In the Bible the two great attributes of God are justice and mercy. While on the surface they may seem to be opposites, they exist in a creative tension, in which God’s mercy generally wins out. The Scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent remind us that God is indeed rich in mercy.
The Old Testament passage from the end of 2 Chronicles (which is also the end of the Jewish Bible) describes the lowest point in ancient Israel’s covenant relationship with God. The text concerns the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587 B.C. by the Babylonians. Along with many other Old Testament writers, the Chronicler traced the destruction and subsequent exile to Israel’s sinfulness, especially its fascination with foreign cults and its failure to worship properly the God of Israel. Thus the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple were in accord with God’s justice.
Nevertheless, Israel’s covenant relationship with God did not end in sin and destruction. Although God had every right to terminate the relationship, God was not willing to do so. Even though ancient Israel was unfaithful to the covenant, its God remained faithful to his people and to his covenant with them. Instead, God offered a new beginning to his people through the agency of Cyrus, the Persian king who defeated the Babylonians and took over their empire around 539 B.C. In accord with his own enlightened imperial policy, Cyrus allowed Judah’s political and religious leaders to return from exile, refound Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. The Hebrew text of the Old Testament ends with Cyrus’s offer that anyone in Babylon who belongs to God’s people may go up to Jerusalem. God’s mercy has trumped God’s justice.
In the context of Johannine theology, God’s sending of his Son, Jesus, in order to save the world and give us the possibility of eternal life is the greatest proof of God’s covenant fidelity and mercy. While “the world” is often portrayed by John’s Gospel in opposition to God and Jesus, today’s selection from John 3 insists that rather than simply condemning the world, God has taken the extreme measure of giving to us and to the world his own Son in the hope of saving the world. Once more God’s mercy trumps God’s justice.
The role of Jesus in this climactic display of God’s covenant love is expressed with the help of three titles. In being lifted up on the cross, Jesus, the Son of Man, is exalted and glorified so that all who believe in him may have eternal life. In giving over Jesus, the Son of God, to suffering and death, God showed his love for humankind and his desire that all of us might be saved through him. In offering to us Jesus as the light for the world, God makes it possible for us to know who God is and what God wants from us. Despite the love of so many for the darkness, God has sent Jesus as “the light that shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Despite its sinfulness and waywardness, God still loves the world and wants the best for it through his Son. Even though the world had been unfaithful to God, God remained faithful to the world.
The word love is part of the covenant vocabulary. It refers to fidelity within the covenant relationship. According to the reading from the letter to the Ephesians, God, “who is rich in mercy,” has shown his love for us not only in the suffering and death of Jesus but also (and especially) in his resurrection. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead to enjoy eternal life with his heavenly Father, we too have been given the opportunity to share in his eternal life through the mercy of God. This opportunity is a gift from God, and we gain access to it through faith: “For by grace you have been saved through faith.”
The proper response to God’s merciful love is good works. Paul is sometimes caricatured as opposing faith and works. But for Paul faith and works go together. Paul’s view is that if we grasp who we have become through the paschal mystery, then we will naturally and eagerly want to do what is good and right. Today’s Pauline text reminds us that as God’s handiwork we are created for good works. The one who is rich in mercy, who does not treat us as strictly and harshly as we may deserve according to the criteria of justice, desires only our love in return and our works of mercy toward those in need.