Today’s first reading says, “Until the land has retrieved its lost Sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste, it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.” (2 Chron. 36:21)
The term “lost Sabbaths” refers to the Sabbath day celebrations that were ignored by faithless Israelites who pursued their own interests. Their infidelity profaned the Sabbath and, by association, the Land of Promise. Consequently, the Land of Promise had to be cleansed of the impurities wrought by those faithless people. God had taken back possession of the land in order to purify it for future use. The reading says, therefore, that the land would lie as a fallow waste until it had “retrieved its lost Sabbaths.” (2 Chron. 36:21)
The Gospel reading, on the other hand, sounds as familiar to us as the notion of reclaiming lost Sabbaths sounds foreign. The text of John 3:16 has the status of a familiar slogan in our culture. These words, or at least the text reference, can be seen at sporting events, on t-shirts and billboards, and scattered around the print and digital media.
As ubiquitous as the phrase is, the original meaning of the words might seem foreign to many. In the context of John’s Gospel, verse 3:16 is a reference to God’s renewal of the offer of Divine election and a homeland (the very same Divine election and Land of Promise that figure so prominently in the Hebrew Scriptures).
The singular difference between this offer and the offer made on Sinai is the universality of salvation offered by God through Jesus. Now, “everyone who believes” (John 3:15), can participate in Divine election and life in God’s Kingdom. The whole world is called to a renewed faith and a return from the exile of estrangement from God.
One gets the impression from popular, contemporary religion that “John 3:16” is a reference to the moral squalor of wretched sinners who are mired in the filth of their personal iniquities. The Christian Scriptures proclaim Jesus as the Divine solution to humanity’s chronic infidelity to God, but the Scriptures do not describe this offer of salvation in the same terms used by popular religion today. In its proper context, this passage of the Gospel is a description of God’s unchanging attitude of faithfulness toward the world.
In John’s Gospel, the word “love” is equivalent to the word “faithfulness.” Sinners love/are faithful to their habit of sin. Jesus loved/was faithful to his disciples and his Divine Father. God loves/is faithful to the world, even when the world is not faithful to God. A translation of John 3:16 into standard English might say, “God remained so faithful to the world that God sent the most faithful Son.”
Although it’s quite out of step with popular religious attitudes today, the first reading provides the background information required to understand the Gospel reading. The world had laid fallow for quite a while after the sin of Adam and Eve. After enough time had elapsed in which to purify the world, God offered a renewed Covenant of fidelity to all humanity.
This renewed offer of election and promise reveals God’s nature. Contrary to the popular images of God as judgmental and retributive, God’s nature is to be faithful. Sadly, humanity lives in a state that is contrary to the Divine will that humanity should be faithful in the way that God is faithful.
The Gospels proclaim Jesus’ call to repentance from infidelity toward God and neighbor. In its proper context, “John 3:16” is a call to renewed religious faithfulness to God and God’s People. It is not a call to a private religious experience; rather, it is a call to a renewed religious experience that is entirely communal and ecclesial.
The private version of religion that is fashionable in our country, and in the minds of many Catholics, is essentially an act of infidelity. Privatized religion, “getting saved,” being “born again,” getting graces, assuring oneself of admittance to heaven, and any other religious act done for one’s own benefit is a choice to be unfaithful to God’s Covenant. In the words of the Chronicler, the choice to pursue self-serving religion is a choice to add “infidelity to infidelity.” (2 Chron. 36:14)
God’s renewed offer and promise is made to the whole world; therefore, authentic faith requires fidelity to God, to all of God’s People, and to the whole world. If the world looks like a fallow wasteland, it is because of the absence of communal fidelity to the Covenant. No amount of private religion, privatized relationships with God or the Saints, or individual aspirations to heaven will remedy this situation. God’s faithfulness awaits those who wish to reclaim the Sabbaths that have been lost to self-serving pursuits.