Father Glenn J. Comandini, S.T.D.
Nicodemus appears only in the Gospel of John (Jn 3:1-16). He represents a group of people of good will, who look favorably toward Jesus. Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus as a teacher come from God. In fact, he calls Jesus “Rabbi,” thereby indicating that Jesus is saying things worth considering. Nicodemus is both a ruler and a Pharisee, which, John suggests, means that he is a person from the higher echelon of Judaism. While Nicodemus is of good will, John points out that this man is, nevertheless, theologically inadequate. Why? At this time in Judaism, certain rabbis were followed because they performed miracles. Believing in anyone based solely on the performance of miracles alone is a power-play. “It is insufficient faith,” notes John, because Jesus is not merely one of your great rabbi-wonderworkers (which Nicodemus understood him to be). So, Jesus, through the pen of John, challenges Nicodemus, to go further in his understanding, if he dares to become Christian. Jesus instructs with authority: “…no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is begotten from above.” As soon as Jesus opens his mouth, he shakes Nicodemus of his wrong rational convictions. The words “from above” immediately trigger in the Rabbi’s head a blunt fact: “we are not dealing with someone earthly here but someone supernatural.” Moreover, Nicodemus knows that the phrase “Kingdom of God,” used only once in John’s Gospel, is a synonym for “eternal life.” Nicodemus is struggling with the question: “How can I be born into this eternal life?” Instead, he gets distracted by the phrase “born again” and concludes that Jesus is talking about a physical re-birth, which he knows would be anatomically impossible or it would have to be one of those miracles that made some rabbis appealing. So he asks: “But how can a man be born again?” Jesus helps Nicodemus to comprehend by putting this “eternal life” in perspective. Eternal life, like any grace, is not a matter of human effort or accomplishment. It’s the result of ‘being born from above,’ in other words, it is a gift from God, mediated to us through his Son, Jesus. Once we have accepted Jesus into our life, which we do through Baptism, we have accepted the grace of salvation, the gift of eternal life. John, however, is more than an evangelist, he is a clever preacher. He does not use big words like “supernatural,” which seem abstract and might confuse others; instead, remembering the words of Jesus, John makes a great analogy between wind and spirit. He writes: “The wind blows where it wills.” Wind is very mysterious. We do not know its origins or goal but it is real. The wind is perceptible in its known effects; the experience of the wind makes it real for us. Analogously, with divine life, maybe we do not completely understand the origin of grace, but we know it is real because we experience it, that is, we can see its effects in peoples’ lives. Christians take their whole lives and examine it through their faith. Wind and spirit, both are real, we know this by our experience of their effects.
“So, Nicodemus, how can we be born again?”
This misunderstanding of Nicodemus underscores John’s genius. Unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke who teach that eternal life is given to believers after death, John is of the opinion that we are born children of God. From the very start, we are gifted, our whole life then becomes a response to this gift from God. “How do our lives exude gratitude for our being gifted, children of God?” That’s our challenge which we can embrace with gusto or, like Nicodemus, we can go through life and, despite our intelligence, our goodness, our wisdom, just not get it!