Lifting up our Eyes
Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday). Fr Giles Hibbert suggests that those who refuse to acknowledge the spiritual reality of Jesus condemn themselves.
As so often the Scripture reading regrettably gives us the text — what the lectionary thinks is Christ’s ‘teaching’ — without giving us its context. In this case the context is what seems to be, at least partially, a real conversation, a real encounter, between Jesus and Nicodemus, who came to him secretly — ‘after dark [or is it ‘in darkness’?], for fear of the Jews.’ If we are to take Scripture seriously it is essential to see it, Jesus’s words particularly, within their context.
The ‘real bit’ of this encounter is itself built up poetically and dramatically, but quite shortly even the pretence of its being something said by Jesus to Nicodemus is effectively dropped. It becomes a statement of faith by the Church — as understood, of course, from within the community of the Fourth Gospel.
Something like this occurs again and again throughout the Fourth Gospel: the Faith of the Church, which is none other than the understanding of Jesus by his disciples, is seen as emerging from personal encounter with him. We have a whole series of depictions of the Good News, which progress and deepen as the Gospel proceeds — though not at first in any straightforwardly logical sequence. Apart from its particular content we have here, in the current passage, echoes or pre-echoes (it is all one) of both the Prologue and the Last Supper.
After an initial demand made by Jesus to raise our understanding on to a higher plane (unfortunately not included in this reading) the ‘speech’ goes on to present the Son of Man, Jesus, as an archetypal figure of healing. The imagery of being ‘lifted up’ is used later to proclaim the truth that Jesus’s death on the cross was in fact a triumph over death, not a surrender to it. These words look back explicitly to Moses. Moses is accepted above all as the great Lawgiver, but there is importantly more to him than that — which means there is more to the idea of Law than that which we normally give to it.
Here Moses is recalled as the healer, and elsewhere, for example when he strikes the rock at Meribah (Ex 17:6) which gives a flow of water, he is seen specifically as life-giver (move on to the very next chapter of this Gospel).
Jesus is presented as fulfilling, and complementing these roles — the light coming into the world (again both echoes and pre-echoes), but as he has already warned Nicodemus, this has to be understood at a higher level than that of observing the Law, receiving healing from his touch or with being fed with bread and wine (as well as fish) — hence the significance of the Eucharist in the proclamation of the Good News.
The translation which presents us with these ideas does not always adequately help. ‘Indeed everyone who does wrong hates the light?’ the Jerusalem Bible (the version habitually read out in our Sunday worship in England) tells us. That word ‘wrong’ makes one look towards the catechism and takes one to confession; what have I done wrong? what sins have I committed since last time.
This sort of thing, I suggest, is not what it is about; that is what Nicodemus is warned against (v.10). The Greek word here (phaula) means something more like ‘cheap’ or ‘inadequate’ — exactly like Nicodemus’s understanding in other words, not what Jesus is suggesting.
But what is he suggesting? ‘Who refuses to believe is condemned already’ we are told (v.18), and ‘on these grounds is sentence pronounced’ (v.19). What damage to both faith and love have these words — or rather their misunderstanding — brought about. Again we have to rise to a higher level of understanding and spirituality to understand them. It is a theme which runs throughout the Gospel.
Who condemns us for our failures (phaulai)? Who passes sentence upon us? We ourselves in the failure to rise in response to what Jesus is calling us to. He is the Messiah, the Christ, the King whose role within Israel is to bring peace, justice and healing. He is indeed a second Moses. But where he outstrips Moses is that in calling us to himself as his sisters and his brothers, we are appointed Christs (Messiahs) with him. If we fail to respond, we ‘condemn’ ourselves.