In salvation history, two fundamental lines cross over each other: one negative, represented by men and women’s sin; the other positive, represented by God’s forgiveness and mercy. In this Sunday’s biblical readings, both can be shown with all of their strength of death and of life. On the human side Israel’s infidelity appears ( 2 Ch 26,14), our sins that have carried us to death (Eph 2,5) and the world that has done evil and hates the light (Jn 3); on God’s side is shown his will to make Israel turn back to her land (2 Ch 36,22-23), the life that he has given us gratuitously in Christ (Eph 2,5) and the love that he has for the world, so great, that it has resulted in him giving his only Son so that all who believe in him may be saved (Jn 3,16).
The first reading (2 Ch 36,14-16.19-23) represents the conclusion of this late work, of priestly tradition, called “the book of the Chronicles.” This epilogue is an attempt to interpret all of Israel’s history from a theological or religious perspective. For the author, the most profound cause of the exile’s tragedy is not of a military or political character, but religious. Undoubtedly, also the exile can and ought to be explained from its socio-political causes in light of the international relationship with the empires of the time. Nevertheless, the author is interested in making a religious reading of the history, with which he arrives at a conclusion which is still valid for us today: the evil of humanity, its sin and its rejection of justice and good, are the most profound cause of disharmony and dramatic lack of equilibrium in personal relationships as much as social relationships among human beings. Israel, throughout her history, has been accumulating a terrible weight of sin and infidelity, closing herself off systematically to God’s prophetic word, “until …there was no further remedy” (2 Ch 36,16). The lack of general conversion and of continuous rejection by the king and powerful of the people regarding the prophetic message precipitate Israel’s ruin. The exile is the price of sin and of infidelity; those that have profaned the divine gift of the land, now see it sterile and desolated precisely because of their immoral and unjust conduct.
The book of Chronicles originally ended at the 21st verse. A posterior author added verses 22 and 23 that are a copy of the beginning of the book of Esdras (Es 1,1-3). In this way something fundamental was aggregated to the interpretation of Israel’s history: God does not allow his people to perish because of sin, but invites them to begin again (return to the land, reconstruct the Temple, to experience again that the Lord is in their midst). His last word about the people is not death, nor punishment, but pardon, mercy and life. Through the politics of Cyrus, King of Persia, God will let Israel return to the land and begin again with hope the covenant’s history. God has not abandoned them; nor will he ever abandon his people.
The second reading (Eph 2,4-10) presents a synthesis of the theology of grace, in the light of the saving event of Christ Jesus: “God loved us with so much love that he was generous with his mercy: when we were dead through our sins, he brought us to life with Christ – it is through grace that you have been saved – and raised us up with him and gave us a place with him in heaven, in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2,4-6). The author underlines above all salvation’s absolute gratuity: “Because it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit” (v. 9). Salvation is not a work of our hands, or a recompense for our merits, but a gratuitous gift of God’s love and mercy in Christ. Man and woman receive it when they open themselves up to God with faith’s trust, being in this way completely transformed in Christ, to the point of “being raised” and “given a place with him in heaven.” Grace rescues man and woman from evil and makes them walk according to an ideal of life completely diverse, that the author describes saying: “We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning he had meant us to live it” (v. 10). The “good life” is not the condition, but the consequence of salvation.
The gospel (Jn 3,14-21) forms part of the discourse with which Jesus concludes his dialogue with Nicodemus. Through various verbal repetitions, John presents again and again that which makes up the nucleus of his gospel: faith in Jesus as the only way that brings one to life [“whoever believes in him has eternal life” (v. 15); “gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost, but may have eternal life” (v. 16); “no one who believes in him will be condemned; but whoever refuses to believe is condemned already, because he has refused to believe in the name of God’s only Son” (v. 18)]. For John, to each man and woman are presented two options that determine their existential destiny: to believe or not to believe in Jesus. To believe is to adhere personally to Jesus and to his plan of life and of love. The only radical sin for John is unbelief, the rejection of Jesus’ word, that is at the root and the foundation of all sin. In the center of the text the divine initiative of salvation is affirmed, making reference to the love of God toward humanity “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life” (v. 16). Jesus is not only the object of the believer’s faith, but also living sign of the Father’s love. In Jesus crosses over God’s infinite love, and man and woman’s trust-faith, that opens one up to salvation.
Jesus is the greatest manifestation of divine love for humanity. Those bitten by the serpent in the desert were cured, looking at the bronze serpent that Moses had raised up as a standard before the people (Num 21,8-9). That was an image of Jesus “raised up” on the cross (Jn 8,28; 12,34). The serpent liberated from a quick death, Jesus Crucified gives eternal life to those that believe in him. The verb “to raise up, to elevate” (Greek: ypsoô) (Jn 8,28; 12,34), can have two meanings in Greek: to raise up something physically from the ground upwards, or a metaphorical meaning, to exalt, glorify someone. John thinks of both meanings: “The Son of Man must be lifted up as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert” (Jn 3,14). On the cross, Jesus is raised up on high like a condemned man, but in this moment he is also exalted, glorified, giving life to the world: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all to myself” (Jn 12,32). Whoever believes in him is not judged, that is to say, condemned. Rather, unbelief closes off the gift of God’s love manifested on Jesus’ cross, with which he is judged and condemned (vv. 17-18). The cross’ saving love is also “discriminating,” “critical,” discerning among men and women, manifesting clearly those that are believers and those that are not. All of John’s work is conceived as an immense judgment between Jesus and darkness.
The text ends developing the antithetic theme of the light and darkness (vv. 19-21). While God loves the world, men and women paradoxically love the darkness. Those that do evil flee from the light, searching for refuge to act without being punished or seen or criticized. On the other hand, Jesus is presented as the “light of the world” (Jn 8,12), that reveals the truth of man and woman and carries them to fullness, giving them the capacity of working as God wants. Differing from the evil one, the just person “comes out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God.” (Jn 3,21).