The popular comic strip, “Peanuts,” features a rather judgmental Lucy van Pelt who constantly berates Charlie Brown. According to her, Charlie Brown is wishy-washy and a blockhead. She is also an intimidating presence in the life of her brothers Linus and Rerun van Pelt. Lucy also operates a psychiatric booth, parodying the lemonade stand operated by many young children in the United States, in which she offers advice to the other characters of this comic strip, advice which often offers her another avenue in which to be patronizing and insulting.
In some ways, Lucy van Pelt is simply a characterization of the world in which we find ourselves, a world which insults, intimidates, and judges us harshly. Consequently, when we hear Jesus tell Nicodemus that God does not condemn but rather loves, we heave a sigh of relief. We are so used to being judged by others. We are constantly weighed on the scales of someone else’s mind and frequently found wanting. So when Jesus announces that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son so that we who believe would not perish but would have eternal life, we pump our fists and say, “Yes.” Jesus tells us that God is a love who has abandoned judgment in favor of salvation.
As we read a little further, however, we find that those who fail to believe in Jesus have condemned themselves. At first, we think that no one would be stupid enough to walk away from salvation. If God is all love and no condemnation, what is the problem? Actually, the problem is that WE are not all love, and the world in which we live is not all love. Consequently, living in the darkness of self-condemnation becomes easier than putting our faith in a God who is love. Nicodemus lives in this kind of darkness. The Gospel symbolizes this fact by having him come to see Jesus in the dead of night.
Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a member of the party which is used by the evangelists as a foil to Jesus. They are pictured as being in constant struggle with Jesus, a struggle that is powerfully exemplified in another story that appears only in John’s Gospel, the story of the woman caught in adultery. They bring the woman to Jesus for judgment, a judgment that they have already passed on this sinner. They mean to stone her as the Law commands. They quote the Law of Sinai to Jesus and ask his opinion. Jesus simply begins to write something in the sand. When they continue to question him, he lifts his head and pronounces the fateful words: “Let anyone who is without sin be the first to cast a stone.” He then bends down and writes in the sand again.
The Gospel does not tell us what Jesus wrote; however, the fact that he wrote twice reminds the Pharisees that God wrote the Law twice at Sinai. The first tablets of the Law were destroyed when Moses broke them by hurling them to the ground upon finding the children of Israel worshipping a graven image. The impact of this symbolism is not lost on the Pharisees. They claimed that their desire to stone the woman is motivated by what Moses taught; but Jesus, the true interpreter of the Mosaic Law, shows that the Law is essentially about mercy. God forgave their ancestors and proved it by providing another set of tablets. Jesus has thrust their motive into the light. They are forced out of the cover of darkness, the darkness of the world which is not about love but about judgment and condemnation.
“Judge not, and you will not be judged,” Jesus has taught. However, judgment is so much easier than love. The light that Jesus brought into the world exposes the racist, sexist, classist character of our world, perhaps of our own thoughts and actions. It is easier to choose judgment than to engage in painful self-examination. We choose to live in the darkness of condemnation because exposing our thoughts would probably shine a bright light on our own inadequacy. The Light of Christ is unwelcome in the world because it is a very bright light and can be a harsh light as it exposes our own sin.
According to the Gospel, Nicodemus eventually does escape the darkness. We pray that we also be able to live in the light which will blaze again during our Easter vigil.