Nicodemus seeks answers outside the organization
(Originally published in The Catholic Register, http://www.catholicregister.org, March 25, 2018)
By Glen Argan
Nicodemus is the organization man who realizes his organization does not have the answers. So, he looks further afield. You are not supposed to do that, but he does it anyway. His heart hungers for more than arid policies, and what do you know, but he finds that something more.
The sub-plot of Nicodemus’ story comes to a beautiful conclusion in St. John’s Passion read every year on Good Friday. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea assume responsibility for the burial of Jesus’ body, and Nicodemus lavishes that body with 45 kilograms of myrrh and aloes.
Jesus, John tells us, was crucified at the Place of the Skull, a stark, desolate place on a barren hillside. Suddenly, after Jesus’ death, after the blood and water have run from his side, there emerges a garden with a new tomb in the desert where Jesus was crucified. How incongruous! One needs to suspend disbelief and accept that a tiny paradise has emerged where moments earlier there were only thorns and thistles.
Nicodemus makes his first appearance in John 3 when he comes to Jesus by night, curious about Jesus, but also wary of the Jewish leaders lining up against him. Nicodemus is an intellectual and one of the Jewish leaders himself, but he has a sneaking hunch that there must be deeper than anything he has learned to date.
What does he get? Jesus tells him he must be born again or born from above to enter God’s kingdom. Nicodemus does not understand. “Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” he asks.
Nicodemus seems to gain little from his dialogue with Jesus. But he perhaps discerns that there is something to this riddle about being born again.
Nicodemus appears again in John 7 when Jesus proclaims, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” Another riddle. The chief priests and Pharisees pour verbal abuse on those leaning towards Jesus. Their reasoning: this business about a prophet coming from Galilee is not in their policy book.
Nicodemus now emerges from the dark. He may not have understood Jesus’ riddles, but he argues that Jesus at least deserves due process before he is subject to negative judgments. The Jewish leaders ridicule Nicodemus: “Surely you are not from Galilee also, are you?”
Step outside the well-trod path, and you will be laughed at and humiliated. Nicodemus is the outlier. He is evidence that this narrow religiosity can be escaped. A wider perspective beckons.
Nicodemus is a seeker. He asks questions and finds, not answers, but a person — Jesus. At the end of the story he treats Jesus as royalty. He displays courage in standing up to the Jewish leaders as well as showing reverence for Jesus’ body. Somehow, he has come to believe the greatest riddle of all – that Jesus is glorified through the cross.
What has happened to this man? He fails to understand Jesus intellectually, but does grasp him on a deeper level. It is the lived Gospel – the example of Jesus’ love and courage – which leads to Nicodemus’ conversion.
In Nicodemus’ hearing, Jesus speaks those words which encapsulate the Gospel: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” Nicodemus believed in the person of Jesus, the person who embodied God’s love for humanity. A believer in Jesus as the embodiment of love, he courageously defended Jesus and then revered his dead body.
Nicodemus represents hope for humanity. He shows that, enveloped by God’s love, we can resist evil. You or I can be the outlier too, the one who stands outside the hordes who shut down their thinking and refuse to examine life from alternative points of view. The failure to see things from the perspective of a discriminated minority, for example, can lead a person to racism. Conversely, opening one’s heart to Jesus can enable respect for God’s love which imbues every human person with incalculable dignity.
Nicodemus stands against the mindlessness of mass society, not because he is a cranky rebel, but because he has been touched by love. Filled with that love, one might bring massive amounts of oil to revere Jesus when we encounter him in a miraculous garden amidst a place of great desolation.
(Argan lives in Edmonton and is interim editor of Living with Christ.)