Sometimes we forget that the times of Jesus were times of great social and political upheaval and violence. In a way, this can be a comfort to us who live in similar times, because we know that Jesus experienced all of these things before us. He understands what we are going through and – as he did then – he continues to guide us through these times of great pain for our world.
In Palestine of the 1st century, there were several who claimed to be the Messiah and attracted followings. These would-be Messiahs were often violent extremists who wanted to overthrow the occupying Roman Empire and establish Jewish self-rule. The Romans executed such people by crucifixion as enemies of the state. And even though they allowed minority groups like the Jewish people to continue to worship according to their beliefs, they also installed people like King Herod and the temple leaders who would make sure that the Pax Romana – the Peace of Rome – was maintained. But it wasn’t a real peace – it was an oppressive peace, rooted in fear – the very opposite of Pax Christi – the peace which Christ brought.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that in John’s Gospel reading for today, some of these religious authorities demonstrate their fear of Jesus and his message. They view him as a threat to the established order.
They are not listening to Jesus’ message about the coming Reign of God, his calls for a new vision of how God is relating to his people, his care for those on the margins. They do not acknowledge his great deeds of power and healing. They simply want to discredit him. And they mock those who see in Jesus something more than a mere itinerant preacher from the Galilean countryside.
These leaders, of course, don’t know that Jesus *is* from Bethlehem and *is* of the line of David. He meets all the requirements about the origins for the Messiah from the prophetic books of the Bible that they throw up as roadblocks. They’d rather try to discredit him based on where he’s from rather than discuss the wisdom he brings – all out of fear.
No wonder the Scriptures so often tell us “be not afraid”! Look at where fear can lead people!
However, not all of the religious authorities were set against Jesus. Nicodemus, for example, is the lone defender of Jesus here. Nicodemus, who in John’s Gospel, came to Jesus early in his ministry, but secretly and at night, again out of fear of being too closely associated with Jesus even then. Although he respects Jesus greatly, his defense of Jesus here seems to wither after the mocking of others.
So instead of actually considering Jesus and his message, instead, everyone goes home! Nobody wants to deal with this troublesome Jesus! Out of sight … out of mind!
What does this mean for us today? We are in the final weeks of Lent and the readings for the Liturgy become more pointed as they describe the plotting and scheming against Jesus and those who stand with and against him – and those who just step back and become bystanders.
We – who hear the Word of God and the words of the Gospel at Mass each week – or even everyday – are being invited to confront our own fears about following in the footsteps of Christ.
Do we, too, prefer to disparage the call of Jesus and the needs of the marginalized out of fear? Do we prefer to go to our own house – be about our own business, our own needs, our own securities – instead of caring for those who are sick, those who are hungry, those who are excluded, those who are brutalized? Out sight … out of mind?
Or do we speak out when we see the teaching of Jesus about care for those in need not being followed in our society? Do we gently but firmly confront those who value money and power more than God’s will? Do we support those made in the image and likeness of God, especially the vulnerable, among those who choose not to see them or be moved by their needs?
Lent confronts us with these uncomfortable questions, and our fears. Let us pray for the wisdom to not avoid them, and for a Spirit of gentle strength and boldness to stand on the side of the Crucified and Risen Christ.