John 3:14-21, Fourth Sunday of Lent
I grew up dreading “the loss of heaven and the pains of hell,” like we say in the act of contrition. My mom and her mom instilled that dread in me, for good or for ill. When I couldn’t finish the rice on my plate, for instance, they would say, “Sige ka—bawat butil na tira mo, isang taon sa purgatoryo. At ang isang taon sa purgatoryo, 100 years dito sa mundo.” I remember asking my lola where purgatory was and she said, speaking with great authority, “Ay! Nasa gitna ‘yon ng langit at impyerno. Mainit doon, nag-aapoy.” “So, parang hell?” I ask. “Ay, hindi gay-on kainit. Pero may apoy!” It was only when I studied theology that I realized she was echoing St Augustine’s concept of purgatory, most likely taught to her by the priests. But I believed everything she said, especially about God. So, I actually imagined God shaking his head over the butils of rice I left on my plate.
Mom was no different. I remember her saying, “God has a timbangan in heaven, which has two dishes. One for our good deeds, one for our bad.” She was referring to an equal-arm balance. “Every time we do something good, he tosses a stone into our good dish. Do something bad, he tosses a stone into our bad dish. When we die, if our good dish is heavier, we go to heaven. But if our bad dish is heavier, we go to hell.” “What if the two dishes are balanced?” I asked. “Then you go to purgatory.” Oh, the old priests would have been very pleased with themselves. They had successfully passed onto mom and lola all there was to know about salvation and damnation. It was only a matter of time when I started to believe, for some strange reason, that God felt more delight when our bad dish came down heavier than our good dish.
This mentality about God goes back centuries; back with people in the Bible, in fact. The first reading shows us a typical Old Testament theme: when Israel degenerated into wicked ways, “the anger of the Lord became so inflamed,” Chronicles says, “that there was no remedy.” For centuries, Israelites believed that whenever they were unfaithful, Yahweh would round up their enemies and send them to Israel to lay waste on her. When you think about it today though, Yahweh didn’t have to do that. Whenever Israel degenerated into her old pagan ways like worshipping idols, resorting to blood vengeance, engaging in adultery and debauchery—this eroded socio-religious order. When invaders came charging, licentious Israel would barely have time to put her clothes back on, so she went to war naked and defenseless, and fell under her despoilers. Seeing this pattern in history, their elders told stories of Yahweh rightly shaming and chastising the people because they spurned him. When in fact, they really brought it upon themselves. But to get back to the point, the Old Testament is written with the ink of Israel’s love-hate relationship with God who had a bright side, yes, but an even darker side too. And so we have it today. We should all fear this darker side of God who watches the bad dish, always the bad dish, who delights seeing it coming down heavier than the good.
“So, Fr. Arnel, how do we understand the ‘Old Testament God’? We know he has a good and compassionate side. But he also killed enemies, brought suffering, wreaked havoc. How to countenance that?” Because I grew up believing the much darker side to God, for a long time I fumbled for an answer. Not that God hid it from me. I couldn’t see because of my own fear of God’s dark side.
But thankfully and finally, the answer is best expressed by today’s Gospel.
One dark night, Pharisee Nicodemus approached Jesus secretly, loath to be exposed as cozying up to him. He meant to ask the Lord about his teachings. Which one? We’re not really sure. But this happened right after Jesus cleansed the temple. So, he must have wanted to know what Jesus meant about the sign of rebuilding the temple in three days. “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher from God. No one could perform the signs you’re doing unless God were with him.” He knew how to play his cards well. Very cautious. Very solicitous. After all, Jesus had just shown his dark side. Then the Lord said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life…. 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. God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it, but so the world might be saved through him.”
There was my answer. There is our answer. If the Old Testament portrays conflicting and disconcerting images of God, a good side and a darker side, and even if old priests and moms and lolas never gave us the satisfaction of believing otherwise—the Gospel of John tells us that the only norm, the single basis, the sole standard, the one true core of what God is really like…is Jesus, the New Covenant, the new testament, the healer lifted up, the Light who came to the world even if people preferred the darkness, God’s very own son. There is our answer.
Jesus is who God is. Jesus is what God is like. Every other image of God must rise and fall according to the image of the Son who was sent to the world not to condemn but to save, not to condemn but to save, not to condemn but to save…. I’ve had to say that in my head over and over again. Because for some strange reason, there’s that dark part in us that defaults to a God of darkness, who counts butils of rice, delights in filling our bad dish and in pre-enlisting us into purgatory or to hell.
No. Not anymore. In my own life and I’m sure in yours, how many times has God proven that he never repays with darkness, even the darkest that we choose or become? No; he has always been Healing. He has always been Light. If we’re at our wits end wondering what God is like, the answer is with us all the time: ang Anak…na manang-mana sa Ama na kamukhang-kamukha ng kanyang Anak. “May our tongues be silenced,” as the psalm says, “if ever we forget that.”