated. He told parable after parable – all about the kingdom and its unstoppable power. It was like leaven in bread – unseen but universally active and transforming. It was like the mustard seed – a weed that sprouted up everywhere impervious to eradication efforts. It was like a precious pearl discovered in the ash bin – like a coin a poor woman loses and then rediscovers. His metaphors, similes and parables were powerful.

To repeat, Pope Francis strongly implies that socio-economic conservatism has murdered the Jesus I’ve just described. It has done so by its “preferential option for the rich.” It embraces free-market capitalism, trickle-down theory, and cut-backs in health care, education, and anti-poverty programs. Conservatives complement such horrors with huge tax-breaks for the country’s 1%. All of this is was chillingly represented last week by “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan whose budget promised to sock it to the poor and middle class, while enriching military industrialists along with his affluent friends.

The Joy of the Gospel makes it clear that no one can support policies like Ryan’s and claim at the same time to be a follower of Jesus.

In other words, Ryan and the pope are on completely different pages. While conservatives have buried the Gospel Jesus, Pope Francis calls him back to life. He stands before Jesus’ grave and shouts “Come Forth!” Even Fortune Magazine recognizes the resulting miracle.

Consider the Pope’s anti-conservative incantation that brings Jesus back to life. It runs like this:

• Wealth does not belong to the rich, but to the world’s poor (JG 57, 184).

• But the world economy as now structured concentrates wealth among an ever-shrinking minority of the rich (56).

• Wealth must therefore be redistributed (189, 204,215).

• Such redistribution must take place by government intervention in the free market, which (in contradiction to failed “trickle-down” theory) cannot by itself eliminate poverty (54).

• The rich who are unwilling to redistribute wealth to its true owners (the poor) are thieves (57, 189).

• More than that, they are murderers, since the world economy as presently configured is homicidal (58).

• This is a question of being pro-life (213).

• Favoring life certainly includes concern for the unborn (213).

• But “. . . defense of the unborn is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right” (213).

• Human rights include the right to food and shelter, education, health care, employment , and a just wage (191, 192)

• Respecting human rights involves renunciation of war and preparation for war (60).

• It also connects with environmental stewardship – defense of soil, insects, birds, fish, and the seas (215).

And so the tomb opens. And a Jesus who has been buried more than three decades stumbles out. And in doing so, he renews the faith of so many of us who had given up on the church.

Our faith is renewed because we recognize in Francis’ Jesus the embodiment of one of life’s fundamental truths: utopian visions of the good and true and beautiful can never be killed, even though they might appear lifeless and be pronounced dead by those who once loved them.

What should we do as a result of encountering the Jesus Francis has resurrected?

• Be bold in appropriating the vision of Pope Francis that is not at all idiosyncratic within the Catholic tradition. In fact, it represents the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church from Leo XIII to Vatican II and was even articulated by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

• Accordingly and courageously incorporate into progressive political discourse the language and powerful ideas of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It can move people today just as it did in the times of Ezekiel and Jesus.

• Join Francis in refusing to cede the field of religion to the reactionary forces of neo-liberal conservatism.

• Expose that conservatism for the destructive fraud it is.

• More particularly, expose Paul Ryan and other Bible thumping Republicans as the heretics they are as they defend the interests of the rich and starve the poor in the name of the Gospel.

• Insist that our pastors get on board with Pope Francis in universalizing his pro-life vision to foreground issues of hunger, war and peace, capital punishment, full employment, universal health care, affordable housing, environmental protection. . . .

Francis reminds us that united with our neighbors, we too, the People of God, possess the power to raise the dead.

So as we stand before the grave of God, the church, and Jesus, let’s echo the pope’s cry: “Jesus, come forth!”

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

12 thoughts on “Sunday Homily: “Lazarus come forth!” Pope Francis Brings Jesus Back to Life”

  1. I never commented before, but this was just beautiful. I am from Latin America and I see poverty in a regular basis, what I think that is a blessing in disguise, because every time that I read the Bible that subject is made present. Thanks for what you do articulating all these ideas. God Bless.

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    1. You’re right, of course, John. Sometimes in preparing my homilies I’m afraid that I over-emphasize God’s “preferential 0ption for the poor” But then I read those texts and find that idea repeated over and over. However, despite its omnipresence, it continues to be overlooked in Sunday homilies. We’re currently blessed with a pope who won’t let us off the hook on that one. His directions for homilies (in “the Joy of the Gospel”) are powerful.

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  2. Right on Mike! Religion retains hidden power to transform our world, if only we can remove the stinking grave clothes it has been wrapped in by it’s enemies, who pretend to be it’s spokepersons.
    Let the Real Truth stand forth and save us from the false propaganda of those who distort the message of Jesus and of all true prophets! Only the unadulterated, uncorrupted Truth can save us now….

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    1. Thanks, Mike. The religious right has long since recognized your point about the power of religion. The problem with us progressives is that we’ve bought into the Enlightenment’s rejection of religion. In an opposing sense, liberation theology has moved in the right direction. It has recognized and proven the power of faith to motivate ordinary people to claim and struggle for their God-given rights. In that sense it is post-modern. Thankfully, Pope Francis has moved in that direction as well.

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  3. Hi Mike R-S,

    The subversion of the Christ-message seems to me to be more than 3 decades old: the pastor at St. Pat’s (in Chicopee Falls, MA) had a Chrysler and fancy dinnerware and silverware, thanks to the “Pastor’s collection” every year. There were no messages of helping the poor from the pulpit. The bishops did considerably better.

    The church as establishment began at least as early as 100 A.D., when doctrine (issued by the bishops) began to override the experience of the spirit of Christ. Hierarchies create conformity, of self-continuation-driven necessity. Establishment players historically reach agreements to work together: again, out of necessity. For example, followers of the first Francis who preached the necessity of poverty were silenced, some permanently after much suffering, as examples of what happens to those who defy the establishment.

    The current Francis’ call to decentralize the Church is actually his most radical proposal, and is proof to me that he recognizes the impossibility of an establishment, even one based on teachings of a radical prophet, to carry forth radical change. The organization of the Catholic church is being re-written, and according to the head of the committee performing this large task, won’t be done for at least 3 years or so. If Francis is still with us at that time, that’s when the fireworks should go off. I hope to see it happen, as this will be an object lesson for the world to see of the inevitable clash between universally praised ideals vs. an establishment that values the status quo above all. My sense is that there will be a schism at that time, with loosely-defined charismatics on one side, and doctrinal conservatives on the other, but how that plays out is part of what I hope to see. Having an organized, spirit-driven, religion with even 1/3 of the current world’s Catholics will be a mighty force, with enough numbers (10% is enough, from social media studies) to go viral.

    thanks once again for your prompting thoughts,

    Hank.

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    1. Wow, Hank Fay, you have said in print what has been in my mind for such a long time except that you present it with such accuracy and truth. Some of my family and friends say that I am a heretic. For me, that is a direct compliment. Paraphrasing Jesus’ words about the ‘fence sitters’ of His time (neither hot nor cold) comes to mind here.

      I agree that a schism is most assuredly in our future — not just within the RCC but in the entire Body as well. There are signs of it everywhere.
      Ironically, it is the technology of the worldwide Internet that will help to propel this movement. Such dramatic change will be brought to fruition by an outpouring of the Holy Spirit such as we have never witnesssed before. I, too, hope that I will be alive to witness (and share in) this mighty deed but I doubt it. I’m 81 and in poor health. I have said this many, many times: I believe and trust in Jesus’ promises that he would always be with us always; that he would not leave us orphans.
      That is my comfort, my consolation, my utmost hope. It is the only ‘defense’ that we need. I think of Paul’s advice in Ephesians 6: 10-17 also.

      Coinciding with the problem within the Church is what is occurring almost daily within all levels of our government(s) and court systems. We are living in an oligarchy that, eventually, will be subservient to the New World Order. The ramifications of that reality are too terrible to envision. But, I believe that it IS a looming reality. In the meantime, the ‘faithful’ have a serious responsibility toward their children and grandchildren to prepare them for all that is ahead. We cannot leave them defenseless.

      Thank you for your input. It has given me much to think about — as do Mike’s timely remarks.

      Alice Farrell LaChapelle
      NYS

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  4. Mike? You often speak or write about the “Protestant Work Ethic”. As someone from a religiously diverse background (Protestant/Catholic/Jewish/Agnostic) I’ve been startled by seeming animosity buried in the phrase.

    For myself, I would associate “Protestant Work Ethic”, possibly with Andrew Carnegie: http://www.americaslibrary.gov/aa/carnegie/aa_carnegie_phil_1.html

    Or maybe the Shakers, or the Moravians. Or current local conditions: over 400 independent churches in this part of East Tennessee work together to try and ensure that the entire community is fed, clothed, housed, educated, and cared for. We all fall short of the glory of God, but decency abounds. I’m grateful to live here.

    What’s a “Catholic Work Ethic”? Does anyone ever speak of such a thing? What might it be? The Habsburg Empire was historically intertwined with the Catholic church, and both organizations combined to hold enormous political power until the end of World War I.

    Would the presidios and missions of the Spanish colonies serve as examples of an old-fashioned Catholic Work Ethic? http://gosouthamerica.about.com/od/history/a/JesuitMissions.htm

    How about the 20th Century Mondragon Cooperatives of Spain?
    http://www.mondragon-corporation.com/eng/
    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/07/mondragon-spains-giant-cooperative

    Happy Easter!

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    1. And happy Easter to you, Mary. I referenced the “Protestant Work Ethic” with Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in mind. As you know, it’s a classic that has shaped discussion of religion and culture since its publication in 1934. Weber (correctly, I think) sees the Protestant Work Ethic as so pervasive within the capitalist system that it transcends denominational and religious boundaries. Catholics, the entire Japanese culture, and majority consciousness in the entire world for that matter have adopted it without even knowing its origin.

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  5. I wondered if you were going with Weber on this. Weber came out of German traditions, where politics and religion are always closely intertwined. “Protestant” in the U.S. means something else, and for me, use of this phrase leads to confusion.

    I also wonder if Weber ignored the Catholic Fugger Dynasty. Luther was called to Augsburg for questioning because Augsburg was the banking center of the Habsburg Empire. Luther began the Reformation by his attacks on the lucrative sales of papal indulgences promising release from Purgatory (which funded expensive building construction projects in Rome and elsewhere).

    For whatever reason, this part of the Renaissance and Reformation gets left out of the usual histories. (I wish it were included!) The Fuggers were totally Catholic and closely linked to the Papacy of the time. They were the bank of the Habsburgs and the Church, they were original “Capitalists”, and they weren’t at all Protestant! Luther had his flaws, but so did the Church’s banking system. In honesty, should “Protestants” be the only ones assigned to the baggage that comes with greed and corruption?

    Here’s one link: http://www.beardbooks.com/beardbooks/jacob_fugger_the_rich.html

    From the Publisher Comments: “This fascinating biography of Jacob Fugger, the great German merchant and banker of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, is also an economic history of the golden age in German commercial history. Jacob Fugger was the embodiment of early capitalism. The Fugger family capitalized on family partnerships which led to joint stock companies and finally to the corporation. This book is recommended reading in many business courses.”

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  6. Another book on this that I’d like to read: “The Fuggers of Augsburg: Pursuing Wealth and Honor in Renaissance Germany” by Mark Häberlein, University of Virginia Press, 2012.

    You might like it also…it comes up if you google “augsburg luther fugger”

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  7. I just think it was interesting that in the early 1900s, Catholics were forbidden to vote in many countries. Catholics were charged with supporting their hereditary monarchs, and discouraged from participating in secular governments. (Pope Pius X had conflicts with France over this)

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