Summary: Overview of Nicodemus’ role in the gospel of John, particularly John 3:1-17 and John 7:51. Encourages hearers to get involved on behalf of God’s justice - even if they are the sole voice speaking out.
February 24, 2002 - Second Sunday in Lent (A)
"Justice from Within" - John 3:1-17
Grace be to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In our gospel lesson, Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees, comes to Jesus at night. He has some questions for Jesus about what Jesus is teaching. Jesus tells him he must be "born again". Nicodemus can’t quite understand the image of being born a second time - "How can a man be born again?" He and Jesus talk about being born from above. Jesus reminds him of God’s tremendous love and grace for the world, culminating in the ever-popular John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life". But the story all starts with Nicodemus coming to Jesus by night.
Why did Nicodemus come to Jesus at night? Many different motives have been attributed to Nicodemus’ nighttime visit. Some say he came at night because he was ashamed to be seen with this counter-cultural, anti-Pharisee leader. Others say he was trying to protect Jesus, who might have been exposed if Nicodemus had come to him in the daytime. Or maybe Nicodemus was just trying to protect his own hide by sneaking in to ask Jesus these questions under cover of darkness. Still others say that the night is a symbol of Nicodemus’ spiritual state - he’s "in the dark", so to speak. Whatever his motives, the most interesting twist in the Nicodemus story comes several chapters after this gospel lesson.
Toward the end of John 7 (four chapters and several weeks or even months after today’s gospel lesson), the temple police refused to arrest Jesus, much to the chagrin of the chief priests and Pharisees. The religious leaders challenged the temple police, suggesting that the police had been duped by Jesus, who they considered to be on par with a snake oil salesman. At that point, Nicodemus spoke on Jesus’ behalf to the Pharisees, reminding them in John 7:51, "Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?" Clearly, Nicodemus is still a Pharisee. He speaks as one of them. They respect him. His voice speaks with their own authority. And while he does not boldly declare his allegiance to Jesus no matter what the consequences, he does work within the system to assist Jesus’ cause. Nicodemus speaks up in order to seek real justice for Jesus. He may believe that if the religious leaders would just give Jesus a fair hearing, they will find out that he’s innocent.
But think about the precarious situation Nicodemus is in. If the other Pharisees find out he has already met with Jesus, and they hear him speaking like this, he could be shunned and turned away from his religious community. If they believe that he has changed sides, they could turn against him and he would no longer have the same kind of access to this system of religious leaders. If Nicodemus voiced his support of Jesus too strongly, he ran the risk of being seen as a Jesus-sympathizer, and as a Pharisee, that would virtually seal his fate as an outsider with no clout. They might believe that he, too, had been duped by this snake oil salesman, Jesus.
Nicodemus worked for justice within the system instead of bowing out of it. Nicodemus stepped up to the plate when he spoke on Jesus behalf, albeit in an indirect way. He knew the goal - to keep Jesus from being crucified unjustly - but he had to plan carefully how to get there. Nicodemus worked within the Pharisaic system. Instead of tendering his resignation and telling everyone off, he decided to continue as a leader of the Jews. He probably had to bite his tongue at times to keep from "giving himself away", but he realized that he can affect more change from the inside than he can from the outside.
A couple weeks ago, I attended a lecture at the U of M law school sponsored by Lord of Light Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor. The speaker was Paul Simon, formerly a senator from Illinois. He indicated that the word "idiot" comes from Latin words that mean someone who does not get involved in civic life. He suggested that we need less "idiots" in the U.S. today - as in people who don’t get involved in any part of the political process. He challenged people from every walk of life to find entry points into the political system - whether through letter writing to governmental officials or through keeping ourselves more informed on issues of global politics.