Lectionary Readings for March 16, 2nd Sunday of Lent. Gen 12:1-4a, Psalm 121, Romans 4:1-5, 13-17, John 3:1-17
People are familiar with the concept of giving something up for Lent, and coffee and chocolate seem to head the list. My family jokes that I can not give up coffee because the point of Lent isn't to make them miserable! Joking aside, I haven't seen much point in giving up some trivial thing when my motivation is more selfish (lose weight, save money...) than penitent. A few years ago, however, someone suggested a different focus. We could give up gossiping or complaining. Or perhaps we could pick up a good habit like regular meditation, or scripture reading, or prayer. I like that line of thinking, the idea of establishing a useful, persistent habit that I don't intend to drop like a hot potato as soon as Lent ends.
But bad habits are hard to break, and good ones difficult to develop. It's especially hard to break life-time patterns. People who grow up eating lots of bread and fat have a hard time switching to vegetables. Those who never exercised have a hard time learning to enjoy it. People who habitually complain can't just decide one day that their personality is going to turn to the bright side.
How possible is real change? The story of Nicodemus is a great case study. Nicodemus is a Pharisee. He is well educated, has a respected place in society, a good living, and influence with the "people who matter." Jesus' work makes Nicodemus question his assumptions, but like any good scholar, he is sceptical. He needs more information from the primary source. So he sneaks to Jesus, under the cover of night, to ask questions. Gerhard Sloyan, a New Testament Scholar, calls this action an earnest spinelessness. I disagree. Nicodemus is being prudent. Why should he give people a chance to assume his position before he's even had a chance to think through things without pressure? He has questions and wants to ask them privately.
He affirms Jesus as a man of God-there is no way he can reconcile what he's seen and heard with anything other than Divine connection. Jesus then gives him the whole "born again" metaphor, which Nicodemus pushes. The commentaries I've looked at all suggest that Nicodemus just doesn't get it, he doesn't understand that Jesus is taking about spiritual birth instead of physical.
While that is a valid interpretation, I don't really buy it as the complete story. Nicodemus isn't dense, he's brilliantly educated, and I just can't accept that he is unable to grasp the metaphor. The problem is more practical than that. My guess is that Nicodemus responds with resistance because he already believes Jesus is right. What Nicodemus struggles with is how this new truth might change him and his comfortable life. He wants to be absolutely certain, because his belief might mean loss of respect, loss of position, and a very different life.Jesus challenges him in verse 12. Nicodemus has seen and heard Jesus, so what else is left to explain? What's left is for Nicodemus to change his life. That's the hard stuff.
John 3:16-21 is both an incredible encouragement and a challenge as Nicodemus considers changing his life to fit what he believes. Jesus assures him that God is love and that following him leads to life. Jesus challenges him to live by the truth and "come into the light" with his actions. (I love the literary bookending here! The story starts with Nicodemus sneaking in the dark and ends with him challenged to walk into the light and be seen!)
So what does Nicodemus do?
There are only two other references to Nicodemus. One more in John 7:50, where he speaks up to defend Jesus in front of other Jewish leaders, and once in John 19:39 where he brings a large amount of myrrh and aloes to help wrap and entomb Jesus' body. Apparently, Nicodemus made the hard changes and "came into the light" with his desire to believe and follow Jesus.
Nicodemus is a good model for change. He thinks, he asks questions, and then when he is sure of what he wants for the long term, he acts. Real change is possible, when we are convinced of the need for it, and willing to accept what comes as consequence.