Mar 15, 2015: 4th Sunday of Lent (B)

Introduction

From early times, Lenten preparation for celebrating Easter included recounting the history of salvation, which is exactly what happens in the lectionary readings on the Sundays during Lent.

Through our baptism we embrace the new and eternal covenant with God, which was brought into being by Christ’s death and resurrection. However, ours is not the only covenant God made with man: the covenants of the Old Testament are a great help in understanding what God has done for us in his New Covenant.

That is why, in her preparation for Easter, the Church remembers the covenants of the Old Testament: to remind us of the stages of God’s plan for our redemption and to instruct those to be baptized.

All the first readings on the Sundays of Lent recount episodes from Israel’s history that show God’s graciousness to the people. The passages from the epistles all highlight the role Christ played in our salvation. The Gospel readings reveal Jesus’ glory even in the face of suffering, as well as the compassion and mercy of God.

Although we regard Lent as a season for repentance, any call to repent in the Sunday readings is only indirect. The emphasis in the readings is to assure us how much God has loved us. Their message is: be grateful, trust in God, and if necessary, reform your life.

1st Reading – 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23

In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people
added infidelity to infidelity,
practicing all the abominations of the nations
and polluting the LORD’s temple
which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.

Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers,
send his messengers to them,
for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place.
But they mocked the messengers of God,
despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets,
until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed
that there was no remedy.
Their enemies burnt the house of God,
tore down the walls of Jerusalem,
set all its palaces afire,
and destroyed all its precious objects.
Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon,
where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons
until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.
All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah:
“Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,
during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest
while seventy years are fulfilled.”

In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia,
in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah,
the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia
to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom,
both by word of mouth and in writing:
“Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia:
All the kingdoms of the earth
the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me,
and he has also charged me to build him a house
in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.
Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people,
let him go up, and may his God be with him!”

Originally the two books of Chronicles, along with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, a single historical work, uniform in style and basic ideas.  The books of Chronicles record in some detail the lengthy span from the reign of Saul to the return from the Exile.  Unlike the exact science of history today, wherein factual accuracy and impartiality of judgment are the standards for estimating what is of permanent worth, ancient biblical history, with rare exceptions, was less concerned with reporting in precise detail all the facts of a situation than with explaining the meaning of those facts.  Such history was primarily interpretative and, in the Old Testament, its purpose was to disclose the action of the living God in the affairs of men.  For this reason we speak of it as “sacred history”; its writers’ first concern was to bring out the divine or supernatural dimension in history.

Today’s first reading can be divided into three parts: a brief summary of the sinfulness of the nation, a description of the punishment that befell the people because of their wickedness, and an account of the decree directing them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.

In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests and the people added infidelity to infidelity,

There is significance in identifying these three distinct groups.  It suggests that the religious well-being of the people was the responsibility of both the monarchy and the priesthood.  It states that the populace also had “added infidelity to infidelity,” engaging in behavior unworthy of the people of God.

practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD’S temple which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.

While “abominations of the nations” may refer to more than idolatrous practices, pollution of the temple is certainly a cultic violation.

Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place.

A quite poignant recounting of how God was moved to compassion, despite the sinfulness of the people.  Again and again reforming prophets were sent to this corrupt nation but to no avail.

But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.

Not only did they ignore the prophets, they actively derided them.  According to this account, it was this callous contempt that unleashed the avenging anger of God.

Their enemies burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set all its palaces afire, and destroyed all its precious objects.  Those who escaped the sword he carried captive to Babylon, where they became his and his sons’ servants until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.

The punishment was brutal and sweeping.  What had been desecrated through the wickedness of the people was now purified through the inexorable fury of God’s wrath.

Nebuchadnezzar, king of the Chaldeans (the country of which Babylon was the capital), invaded Judah in 605 B.C. and exiled many of the craftsmen to Babylon. In 597 B.C. he conquered Jerusalem, exiling the aristocracy to Babylon. He destroyed the Temple when he quelled the revolt of Zedekiah in 586 B.C. and exiled even more Jews.

All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah: “Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.”

A reference to Jeremiah 25:11.  Because the people had failed to observe the Sabbath, the entire land would now be deserted in a Sabbath rest of seventy years.

In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia

The last section of the reading provides a note of hope.  Just as Jeremiah had prophesied the demise of Judah, he also foretold the collapse of its conqueror and captor (Jeremiah 25:12).

A foreign king is inspired by the God of Israel; God’s jurisdiction is universal, not limited to the confines of Israel.

to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom, both by word of mouth and in writing: “Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: ‘All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has also charged me

The king was not an unsuspecting pawn in the hands of God.  He was well aware of the salvific role he was playing on the international stage.  He did not deny the scope of his influence or the power he wielded, but he credited the God of Israel as the source of it all.

to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.

Although reasons were given for the destruction of the temple and the deportation of the people, no reasons are given for its rebuilding or their return.  It is simply because of God’s graciousness.

Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him!’”

In 538 B.C. Cyrus permitted the Jews residing in Babylon to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and its Temple. The text of Cyrus’ decree is quoted in Ezra 1:1-4.

However, the historical accuracy of this report is not important; what is important is the character of its message.  First, it underscores the universality of God’s dominion — he can deliver Israel through the agency of a non-Israelite.  Second, the last verse of this passage is the last of the entire book of 2nd Chronicles, which is the last book of the Jewish canon. That is, the entire Jewish canon ends with an exhortation to the people to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple.

The political implications of this directive continue to be profound.

2nd Reading – Ephesians 2:4-10

Brothers and sisters:
God, who is rich in mercy,
because of the great love he had for us,
even when we were dead in our transgressions,
brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved —,
raised us up with him,
and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus,
that in the ages to come
He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace
in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
For by grace you have been saved through faith,
and this is not from you; it is the gift of God;
it is not from works, so no one may boast.
For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works
that God has prepared in advance,
that we should live in them.

Ephesians is the great Pauline letter about the church.  It deals, however, not so much with a congregation in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor as with the worldwide church.  The letter outlines that the head of this church is Christ (4:15) and its purpose is to be the instrument for making God’s plan of salvation known throughout the universe (3:9-10).

Today’s reading demonstrates how this ecclesiology is anchored in God’s saving love, shown in Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters:  God, who is rich in mercy, 

Éleos, the Greek word used here for mercy, is specifically defined as covenant-loyalty, or covenant-love; that is, mercy as it is defined by loyalty to God’s covenant.  It denotes trust and loyalty.

because of the great love he had for us, 

The love of God that invokes this mercy is agápē, the self-giving love that forgives and transforms.

even when we were dead in our transgressions,

God has freely chosen to be bound to us in covenant regardless of our failures and our inadequacies.

“These are the true riches of God’s mercy, that even when we did not seek it mercy was made known through His own initiative. … This is God’s love to us, that having made us He did not want us to perish. His reason for making us was the He might love what He had made, seeing that no one hates his own workmanship.” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

brought us to life with Christ

In Greek, verses 1 through 7 comprise one long sentence with the main verb occurring here.

The contrast between the graciousness of God and our human inadequacy is drawn in bold strokes.  When we were dead in sin, God made us alive in Christ.  Why?  Now because we deserved it, but because God is rich in mercy, because God loves us.

The lengths to which God will go to show mercy are incomprehensible.  God’s love is unfathomable.

— by grace you have been saved,

Unable to save ourselves, we receive salvation as a pure gift of grace.  God bestows this gift and we choose to accept it in faith.

raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus,

The character of our union with Christ is seen in the author’s choice of verbs: “brought to life,” “raised us up,” and “seated us” are all prefixed with the Greek preposition sýn.  This preposition has the basic meaning of “being with” in a very personal sense.  In denotes acting together, having a common destiny.  In other words, believers share in Christ’s quickening, his resurrection, and his exaltation in a very intimate way.

Also important is that the tense of the verbs indicates that this has already happened; it is not some promised eschatological future.

that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.

The image of God that has been sketched here is incredibly dynamic.  God is rich in mercy and has great love for us.  Despite our sinful nature — our willful acts of disobedience — he has not only brought us to life, but he has seated us with Christ in glory.  There is no question about the magnanimity of God.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God;

We have earned nothing; everything has been given.

Pelagianism, the idea that we can earn our own salvation, was denounced as a heresy by the Church in the fifth century.

“Paul says this in case the secret thought should steal upon us that ‘if we are not saved by our own works, at least we are saved by our own faith, and so in another way our salvation is of ourselves.’ Thus he added that statement that faith too is not in our own will but in God’s gift. Not that He means to take away free choice from humanity … but that even this very freedom of choice has God as its author, and all things are to be referred to His generosity, in that He has even allowed us to will the good.” [Saint Jerome (between A.D. 386-387), Commentaries on the Epistle to the Ephesians 1,2,8-9]

it is not from works, so no one may boast.

Good works are important, but only as a result of having been saved, not as a condition for it.  Realizing that we have not earned our salvation, and that we don’t really deserve it, prevents us from boasting in our accomplishments.

For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.

All these marvels are accomplished in Christ — a theme which is really the heart of Paul’s entire theology.  Salvation is a grace that we receive “in Christ,” because of Christ.

“By faith man freely commits his entire self to God…; before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist Him; he must have the interior help of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth.’” (Vatican II, Dei Verbum, 5).

Gospel – John 3:14-21

Jesus said to Nicodemus:
“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.

Today’s gospel reading comes from the conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus was interested in the teachings of Jesus, but came to him at night, presumably out of fear of being detected.

This particular passage is rich in imagery, each folding into the next: the lifting up of Christ, Christ as the Son of Man and Son of God, belief and judgment, light and darkness.

Jesus said to Nicodemus: Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,

A reference to Numbers 21:8-9, where Moses set up the bronze serpent on a pole to cure all who had been bitten by the seraph serpents.

so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 

“Son of Man” is a Semitic idiom that refers to a symbolic figure who will inaugurate the last days (Daniel 7:13-14).  The way the thought is developed in this reading, one is led to conclude that this Son of Humanity is also the only-begotten Son of God that is referenced later in verses 14-16.  The juxtaposition of these two titles brings together the rich and diverse theologies that each represents.  And as different as they may be, the characteristic they share is that both the Son of Man and the Son of God are agents of eternal life for all.

so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

Just as healing came to those in the wilderness who looked upon the bronze serpent Moses raised before them, so eternal life comes to those who believe in the Son of Humanity (the Greek has ánthrōpos, which means “humankind”), who is raised up in both ignominy and exaltation.

The verb used in Numbers 21:9 indicates that Moses simply “mounted” a serpent upon a pole. The verb substituted here by John for “lifted up” in regards to Christ means “to be raised in exaltation.”  By this word choice, the evangelist is suggesting that it was precisely in his humiliation that Jesus was glorified.

This image also calls to mind the servant in Isaiah, who also suffered for others and who, in his affliction, was “raised high and greatly exalted” (Isaiah 52:13).

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.

The scope of divine love is described.  God’s love for the world is so deep and so magnanimous that nothing is spared for its salvation, not even God’s only Son.

The word here for “gave” is dídōmi, a verb associated specifically with the giving of a gift. God gave/sent this Son first in the incarnation and again in his saving death.

Ancient Israel continually marveled at the love God had for his chosen people; however, this passage is remarkable in its explicit declaration of God’s love for the entire world.

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.

The world was created as good, but it often stands in opposition to God and consequently is in need of being saved.

The verb for “send” is apostéllō, indicating that the Son had a sacred, all-encompassing mission to fulfill — highlighting serious responsibility.

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.

The Greek root for “condemn” means both judgment and condemnation.  Jesus’ purpose is to save, but his coming provokes judgment; some call judgment on themselves by knowingly and willfully turning from Christ.

Recall that in Jewish thought, someone’s name indicates their full identity, their full being.  If you believe in the name of a person, you believe in all they represent.

And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world,

A characterization of the incarnation of Christ as light coming 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.

A second use of light imagery: as the truthfulness that accompanies living a righteous life.

But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

These themes based on light are actually dimensions of the same reality: Christ is the true light, and those who choose Christ live in that light — that is, in the truth.  Those who do not believe are in darkness.

Connections and Themes

Continuing our consideration of the significant of Christ for our lives, we see that he is the one who is lifted up and through whom we gain eternal life.  The primary theme of today’s readings is the mercy of God, which can be considered from three aspects:

God is rich in mercy.   Each of the readings provides us with an example of how God is rich in mercy.  God’s use of Cyrus as an instrument of the deliverance of the Israelites from exile, even though he was not a believer and even when he was not aware of being used by God, shows the extent of God’s mercy.  Every circumstance and any person can be an opportunity for demonstrating its scope.  In fact, it is often the situation or the individual we least expect that has been chosen to manifest God’s mercy to us.  This same mercy is shown in God’s desire to bring us to life with Christ even when we were dead in sin.  We are able to enjoy such favor because God first looked with merciful favor on Jesus, who is the source of eternal life for others.

God’s mercy lifts us up.  “Mercy” means that strict justice is set aside in favor of compassion.  A dispossessed people is raised out of defeat and given another chance at self-determination, success, and prosperity.  Sinners who are justly condemned to severe punishment are raised out of despair and offered a reprieve.  The whole world is raised up out of darkness when God’s own Son is sent into that world as Savior rather than judge.  God’s mercy raises us out of loss and hopelessness, out of darkness and sin, so that we might enjoy the blessings of life.

The blessings of God flow from God’s mercy.  The mercy of God flowers in various and significant ways.  People who had been exiled are allowed to return home; people who were dispossessed once again embrace what they so tenderly cherish.  Their cries of lamentation are replaced by shouts of joy.  Sinners are given another chance; any trace of their transgression is washed away in the blood of Christ.  This miracle of divine mercy fills them with gratitude and praise.  The whole world is offered the opportunity of new life in Christ.  Those who accept the offer stand in silence before the manifestation of God’s incomparable mercy.

God raised the eyes of the people in the wilderness so they might be healed, raised the nation from exile so it might be restored, raised Jesus from the dead so he might be Savior to us all.  We too have been raised up so we might live in truth and become the visible sign of God’s mercy in the world.  We have been made a new people, free from the restraints of the past.  Joined with Christ we become God’s handiwork, creations that bear the seal of the great Creator.  We are the very sacrament of God’s mercy.  The forgiveness we have experienced and the new life within us shine forth as witness to the mercy of God.

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