Brief synopsis of the readings: In our first reading from the Second Book of Chronicles we read about how all of Israel had devolved into wickedness, ignoring God’s Commandments. God sent “messenger after messenger” in the hopes that they would reform their behavior. When they didn’t their enemies destroyed their Temple and drove them into exile in Babylon. Only when the Babylonians were themselves were conquered by Persia were they able to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Only then were they forgiven by God. In John’s Gospel we read a speech given by Jesus to Nicodemus. Jesus talked about how God sent his only Son so that all may have eternal life. But not all will believe and those who don’t have condemned themselves. Some refuse to accept the light and embrace darkness. But all who live “by the truth comes out into the light, so that it may be plainly seen that what he does is done in God.”
When I was in my 30s I regularly spoke with people who missed being children. They talked about this time in their life when they didn’t have too many responsibilities, where their needs were cared for, and they were protected from bad things happening.
They puzzled me because I remembered an entirely different experience. Mostly I remember being blamed for things that weren’t my fault. I have several examples but let me give you one: as an altar boy I was supposed to show up 20 minutes before mass to make certain everything was ready. One week my family left a little late for mass (for reasons I don’t remember) and I didn’t get to the church until 10 minutes before mass. The priest chewed me out for being late. I tried to explain that since I was 14 and couldn’t drive and was at the mercy of others. The priest’s response was that I shouldn’t spend my life blaming other people and that adults didn’t do that. The fact that I had no control over others fell on deaf ears.
I think about that when I read the first reading. It states: “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.” The reading goes on to say that God sent messengers to warn them of their wickedness and they were ignored, and they were punished by exile.
But did everyone add infidelity to infidelity? Or were all the people punished for the infidelity of their leaders? In other words, was everyone blamed for the sins of the few? It appears so. I have a hard time believing that everyone deserved exile in Babylon. Fortunately the story had a happy ending: those who caused the exile (the Babylonians) were conquered by the Persians and their ruler (Cyrus) restored them to their homeland and helped them rebuild the second Temple.
Our Gospel begins with the verse that everyone who watches American football recognizes: John 3:16 (For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life). Whenever we see a field goal we see that sign in the background.
But like most bumper stickers we can’t see the context. After John 3:16 it takes a darker turn and speaks of how “the people” chose darkness over light. It gives the impression that even the presence of Jesus didn’t prevent people from choosing sin over grace. Generations from there have caused many of us to believe that people are binary: either good or evil, either saved or condemned.
Frankly, I don’t believe this is true. We are not binary. We are disciples who wish to live lives in conjunction with Jesus’ hopes for us and sometimes we fall short. Most of the time we are good, sometimes we fall short, and we are never evil. I believe there are people who are evil, but none of them read Scripture with a whole heart. Neither do they read my homilies or try to live better lives.
If you’re reading this I believe you come to these readings with a heart that wishes grace over sin and sometimes we focus too much on our failings and too little on our victories. When I worked as a hospice chaplain I spent hours listening to caregivers who ignore the weeks, months and years giving excellent and loving care and could only focus on the once incident when they lost their temper.
If reconciliation and redemption tells us anything it tells us that we are not defined by our worst action or worst moment. As a matter of fact, Catholics (and many other Christians) hear these words when the wine is changed into the blood of Christ: “Take this, all of you, and drink from it, for this is the chalice of my Blood, the Blood of the new and eternal covenant, which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this in memory of me.”
Please understand that I’m not saying that we don’t need to remain vigilant in our moral choices or that when we fail it isn’t serious. We need to avail ourselves of reconciliation (it its several forms) but recognize that it is always available to us. When my grandmother was in her 90s she asked my aunt to take her to church so she could go to confession. Surprised, my aunt asked her what on earth she needed to confess. My grandmother’s response? “That’s none of your business.”
And sadly, sometimes we will suffer from the poor choices of others. Not all who were marched into exile in Babylon were wicked. We all live with the poor choices of our loved ones, be it in their health decisions, or financial choices. It’s hard to choose the light when people we love choose darkness. But we need to understand that the promise Jesus made in John 3:16 promises salvation to us, no matter what.
Think about that the next time we see an American football game.