Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A 2023

Published: March 26, 2023

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor preached the following homily at St. Leo the Great University Parish in Russellville and the Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock on Sunday, March 26, 2023.

Bishop Taylor

The Greek philosophers had a concept of God's perfection very different from that of the Bible. Their idea was that if something is the very best that is possible, it cannot change because all change is either improvement or decline. If improvement: you weren't perfect earlier; if decline: you are no longer perfect.

So according to the Greeks, it is useless to pray for God to change his mind, because if he is perfect, he cannot and should not change his already perfect decisions because they are better than anything we could ever talk him into by our prayers. According to them, God also has no emotions because emotions involve change from one mood to another. The very word "emotion" contains the idea of motion, moving from happy to sad or sad to happy.

They called God the unmoved mover. He created the world, set everything else in motion, but he himself cannot be moved; does not intervene in our lives. This impersonal, unfeeling God is the opposite of the God we find in the Bible!

“Jesus wept." These two words tell us so much about God, namely that since God's very nature is love, God feels. God's heart not only can be moved, it is moved, all the time, because he takes a personal interest in us. 

In today's Gospel Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and in so doing makes it very clear that God does have feelings, does respond to prayer, is moved by the painful things in our lives.

The God of the Bible is the moved mover, not the unmoved mover, and with that comes a very different Jewish understanding of perfection. For the Bible, perfection is not a static fixed point higher than which no further improvement is possible. In the Bible perfection is a dynamic, moving target because its essence is not some abstract concept, but rather quite simply: love. And love — even perfect love — can be messy.

With love there is always the danger of our intentions being misunderstood or misconstrued. Just 19 verses earlier, Jesus' enemies — motivated by hate — had been picking up rocks to stone him for blasphemy because he had said: "The Father and I are one."

But as this story unfolds, Jesus demonstrates three truths: 1.) that what is true for Jesus is true also for God; 2.) that Jesus' heart is moved by the painful things in our lives; and 3.) therefore God is moved as well and so feels our pain and responds to our prayers.

He loves us and so wants what is best for us.

In this story we see how God, the moved mover, acts through Jesus. Jesus hears his friend Lazarus is ill and returns to Judea to visit him, even though he was still at risk of being stoned for blasphemy. And then when he learned that Lazarus had died, his heart — God's heart — was moved with grief and when he sees the grief of his friends, Martha and Mary, his heart — God's heart — is moved with pity, which leads to that famous, shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept."

These two words tell us so much about God, namely that since God's very nature is love, God feels. God's heart not only can be moved, it is moved, all the time, because he takes a personal interest in us. And so what does Jesus do? He prays to the Father, asking God to change his mind and restore Lazarus to life, which is exactly what God does. “The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face wrapped in a cloth.”

It must have been pretty scary. Then Jesus said: “Untie him and let him go.”

You and I are called to be one with the Father as well, one with Jesus, which means that what is true for them should be true also for us. That's why Jesus says that we are to be perfect as God is perfect — meaning perfect like the moved Mover of the Bible is perfect, not like the impersonal, unfeeling unmoved mover of the Greeks.

Our hearts moved with pity by human suffering, like God's heart is moved, us sharing their pain and our voices praying to the Father on their behalf like Jesus did for Martha and Mary, us doing what we can to loosen the bonds of those who are oppressed, like Jesus did for Lazarus, setting him free after raising him from the dead.

He said: “Untie him and let him go free!” And of course, people are oppressed, held bound in lots of ways: by sin, by illness, by unjust laws, unhealthy relationships, addictions to alcohol, drugs, pornography, overeating, gambling, sexual addictions and much more.

And what should we do? The same thing Jesus did for Lazarus: pray to the Father, asking him to restore that person to life, and then us take a personal interest in that person, allowing our hearts to be moved with pity and then doing whatever is in our power to set him free, trusting in God to do the rest.