Scripture notes – 4th Sunday of Lent – Year B – 11th March 2018

The midpoint of Lent is ‘Laetare Sunday’ from the Latin word ‘Rejoice’ – the opening word of today’s mass. ‘Joy’ may come as a surprise to those who have aimed at some hard-to-carry-out practices, so the readings tell us about God’s abundant and unmerited love. While we do strive to do ‘good works’, any good we do comes from the power of God. All is God’s gracious gift, not a matter our own goodness or strength, and that gift is our source of joy.

The readings are available online here.

2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
This book is one we do not often hear from, and one I myself rarely even notice. The New Jerusalem Biblical Commentary has been helpful. The two books we call Chronicles are probably the last accepted into the Hebrew Bible, and were written at some time after the return from the Babylonian Exile between 200-400 BCE. It goes over the history of the past and combines these with what Robert North S.J. calls ‘lively sermons’. There is a special interest in the Levites – the tribe that supported the priests in the Temple – and the author is thought to be one of these Temple ministers.

This selection is from the very end of the book, and gives a short summary of how the Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah interpreted the Exile as a result of sin. This conclusion – that actions that seem like punishment indicate wrongdoing – seems to come easily to people still in our time. It was an advance at the time to insist that God is just, and not selfish and arbitrary as were the pagan gods. It will take much reflection on the words of the Gospels to understand God does not send evil, even when it seems deserved. A hint comes here in the unexpected action of Cyrus, the Persian conqueror who released the Jews from captivity and allowed them to return to their homeland and rebuild their Temple. This came as a predicted gift of God, and these words gives the Hebrew Bible an optimistic ending.

Psalm 136:1-6
A poignant psalm that expresses the pain of Exile, not only from the homeland but also from the usual supports of religion, the temple, and the community. As we pray it now, we can include the many refugees, asylum seekers and other exiles of our own times who feel the same pain of loss connections.

Ephesians 2:4-10
Scholars have disagreed about whether this letter was written by Paul himself or a follower; it doesn’t matter for our life because the author has given us a rich summary of the Christian faith that Paul spent his life preaching. In it, all Christians are urged to ‘rejoice’ in God’s free gift of love, salvation and healing, and to give up the pride of thinking we have done anything to ‘earn’ it. It comes to us through Christ Jesus, whose sacrifice and triumph we will celebrate at the end of Lent in the liturgy of Easter Triduum. Strangely, it is often hard to accept such free love, for egotism and pride means people want to take the credit themselves. It is a tricky balance to believe all comes from God through Christ Jesus, and yet we are to respond with as much love and loving action as we can muster.

John 3:14-21
This is the first of the long ‘discourses’ in John. These sections show Jesus speaking, usually of himself and his mission, often based on an encounter or question from others. This, like many long passages in John, is complicated in structure and not always easier to follow. These discourses come from the longer time of reflection than the other gospels show, and at times it is not always clear how much of it is from the words of Christ and how much has come from the evangelist’s thinking and experience of living as a disciple.

Nicodemus is mentioned at the beginning to let us know this selection came as a response to his questions. I recommend reading the whole account in Chapter 3. Nicodemus was a ‘ruler’ or member of the Jewish Council who came secretly to Jesus at night, knowing that the rest of the council opposed Jesus. Night is often in John a symbol for not knowing Christ and leads to the symbols of light and darkness used by Jesus.

John uses in several places the wording ‘be lifted up’ to speak of Jesus being crucified as well as ascending to the Father. Such disgrace and suffering were not expected of a Messiah, and this made it hard to accept Jesus. As part of his explanation, Jesus uses the story of Moses and the serpent during the desert wanderings of the Exodus as a symbol of God’s healing and salvation. This type of comparison was done by the Jewish rabbis and picked up by Christians who wanted to understand their connections to God working in the past. Some of these applications may sound odd in our times; we would probably on our own not think of a serpent set on a pole as a sign or symbol of Jesus on the cross, but it does emphasize how God can turn pain and suffering to healing and redemption.

The story is in the book of Numbers, 12:4-9. In summary, when the people were bitten by poisonous snakes, Moses was instructed to make a sculpture of the snake, raise it on a stake, and those who looked on it were healed. A deeper and more lasting salvation will come with Jesus’ ‘lifting up’. This discourse looks ahead to the events of Holy Week.

The words following this – ‘God so loved the world…’ may be evangelist’s own reflection. Similarly to the previous reading, they emphasize God’s utter graciousness in dealing with people (and perhaps the whole of creation is meant by ‘world’). Jesus as God’s Son did not come into the world for condemnation but those who refuse to accept God’s offer of love and forgiveness condemn themselves to the loss of that. This Gospel often uses stark words of opposition, as here between light-dark, trust in God and rejection of God. Not emphasized here, although elsewhere in the Gospel, is that God continues to reach out to sinners.

The liturgy gives us for our mid-Lent reflection the idea that our goal is not to show how much we have done, but to recognize God’s love and respond to it ever more fully in whatever ways God guides us in.

[The long discussion in John Marsh’s commentary Saint John is especially helpful for reflecting on this chapter. It is an old edition, but still available in paperback for those who want to do a serious study of this Gospel.]

Joan Griffith

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