Gospel (Read Jn 3:14-21)
Today, we read the last part of a conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus, a Pharisee who had come to Him at night to talk. Most Pharisees were suspicious and contemptuous of Jesus, but not Nicodemus. He recognized Him as “a teacher from God” because of the miraculous works He did (see Jn 3:2). Jesus understood right away what this man was looking for, so He began a discussion with him about the need to be “born anew” to enter the kingdom of God (Jn 3:3). This completely baffled Nicodemus, of course, because he knew a person cannot re-enter the womb for a second birth. Jesus pressed the point: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). When Nicodemus continued to struggle with this idea, it was Jesus’ turn to be baffled: “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand this?” (Jn 3:10)
Why did Jesus expect Nicodemus to understand that only a radical action like re-birth could enable a man to enter God’s kingdom? What was it in Israel’s history that should have prepared Nicodemus for this? Today’s reading gives us a clue.
To help him understand the need for re-birth, Jesus reminds Nicodemus of a time during Israel’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land when the people bitterly complained about lack of food and water, calling the manna God provided “worthless food” (read Num 21:1-9). To punish them, God sent “fiery serpents” among the people; many of those bitten died. The people repented of their sin of ingratitude and lack of faith, so Moses asked God to remove the serpents. Instead, God told Moses to make a bronze serpent, lift it onto a pole, and have anyone bitten look at it to be healed. Doesn’t this seem odd? Why would God ask this of the people? Why wouldn’t He simply remove all the snakes so no one would get bitten instead of asking the sick to gaze at a copy of the very creature they dreaded, the one through whom so much death came?
We can only speculate here, because God didn’t explain His reasons to Moses. What are the possibilities? Did God want the people to participate in their own healing by the act of faith it would require of them, after having refused to live by faith when the food and water ran short? It certainly took faith for anyone bitten by a deadly snake to believe that simply by looking at a bronze serpent “lifted up” on a pole, he would be healed. Did God want to remind the people that the snakes only appeared because of their ingratitude and complaining—was the serpent meant to be a reminder of their sin, as well as their source of healing? Did seeing a life-giving serpent take them back to Eden, when a death-dealing serpent caused men to lose the life God had for them? Are all of these a part of the explanation of the strange event in the wilderness?
Let us now return to Jesus’ last words to Nicodemus. Remember that Jesus thought anyone well-schooled in Israel’s history ought to understand that man’s problem with entering the kingdom of God is man himself. What is to be done with men who, as a result of Adam’s disobedience, are born into sin? Even “sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the Law, the worship, and the promises” (see Rom 9:4) that God gave to His beloved Israel did not enable them to keep faith with Him. They had been bitten by the serpent’s victory over Adam. They were sick unto death. The only healing for this poisonous bite was a completely new life, a re-birth. How would that happen?