Year B: Fourth Sunday of Lent
(Jesus said to Nicodemus) And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.
- What ramifications does your belief in eternal life have in the way you live?
- Does your human understanding of judgement interfere with believing God does not seek condemnation, that God’s judgment is love and life?
- Is it a relief or a burden to you that we have free will and make a personal choice to refuse God’s love (perish) or to be in union with it (eternal life)? Explain.
- How do you go about first recognizing, then changing attitudes and behaviors you hold that are not aligned with the faith you profess?
- St. Paul said, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). How do you relate to this in your own experience of sometimes preferring darkness to light?
Margaret Nutting Ralph
Today’s Lectionary reading is part of the conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus after Jesus’ first sign at the wedding of Cana. In order to understand today’s reading it will be helpful to know what has preceded it. As the conversation begins, Jesus is teaching Nicodemus the same thing that John was teaching his audience through the story about Cana. That is, John has Jesus explain the allegorical level of meaning of the sign performed at Cana.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee who comes to Jesus at night. This means that Nicodemus has not yet seen the light that is Christ. Nicodemus says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:3). Nicodemus understands Jesus’ words literally, and so he asks, “How can a person once grown old be born again? Surly he cannot reenter his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” (John 3:4). Because Nicodemus understands Jesus’ words literally, Jesus has to explain their metaphorical significance. Jesus is not talking about physical birth, but spiritual birth. So Jesus says. “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:5). This is the allegorical level of meaning being taught by the story of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-11): A wedding stands for the people’s relationship with God. Empty ablution jars, representing the law, the old way of being in relationship with God, are filled with water that becomes wine, the symbols of what we today call the sacraments of initiation, namely, baptism and Eucharist. Jesus has initiated a new spiritual order, one in which we are reborn in water and the Spirit.
Today’s Lectionary reading is part of this same conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus continues not to understand, and Jesus continues to try to explain “heavenly things” (John 3:12) to him.
Jesus says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This is a reference to a story that appears in Numbers 21:7-9. The Israelites had been bitten by snakes in the desert, and some of them had died. “Then the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned in complaining against the Lord and you. Pray the Lord to take the serpents from us.’ So, Moses prayed for the people, and the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a saraph (“Old Test: fiery serpent God)” and mount it on a pole, and if anyone who has been bitten looks at it, he will recover.’ Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent recovered” (Num 21:7-9).
The words “So must the Son of Man be lifted up” have a double meaning. They refer both to Jesus being lifted up on the cross and 6 a type, or foreshadowing, of Jesus being lifted up, because just as the Israelites who looked at the serpent were spared from physical death, so are those who look to Jesus and believe in him spared from spiritual death.
As Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus continues, Jesus explains that the Son of Man has come to save the whole human race from sin. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal If life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
Although it is God’s will that everyone be saved, not everyone is willing to accept the gift of salvation. “Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” John often has words of condemnation for those who do not believe in Jesus, who prefer darkness to light. One reason for this is that by the time’ John is writing, some Jews who do not believe in Jesus are expelling those Jews who do believe in Jesus from the synagogue. This means that the expelled Jews are no longer exempt from emperor worship and so are subject to severe persecution, even martyrdom. All through John’s Gospel we will be able to hear his (John’s) deep anger at his fellow Jews who do not believe that Jesus is divine.
Preferring darkness, self-condemnation, is both easier and more mysterious than we think. When we first hear that God does not condemn, there may be a sigh of relief. On the social level, we are used to being judged by other people. We are continually being put on the scales of someone else’s mind and found wanting. Our boss, ours spouse and our neighbors have mastered the look and language of “Sorry, Charlie (Some readers may recall the “Charlie the Tuna” commercials.) Since negative appraisals are the air we breathe, we may have projected this chronically evaluative mindset onto God. When we hear that God is a love who has abandoned judgment in favor of salvation, we may find a “Yes!” coming forth from the center of our being. We feel off the hook. Actually, we are on the hook in a whole new way.
At first, we think that no one would be stupid enough to walk away. If it is all love and no condemnation, what is the problem? The problem is that we individually are not all love, and the world in which we live is not all love. The presence of all love makes this painfully clear. We might have glimpsed our persistent lack of love in the twilight zone between light and darkness. But we have kept it there, pushing it back toward darkness but never beckoning it toward light. Now this strategy is threatened. The light has arrived. And it instantly engenders in us an inner panic. Something we have hidden for so long might come screaming out into the open. There will be individual and social consequences. We cannot face exposure. We seek the shelter of night.
There is a story in St. John’s Gospel (8:1-11) that captures the painful exposure of the light and the sulking preference for darkness. The Pharisees have brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus. They seek to trap him by pitting him against Moses. The Pharisees claim that Moses taught them to stone such women. What does Jesus have to say?
Jesus bends down and writes with his finger on the ground. When they keep on questioning him, he stands up and says, “Let anyone who is without sin be the first to cast a stone”. Then he bends down and writes on the ground a second time. These symbolic actions and words are the light coming into the alienated world. Suddenly evil doing is exposed, and darkness is seen.
Jesus writing twice is reminiscent of YHWH writing twice. God wrote the Ten Commandments with the divine finger just as Jesus writes on the ground with his finger. Moses took the tablets down from the mountain into the camp of Israelites. He found the people worshiping a golden calf, and he threw and broke the stone tablets. When he returned to the mountain, God said to him, “Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke”. God always writes twice. Merciful compassion is the nature of God.
The impact of this symbolism is not lost on the Pharisees. They have claimed that their desire to stone the woman is motivated by what Moses taught. But Jesus, the true interpreter of the Mosaic law, shows that the Ten Commandments are essentially about mercy because after Moses’ angry outburst that led to his stoning the people, God wrote the commandments again. This strips the Pharisees of their cover. If it is not Moses and God who have authorized their violent behavior, where has it come from? Could it be that it comes from the dark spaces of their hearts that the Light of the World has now made visible?
The Pharisees have lost their identity as righteous enforcers of God’s unforgiving law. In its place is full insight into their repressed darkness. This is what Jesus offers them as a new identity. They are sinners like everyone else. They can live the compassionate life of forgiven sinners who do not have the luxury of casting stones. But they have been casting stones a long time, and the older they are the more they are attached to that identity. So “they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders”. The invitation of the light is no match for the comfort of the darkness. And they go away “one by one” Each one lives for a moment on the edge of freedom—but only for a moment. The light has exposed their acceptable way of doing things as darkness. So now continuing doing things the usual way has become a preference for darkness, and this preference for darkness has become the free choice of self-condemnation.
This is why preferring darkness, self-condemnation, is both easier and more mysterious than we think. We did not always know it as darkness. It was just business as usual. We went about life making decisions and pursuing our wellbeing in an unthinking way. Only with the arrival of the light did the racist, sexist, classist, character of our thoughts and deeds become evident. However, by this time, we were attached to our thinking and behaving. It was easier to create a cover story than to engage in painful self-examination. Other people seem eager to buy this cover story and become accomplices in our deceit. They will willingly not look at what we will not look at, if we return the favor and not look at what they will not look at. The light is unwelcome, shining on too much. More accurately said, it puts everything in a new light, a harsh light. Quite simply, the darkness is preferable.
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle B, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2005 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.