Sunday Scripture

By Father Paul Nord, O.S.B.

Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B

First Reading: 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Response: Psalm 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Second Reading: Ephesians 2:4-10; Gospel: John 3:14-21

Our first reading is taken from 2 Chronicles – a work that presents Israelite history with a theological perspective. The author(s) is often called “the Chronicler.” The work was later divided into two sections – 1 Chronicles and 2 Chronicles. Today’s reading is from the final chapter of 2 Chronicles – chapter 36. This chapter recounts the reigns of the final kings of Judah, descended from King David. These are: Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin and Zedekiah. The Chronicler sees them as bad kings – doing “what was evil in the sight of the Lord God.” Thus they were undeserving of the Lord’s favor. The Jewish people are primarily descended from the tribe of Judah – one of the twelve Israelite tribes.

The infidelities of the last king, Zedekiah – and the infidelities of his princes, priests and the people – are described in 2 Chronicles 36:11-16. This includes the opening verses of today’s first reading. Among their sins were “practicing all the abominations of the nations” and “polluting the Lord’s temple.” The Chronicler connects their sins with how the Israelites had rejected God’s prophets in earlier times. Furthermore, the Chronicler sees the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple (“the house of God”) as a consequence of the sins of the people of Jerusalem and Judah. This destruction occurred in 587 B.C.

Judah had been a “vassal kingdom” under the Babylonian Empire for some years before the destruction of Jerusalem. Then King Cyrus of Persia conquered the Babylonians in 539 B.C. The Persians became rulers of the Babylonians’ subject peoples – including the people of Judah. The Chronicler is writing after the Persian conquest, and after King Cyrus of Persia had issued the proclamation recorded in our reading’s final verses.

The Chronicler says that Cyrus of Persia allowed the people of Judah to return to Jerusalem, and to build a new “house of God” (Temple) with King Cyrus’ assistance. It is striking that the Chronicler says “the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia.” Further, Cyrus is portrayed as speaking about “the LORD, the God of heaven.” In both cases, “LORD” indicates the name “YHWH” – the name of the God of Israel. Thus King Cyrus is depicted as acting under the divine inspiration of YHWH. This portrayal is the Chronicler’s theological interpretation of Cyrus’ policy of “religious tolerance” (a modern term) toward Persia’s subject peoples. Cyrus’ religious tolerance is well-documented in ancient sources.

Next, Ephesians 2 speaks of God as “rich in mercy” and says that God “brought us to life with Christ” despite our transgressions which made us “dead.” Ephesians 2:1-3 speak of the past sins of the Ephesian Christians. This leads into today’s reading (Ephesians 2:4-10) with its emphasis on salvation from sins and new life in Christ. Within Paul’s proclamation of our salvation in Christ, he emphasizes that it is an undeserved gift – we have not earned it through our works. Rather, God has given it to us because of God’s mercy and love for us.

Today’s gospel is preceded by John 3:13: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.” Jesus – the Son of Man – is thus the one who both comes down from heaven and goes up to heaven for our salvation. That is, the Son of God is sent into our world by the Father. Later the Son of God returns to the Father, after he has accomplished his mission, for which he was sent. Essential to Jesus’ mission is being “lifted up [like] the serpent in the desert.” Jesus’ words prophetically anticipate his crucifixion – by which he redeems humanity, and by which he returns to the Father.

Jesus refers here to an event recorded in Numbers 21:3-9. The Israelites “complained against God and Moses” (21:5) about lack of food and water. In response, the Lord sent deadly serpents that bit many of them. When the people repented, the Lord instructed Moses to create a seraph serpent and mount in a pole. In his mercy, the Lord granted that anyone who looked upon the mounted serpent would survive the serpent bite.

Jesus compares his own crucifixion to this act of God’s mercy through Moses. The apparent connection is that Jesus will save us from death if we look upon him for mercy – like the Israelites were instructed to look upon the serpent mounted on a pole.

Jesus uses the title “Son of Man” to describe himself in both John 3:13 and 3:14. The title “Son of Man” has a complicated history, but for John’s Gospel, it indicates that Jesus is the Messiah who is bringing God’s kingdom. John 5:26-27 says: “For just as the Father has life in himself, so also he gave to his Son the possession of life in himself. And he gave him power to exercise judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” John’s Gospel emphasizes these two elements of Jesus’ mission as the Son of Man – to give life and to exercise judgment – because sin and death have no place in God’s kingdom.

These same two elements of Jesus’ mission as the “Son of Man” are also emphasized in today’s gospel: “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” (3:16-17). The first half of this excerpt emphasizes Jesus’ giving of life. The second half expresses his exercise of judgment – that he does not wish to condemn us. But we must believe in him, so that we are not condemned (3:18).

The remainder of today’s gospel contrasts light with darkness. Jesus is “the light [which] came into the world.” But many people rejected Jesus because they “preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil” (3:19). Thus to live in Christ the light, we must live in the truth and do justice before God.