Commentary on the Readings
4th Sunday of lent – Year B – March 11, 2018
FROM THERE HE WILL COME TO JUDGE
One day God will evaluate the success or failure of one's life. From there He will come to judge is one of the articles of the faith we profess, but perhaps we have not ever wondered what from there means. From there, from where? We have not asked this question, perhaps because the answer seems obvious to us: He will return from heaven.
The Risen Lord promised to be with his disciples "always, to the close of the age" (Mt 28:20), therefore, there is no need to wait for his return and the throne on which he sits to pronounce his judgment should not be placed in heaven, but on earth. Where? Here's the surprise: it is from the cross that he judges the world.
It is Jesus, the crucified who, reversing the expectations and values of the world, judges the defeats a victory, service a power, poverty a wealth, the loss a gain, humiliation a triumph, death a birth. It is with the crucified Jesus that we have to deal, because he alone is the one who tells the truth about the choices of man. It is only his judgment that should be "feared", ie, accepted and followed.
The judgment of the Crucified does not inculcate fear. It is, yes, the most severe condemnation of all wickedness but it is a motive of joy and hope for the sinner; from the Crucified, in fact, everyone feels only to repeat: "I did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world" (Jn 12:47).
To internalize the message, we repeat:
"Let me not fear the judgments of people, but to follow your judgments, O Crucified One."
The Israelites believed that in the afterlife, the same fate would be reserved for the righteous and the sinner: to become "shadows" wandering into a place of silence, darkness and no joy (Ps 88:13). For this they considered good what is bad, the successes and misfortunes of this life, as sure signs of the blessings or punishments of God for the work done. Even the authors of the books of Chronicles were thinking in this way and today’s passage is its proof.
We are in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. Many years have already passed since Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and deported to Babylon those who had escaped the sword (vv. 19-20). The exiles have returned to the land of their fathers, but they still cannot give a reason for the disaster that hit them. Why—they ask—has God allowed the destruction of the temple and the holy city?
The first part of the reading dissolves this enigma (vv. 14-18): Israel has been hit because of her infidelity and the senselessness of its leaders and priests. The Lord loved his people, cared for her, sent the prophets to show the way of life, but Israel despised the words of his enoys. They scoffed at and persecuted them. God then was seized with rage and punished, without remedy, the people, who was defeated and humiliated by the Babylonians.
The second part of the reading (v. 21) introduces a second example of rigorous retribution. Before the invasion of the Babylonians, Israel had neglected the observance of the sabbatical year. She had not left the ground to rest every six years, to enable the poor and the animals to feed themselves on wild fruits of the land (Lev 26:34) . This is why God had counted this infidelity on his people, sending her into exile for seventy years, so the earth rested all the time that she had been "taken away".
The logic of the book of Chronicles surprises us and needs to be clarified. In the face of this touchy and susceptible Lord we are shocked and we wonder: what is this God who gets angry like a man, acts like an accountant, notes the payables and receivables, coolly pulls the money and punishes severely, involving even the innocent?
This way of understanding retribution raises insuperable difficulties. How to explain, for example, the misfortunes that affect even the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked? At the height of bitterness, Job, inconsolably, argued: “But am I innocent after all? I do not know, and so I find my life despicable. When disaster brings sudden death, he mocks the despair of the innocent. When a nation falls into a tyrant’s hand, it is he who makes the judges blind. But it is not he- who else then?” (Job 9:21-24), and Ecclesiastes:" All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness"(Ecl 7:15). Even scrolling through the history of Israel, we are forced to admit that often, just as he was faithful to Lord, these people were overwhelmed by enemies.
Undoubtedly, the language used is archaic, often used in the Old Testament, but it is no longer ours. It present as God’s punishment that which, in reality, is simply the result of human error. Not God, but sin punishes those who commit it and, at times, has an impact, with its disastrous consequences, in "the children and their children, to the third and fourth generation" (Ex 34:7). This truth was well known to the sages of the Old Testament, who frequently repeated it: who sins against God, harms himself; those who hate him love death (Pro 8:36); "Do not bring about your own death by your wrong way of living. Do not let the work of your hands destroy you. God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living" (Wis 1:12).
It was not therefore the Lord to send Israel into exile, nor, even less, to incite Nebuchadnezzar to wage war and commit crimes and violence. It was the folly of the people and its government that brought about the ruin. Four centuries later, Jerusalem will repeat the error: she will reject the "path of peace" offered by Jesus. She will not recognize "the time when God has visited" and will decide her own destruction (Lk 19:41-44).
The reading ends (vv. 22-23) with the story of the return of the deportees. After long years of exile, God raised up Cyrus, king of Persia, who issued an edict that gave freedom to all.
It is the living image of the end of each story between God and man: the last word will always be his love.
Like the unfaithful Israelites, who turns away from God becomes slave of his idols, but the Lord never abandons him. There is no deep and dark prison that he does not visit if there he can see his son; there is no intricate condition that he does not untie, nor chains of vice that he does not determine to break or ancient hatreds that he does not want to or does not know how to settle.
This passage is placed in the context from which it is taken, the second chapter of Letter to the Ephesians. It starts presenting, in dramatic terms, the condition of man away from God and from salvation. Who lives a corrupt life, who is a slave to his vices is not building his own life, is simply consuming his existence, is already dead.
Paul included himself among those who were in this desperate condition: "All of us belonged to them at one time and we followed human greed; we obeyed the urges of our human nature and consented to its desires. By ourselves, we went straight to the judgment like the rest of humankind." (Eph 2:1-3).
At this point in our reading, God, full of love and mercy, intervened to free man and he raised him, with Christ, to new life (vv. 4-7).
This salvation is not a reward for our good deeds, but it is a totally free gift of the Father, so that no one can boast of the good that he finds in himself, even less, to despise one who, unfortunately, has not yet opened his heart to so much grace (vv. 9-10).
While it is true that it is not man to save himself by his own good works, it is equally true, however, that these are the necessary response to the love of God. They are the signs that God's grace was accepted and began to bear fruits (v. 10).
Only John the evangelist speaks of Nicodemus, a distinguished character among the Pharisees. He was perhaps a member of the great Sanhedrin, who, taking advantage of the darkness and silence of the night, went to Jesus. He seems to see him, this man already advanced in years, moving in the dark, verging, circumspect, the walls of the city of Jerusalem, not to be seen by some of his colleagues. He is in search of light and he intuits that Jesus can give it to him: the young rabbi from Nazareth, "the man coming from God as a teacher" (Jn 3:2). He comes into the picture at night and in the night he fades away without the evangelist relating to us how he ended his conversation with Jesus.
After some time he is among the high priests of Jerusalem engaged in a lively discussion to find a way to get rid of Jesus. He will listen to them in silence, then will throw a provocative phrase: "Does our law condemn people without first hearing them and knowing the facts?” He will get a mocking response: "Look it up and see for yourself that no prophet is to come from Galilee" (Jn 7:51-52). Poor Nicodemus, too fair to be comfortable in that assembly of scoffers!
He will make his last appearance on Calvary, along with Joseph of Arimathea, to wrap the body of Jesus in bandages and lay it in the tomb (Jn 19:39-40).
Today’s passage is the last part of his night-time conversation.
In the first part (vv.13-15) Jesus recalls an incident that occurred during the exodus. He, "the teacher of Israel" (Jn 3:10), has certainly remembered it. In the desert, many Israelites had fallen victims of poisonous snakes. Moses turned to the Lord who had ordered him to make a bronze snake and to hoist it on a pole. Who, after being bitten, raised his eyes to the serpent, saved his life (Num 21:4-9).
The fact is quite unique and seems to tie in with certain magical and idolatrous rites of antiquity. Even in the temple of Jerusalem a bronze serpent was kept which, they said, was the one lifted up by Moses.
It s difficult to determine what really happened during the exodus. The message of the episode is instead clear, and the rabbis had already guessed it. The Israelites were not healed because they looked at the snake, but because they raised their hearts to God. It was the Lord who saved, not the image of bronze. The Book of Wisdom commented on the fact, "For whoever turned towards it was saved, not by the image he saw, but by you, Lord, the Savior of all" (Wis 16:7).
Jesus refers to this fact and interprets it as a symbol of what is going to happen to him: he will be lifted up on the cross and all those who behold him will save their lives.
Nicodemus, who understood little or nothing of what Jesus had said about the need to be "born from above", certainly knew even less on raising the Son of Man. He surely was surprised, shocked, maybe even a little disappointed. He listened in silence, unable even to make one last question. He could not understand why he lacked the light of the Risen Christ and the claims of Jesus remained shrouded in mystery. It is not so for us today, in the light of the events of Easter, we are able to understand: to look at Jesus "lifted up" means "to believe in him" (v. 15), keeping the eyes focused on the love that he has shown.
The cross is not an amulet worn round the neck or a symbol indicating the conquest of a territory or the consecration of a room. It is the reference point of each gaze of the believer that, in it, the proposal of life made to him by the Master is summarized. Slaves ended up on the cross, only slaves. On the Cross, Jesus proclaims that the fulfilled man according to God is one who has voluntarily made himself slave for love, servant of his brothers even to the point of dying for them.
Today the snakes that wound, that poison the existence and put life off are called pride, envy, resentment, unruly passions. Only an eye turned to Him who was raised can be treated of the poison of death injected in the heart of every person. But one day—ensures the evangelist—"they shall look on him whom they have pierced" (19:37) and be saved.
In the second part of the passage (vv. 16-21) we have a theological meditation on the mission of the Son of man: God did not send him "to condemn the world; but that the world might be saved through him."
Unlike Matthew who, to address the importance and the eternal consequences of the choices made today, uses the image of the Last Judgment, John uses a different language and more in keeping with today's mentality. He even excludes that God judges man and speaks of a judgment that takes place in the present and that's only salvation.
The theological positions of Matthew and John seem contradictory; in fact, while they use different language and images, the two evangelists offer the same truth. God's judgment is not pronounced the end of time, but today. In front of each option that man is called to do, the Lord makes his opinion heard. He indicates what is right according to the wisdom of heaven and warns of the choices of death.
It does not affirm that in the end God will reject forever those who did wrong, those who have followed other criteria, other judgments. God will not drive out anyone; he "wants all to be saved" (1 Tim 2:4). The absurdity of his sentence is presented by Paul with a series of rhetorical questions: "Who shall be against us? Who shall accuse those chosen by God? He takes away their guilt. Who will dare condemn them? Christ who died, and better still, rose and is seated at the right hand of God, interceding for us?"(Rom 8:31-34). The conclusion is obvious: "No creature whatsoever will separate us from the love of God which we have in Jesus Christ, our Lord. " (Rom 8:39).
However, at the end of life, when God "will test the work of everyone by fire" (1 Cor 3:13), the conformity or non-conformity of the actions of each person with the person of Christ will be pointed out. God will certainly welcome all in his arms, but someone will be forced to admit of having handled badly or having irretrievably wasted a unique opportunity that was offered. The work of this man—Paul admonishes—"becomes ashes. He will be saved but it will be as if passing through fire"(1 Cor 3:15).
There is a video by Fr. Fernando Armellini with English subtitles commenting on today’s Gospel reading: