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4th SUNDAY OF LENT (Cycle B)

Readings:
2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23
Psalm 137:1-6
Ephesians 2:4-10
John 3:14-21

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we reread and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of the Readings: Every Sinner is a Displaced Person
Each of the Sunday Readings of Lent has been a review of the high points of salvation history: God's covenant with Noah and Creation after the flood, God's covenant promises to Abraham after his ordeal of faith, and God's covenant promises to Israel at Mt. Sinai.  In today's First Reading we read about the destruction of the Davidic kingdom of Judah, a kingdom that God promised David would endure forever in the final covenant of the Old Testament (2 Sam 7; Ps 89:3).  In judgment for the sins of the people who had abandoned God's Sinai Covenant, the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed and the people were taken away into exile in pagan Babylon.  However, God did not abandon His people; He gave them the promise of a future restoration.  Today's Psalm repeats the lament of the people as they were displaced from their land and taken away.  In the midst of their suffering, they remembered God's promise of a future restoration to their Promised Land and the promise of a Davidic king to shepherd God's people in an eternal covenant (2 Sam 7:16-17, 29; 23:5; Ez 34:23-24).

In today's Second Reading, St. Paul reminds us that God is rich in mercy and always keeps His promises.  God promised David that his kingdom would endure forever and that a Davidic heir would rule all nations (Ps 2:7-9).  Jesus is that Davidic son and heir (Lk 1:31-32) who will restore all sinners and bring them back from the exile of sin and death to the Promised Land of Heaven.  In the Gospel reading we are told that He will restore His people through a spiritual re-birth, making every sinner in exile a child in the family of God.  The Jews in exile in Babylon can be seen as symbolic for all who are alienated from God by sin, since every sinner is a displaced person. Only those who repent their alienation and long for restoration can be saved and restored through the sacrifice Jesus won for mankind on the Altar of the Cross. 

The First Reading 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23 ~ The Babylonian exile and the return
14 In those days, all the princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the LORD'S Temple which he had consecrated in Jerusalem.  15 Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place.  16 But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.  [...] 19 Their enemies burnt the house of God, tore down the walls of Jerusalem, set all its palaces afire, and destroyed all its precious objects.  20 Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon, where they became servants of the king of the Chaldeans and his sons until the kingdom of the Persians came to power.  21 All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah: "Until the land has retrieved its lost Sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled."  22 In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom, but by word of mouth and in writing: 23 "Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia:  All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.  Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him!"

The citizens of the Kingdom of Judah's failure to repent their personal sins and their communal sin of apostasy from their covenant with Yahweh, despite the warnings of impending judgment by God's prophets, led to God's divine judgment against Judah with the Babylonian army as the instrument of His judgment.  Among the prophets the inspired writer has in mind in verse 16 are the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah and the 6th century BC prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.  In the summer of 587/6 BC, the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the magnificent Temple of Yahweh that had been built by King Solomon (2 Kng 24:18-25:30; Jer 52:12-30).  All the surviving citizens were taken away as captives to Babylonia to join Judeans who had been taken in two earlier deportations in 598 and 597 BC.

21 All this was to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah: "Until the land has retrieved its lost Sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled." 
The seventy years are the number of Sabbath years of rest the citizens of Judah failed to observe according to the Law (repeated in 27:7 and 29:10): The LORD said to Moses on Mount Sinai, "Speak to the Israelites and tell them: When you enter the land that I am giving you, let the land, too, keep a Sabbath for the LORD.  For six years you may sow your field, and for six years prune your vineyard, gathering their produce.  But during the seventh year the land shall have a complete rest, a Sabbath for the LORD, when you may neither sow your field nor prune your vineyard" (Lev 25:1-4).  The Sabbath year was a test of faith and obedience in which the people had to rely on God to meet their needs for food.  The people had failed to keep the Sabbath years, and therefore they owed God's land seventy years of complete rest, which becomes the duration of the exile that was a communal penance for the people.  The seventy years appear to run from the fall of Jerusalem in 587 to the rebuilding of the Temple in 517 BC, with funds provided by Cyrus of Persia.

22 In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD inspired King Cyrus of Persia to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom, but by word of mouth and in writing: 23 "Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia:  All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.  Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him!"
It was the 8th century BC prophet Isaiah who first prophesized that a king named Cyrus was to liberate God's covenant people from exile (Is 44:26-45:7).  This prophecy was fulfilled historically in King Cyrus of Persia (ruled 539-530 BC).  The conquest of Babylon by Cyrus dates from the fall of 539, the first year of his reign over a united Persia.  He issued an edict the next year in the fall of 538 BC, commanding the return of the citizens of Judah to their homeland (also see Ezra 1:1-4).

For the covenant people, the blinding of Davidic King Zedekiah and the death of his sons appeared to be the failure of God's covenant promise to King David that a Davidic son would sit on the throne of his kingdom forever (2 Sam 7:12-16, 29>; 23:5; Sir 45:25; 47:11/13).  But it is recorded by the inspired writer of 2 Kings 25:27-30 that a Davidic heir did survive (also see Jer 52:31-34), and we learn from Matthew's genealogy of Jesus (Mt 1:12-17) that the promised line of David did continue.  The covenant God made with David was fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, as the angel told Mary: "Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.  He will be great and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father, and he will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end" (Lk 1:31-33).   Jesus is the eternal King who came to call all those displaced by sin in their relationship with God back from exile and to full restoration as citizens of His eternal Kingdom.

Responsorial Psalm 137:1-6 ~ The Song of the exiles
The response is: "Let my tongue be silenced, if I ever forget you!"
1 By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.  2 On the aspens of that land we hung up our harps.
Response:
3 Though there our captors asked of us the lyrics of our songs, and our despoilers urged us to be joyous: "Sing for us the songs of Zion!" 
Response:
4 How could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land?  5 If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand be forgotten!
Response:
6 May my tongue cleave to my palate if I remember you not, if I place not Jerusalem ahead of my joy.
Response:

This psalm is a lament recalling the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the holy Temple. The conquest by the Babylonians resulted in the forced exile of the citizens of the Davidic kingdom of Judah on the tenth day of the fourth month (June-July) in 587/6 BC.  "Zion" is a reference not only to the mountain peak upon which the Jerusalem Temple of Yahweh was built, but "Zion" also came to be identified with the faithful of the Old Covenant Church (Is 28:16; also see the document: "Zion and the Presence of God").

In the covenant people's exile, their Babylonian captors urged the people of Judah to share their national hymns.  They refused because most of the songs were part of liturgical worship sung in the House of Yahweh, many of which had been composed by the great King David.  They will not sing but they do promise not to forget either their hymns of praise, or Yahweh, or their homeland where they worshiped Yahweh in beauty and in truth.  Make this psalm your Lenten prayer as you repent your sins in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, are restored to fellowship with God, and to right worship as you sing songs of praise with the community of the faithful of Jesus Christ.

The Second Reading Ephesians 2:4-10 ~ Salvation in Christ is a gift of grace
4 God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ: by grace you have been saved, 6 raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, 7 that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.  8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; 9 it is not from works, so no one may boast.  10 For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.

St. Paul states that salvation from sin and death is God's gift that we should accept in faith.  Our hoped for justification and salvation cannot be purchased by good deeds; instead our good deeds should be the manifestation of our purification and gratitude to God for His abundant love and mercy.  The sinner who is forgiven and restored to fellowship with God and with the faith community should desire to do something good in return for the gift of God's mercy and grace.

10 For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.
In this verse, as in Colossians 2:12 and 3:1-4, the use of the past tense shows that the resurrection and glory of Christians in heaven is considered as actually existing as an accomplished event.  In other words, the victory has been won by Jesus Christ; all we have to do is to have the faith to claim the victory in our journey to salvation.  It is another example that one's salvation is not a one-time event but is a process which is expressed in the letters of St. Paul in the past, present, and future tenses.  As Christians, who are God's masterwork, having received the gift of grace through baptism, we must therefore live our new life as befits us and ratify God's calling and choice of each for us for eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven (2 Pt 1:10). 

The Gospel of John 3:14-21 ~ Jesus came to save mankind from sin
Jesus said to Nicodemus: 14 "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."  16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only [begotten / monogene] Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.  18 Whoever believes in him will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.  19 And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.  20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.  21 But whoever lives the truth comes to the light so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.

14 "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert ...
> Jesus compares Himself to the image of the bronze serpent God had Moses construct and raise up above the heads of the Israelites on a standard in the wilderness journey to the Promised Land (Num 21:4-9).   When the people were afflicted by the bites of deadly snakes, all the people had to do was to look at the figure raised above them on the standard to be saved from death. 

so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life."
The incident in the wilderness was a foreshadowing of Christ's crucifixion.  We must look to the crucified Christ, believe that He is the only Son of God, and be "lifted up with Him" in order to be saved from the "bite" of eternal death.  If we believe, we can receive true salvation, the gift of eternal life (Jn 3:18).  When this happens we will be cleansed by the purifying water that flowed from the Savior's pierced side (Jn 19:34; Zec 13:1). This is why St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:23 "we preach Christ crucified" and it is why in every Catholic Mass an image of the crucified Christ must be present.  Notice Jesus will use the title "Son of man," twice in this passage.  It is Jesus' favorite Messianic title for Himself.  In verse 14 the title stresses Jesus' humanity, while the previous verse stressed His divine origin as the one who has gone up to heaven except the one who came down from heaven, the Son of man....  That verse may be a reference to the Prophet Daniel's vision of the divine Messiah who had the appearance of a son of man/looked like a man in Daniel 7:13-14 which Jesus will allude to at His trial before the Sanhedrin before His crucifixion.

Jesus says: 16 For God so loved the world that he gave his only [begotten/monogene] Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. 
John 3:16 is one of the best known verses in the Bible. What Jesus means when He says God the Father did not send Him into the world to judge the world is that He is sent into the world to announce the Kingdom of God and to offer the gift of salvation.  Judgment comes later, and judgment depends on whether or not one receives Christ as Savior.

Jesus continues in verses 18-21 to say that to believe in His "name" is to believe everything that Jesus revealed about His true nature, human and divine.  It is to believe He is the Son of God, it is to believe that He died for our sins, and that He was raised from the dead to raise those who believe in Him to eternal life.  But is there any in-between in so far as judgment is concerned?  No. In rejecting Christ one rejects salvation and eternal life.  This is what Peter preached in Acts 4:11-12 to the members of the Jewish Law Court: "This is the stone which you, the builders, rejected but which has become the cornerstone.  Only in him is there salvation; for of all the names in the world given to men, this is the only one by which we can be saved."

But what about the poor soul who never heard the Gospel and therefore never had the choice?  They will be judged by their own consciences and the innate, natural law that God has placed in the heart of every human being (see Rom 2:12-16).  But there is a problem because consciences can be eroded by sin to the point where a conscience will no longer be aware of the degree of wickedness.  That is why the spread of the Gospel across the earth is so important in order to bring salvation to man (also see Lk 12:47-48 and CCC# 846-48).

So then, to what is Jesus calling Nicodemus, who came to Him in darkness, to do (see Jn 3:1-2)?  He is calling Nicodemus to come out of the "darkness" of unbelief and into the "light."  He can come into the "Light" by professing belief in Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God and the "Light of the world" (Jn 8:12), who offers the gift of divine grace and restoration of fellowship with God to all men and women.  Grace in its most intimate definition in terms of Christ, is nothing less than divine sonship.  CCC# 1997: "Grace is a participation in the life of God.  It introduces us into the intimacy of Trinitarian life..."  This gift of the grace that God gives to us is His own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our souls, to heal us of sin and to sanctify us.  This is the sanctifying or deifying grace we receive in Baptism.  It is a gift of His life that God makes to us and in turn we become a new creation.  St. Paul wrote: So for anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation: the old order is gone and a new being is there to see.  It is all God's work; he reconciled us to himself through Christ and he gave us the ministry of reconciliation.  I mean, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not holding anyone's faults against them, but entrusting to us the message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:17-18; also see CCC # 1999).

In the beginning of our lives we are made as creatures, fashioned after God's own image, made in His image, but we are still creatures none the less.  Christ is the eternal Son who is begotten of the Father.  He is the image of the Father while we are created in the image of the Father.  In the New Creation, Christ gives to us, through His own life, re-birth into permanent sonship.  In 1 John 1:3 John writes: You must see what great love the Father has lavished on us by letting us be called God's children, which is what we are!  We are no longer just called children of God by virtue of being part of His creation.  We ARE children of God by virtue of the blood of Christ which unites us in our re-birth, anothen = "from above", to God as His children.  This is the most distinctive feature of Christianity and the most distinctive feature of Catholicism. It is what Pope Pius XI expressed when he said: "Ours is a religion of Divine Sonship.  We are made partakers of the divine nature."  St. Peter writes in 2 Peter 3-4 ~"By his divine power, he has lavished on us all the things we need for life and for true devotion, through the knowledge of him who has called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these, the greatest and priceless promises have been lavished on us, that through them you should share the divine nature and escape the corruption rife in the world through disordered passion." Also see CCC# 1994-5.

God's grace "is a participation in the life of God" (CCC# 1997) through which we receive the gift of divine son-ship and by His grace we are justified.  Catholic Christians define justification as that which has been merited for us by Christ's Passion on the altar of the Cross.  Like conversion, justification has two aspects: Moved by grace we turn away from sin and to God and in doing so we accept forgiveness and righteousness in our transformed souls which has been infused by the Holy Spirit with the very life of Christ.   Justification includes the remission of our sins, sanctification, and the renewal of the inner man, which is for us an on-going process in our life long journey toward salvation:  "Our justification comes from the grace of God.  Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life" (CCC#1996, also see Jn 1:12-18; 17:3; Rom 8:14-17).

We are not just called "children of God" as creatures of the Creator like the people of God in the Old Covenant.  The distinctive feature of divine sonship in the New Covenant is that we are no longer children in the exiled family of Adam, but we become, through our baptism by water and by the Spirit, reborn from above as true children in the family of God, infused with the life of the Son. The Catholic Church teaches that justification and salvation consist of not just being declared the children of God and thereby being only "declared just" but of actually receiving a mystical infusion of the life of Christ through which we are in fact justified.  It was the opinion of St. Augustine that the gift of salvation and the justification of the wicked was a greater work of God than the creation of heaven and earth because "heaven and earth will pass away but the salvation and justification of the elect...will not pass away."  He also believed "that the justification of sinners surpasses the creation of the angels in justice, in that it bears witness to a greater mercy."   Jesus came to call all men and women out of their displaced exile of sin and into eternal life in the Promised Land of Jesus' heavenly Kingdom.

Catechism References:
2 Chronicles 36:21 (CCC 2172)
Ephesians 2:4-5 (CCC 654); 2:4 (CCC 211, 1073)
John 3:14-15 (CCC 2130); 3:16 (CCC 219, 444, 454, 458, 706); 3:17 (CCC 679); 3:18 (CCC 444, 454, 679); 3:20-21 (CCC 678)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2015