Lectionary #32, Gospel John 3: 14-21
Today’s first reading is taken from the Second Book of Chronicles, a text which is not often read at mass; in fact, a Catholic who attends mass each Sunday will hear a selection from this book only once every three years. The two Books of Chronicles describe the history of Israel from the time of the first kings until the return from the Babylonian captivity, a period of nearly six centuries, and they offer a different interpretation of many persons and events than do the other historical books of the Bible.
The author of this inspired work, often called the Chronicler, was writing after the return of the Israelites from their exile in Babylon—specifically mentioned in today’s passage—and had a broader view of religious life and practice, and the relationship of Israel with God, than did the authors of the Books of 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings. The Chronicler, for example, goes comparatively easy on Solomon and David in his assessment of their moral faults, and he recognizes that non-Israelites could be people of righteousness and justice. He in no way ignores the awful nature of sin and infidelity, but rather than focusing exclusively on these painful realities he looks forward to the possibility of a new beginning for Israel.
In this Sunday’s reading the Chronicler notes that Cyrus, the king of Persia, was inspired by the Lord and protected the rights of the Israelites as they returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple—in other words, a pagan foreigner recognized that the Lord was truly God. The Chronicler continues in this passage to clearly recount the sins which led the Israelites into exile and to frankly remember their just punishment. But the Chronicler, true to his hope-filled outlook, also sees the possibility of forgiveness and salvation. To be sure, he is not simply being true to his own views, but to the revelation of God who made himself known through the Chronicler’s own inspired words and those of the entire Old Testament.
The same movement is seen in today’s gospel reading, in which we hear the famous words “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” (John 3:16). We hear an honest acknowledgment of the need for God’s gracious intervention and mercy on account of human sin, and we also hear a note of great hope that there is the real possibility of eternal life for all who believe in Christ.
In recording these words, John the Evangelist does not assume a naïve understanding of human nature, nor does he overlook the way in which sin corrupts us and our world; rather, he faces it squarely, noting throughout his Gospel how “the world” consistently opposes Jesus and his message, and how we all form part of that opposition until the moment of our authentic conversion.
If this process of conversion is legitimate it must continue throughout the course of our lives; the point to take from today’s Gospel reading is that by believing in Jesus as the one who delivers us from sin and woundedness we have taken the first step toward such conversion. By remaining in his grace, and being conscious that all of God’s children are called to this same faith, conversion, and salvation—a lesson we began to learn from the Chronicler—we humbly confirm what Paul says in the second reading, from the Letter to the Ephesians: “Even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved” (Eph 2:5).
Father Edward M. Mazich, O.S.B.