Scripture notes – 4th Sunday of Lent – Year B – 14th March 2021

The midpoint of Lent is called ‘Laetare Sunday’ from the Latin word ‘Rejoice’ – the opening word of today’s mass. Although ‘Joy’ may not be the first word that comes to mind in this strange second year of the pandemic, the first reading has a note of hope that after troubled times, there comes a deliverance. For Christians, there is an unfailing source of joy brought by the the love that comes from Jesus.

The readings are available online here.

2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
One of the least familiar books of the Bible and rarely heard at mass, the two books of 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. They reflect on the history of the Jewish kings with an emphasis on the Temple. They show a special interest in the Levites – the tribe that supported the priests in their service – and the author may have been one of these Temple ministers.

Chronicles looks back at the history contained in the two books of Kings, and stands in the long line of biblical reflections on what went before and applies it’s insights to new concerns or challenges. Thus it can be a reminder to our times that we too are to look at the past and consider how God’s message applies to our own lives and times.

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 feel 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 more reflection on the words of the Gospels to understand God does not send suffering, even when we see that wrongdoing has consequences.

A hint comes of God’s saving intent in the midst of sin is shown in this text by 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 an unexpected 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 of their homeland and connections.

Ephesians 2:4-10
This book picks up the theme of the opening of mass, as 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 balance to believe all comes from God through Christ Jesus, and yet we are responsible 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 which show Jesus giving lengthy explanations, often based on an encounter or question from others. Like many long passages in John, it is complicated in structure and the reasoning not always easy to follow. The author of John had a longer time of reflection than the other three gospels and takes time to spell out in greater detail the meaning of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Because early manuscripts did not have our system of punctuation it is not always clear how much of it is from the words of Christ and how much has come from the evangelist’s reflecting on his words.

Nicodemus is mentioned at the beginning to let us know this selection came as a response to his questions. For fuller understanding, read the full 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 for many 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 made 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 this is one way to see how God can turn pain and suffering to healing and redemption.

The background for the image is in the book of Numbers, 12:4-9 which concerns events during the time of going through the desert of Sinai. 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’. Thus 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. Like the Ephesians reading, they emphasize God’s utter graciousness in dealing with people (and perhaps the whole of creation is meant by the use of ‘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 it is made clear elsewhere in the Bible, is that God still reaches out to sinners who have rejected his call. The Lent theme of repentance reminds us it is never too late to make changes, to accept ‘the joy of the Good News.’

Joan Griffith