The story of Nicodemus is part of the fabric of John’s Gospel. Three things in particular strike me about this Gospel. One is the degree to which much of it revolves around discourses in which people are challenged to examine that which they know. The second is that John’s Gospel is filled with details of the politics of oppression and rebellion—Jesus moves in secret, Nicodemus moves in secret, there are repeated attempts to arrest Jesus and Jesus’ repeated escapes, there are trials, testimonies, judges, betrayals, persecutions, and detachments of soldiers with their lanterns and torches and weapons. Third, much of the action takes place in Jerusalem during major Jewish festivals.
Off-season, Jerusalem was a major metropolitan area set within a wall measuring about 4 miles in circumference. Within the walls lived a permanent population of perhaps 80,000 people including thousands of temple priests, their attendants, and temple police.
During the festivals, however, the population would swell to include as many as 250,000 pilgrims, along with thousands of terrified animals necessary for the festivals. Jerusalem during festival times was extremely crowded and noisy, people were overly excited and every corner bar did a land office business. Roman security was added at every gate and at the Temple, Jewish police officers were on the lookout for trouble makers. Every festival had the potential for trouble.
On top of this, Temple and Jewish leadership, including the Pharisees, existed at the pleasure of the Roman Empire. The job of the leadership was two-fold. First, it was to maintain Jewish law and ritual, and thereby maintain the ability of Jews to exist as a people of faith within an empire that was hostile to them. This in part was what made them exemplary Jews—exemplary men of faith. Second, their job was to keep the lid on Jewish rebellions so that the Jews could continue to exist as a political entity. So, in essence, the Pharisees had struck a bargain with Rome—allow us to exist as a people and a faith, they seem to have concluded with much justification, and we will keep Jerusalem rebellion-free. At best, the Pharisees had a difficult, unenviable job.
The difficulty of their job could only have increased during the times of the major festivals—Passover, the feast of Tabernacles, and the feast of Dedication because what were these festivals commemorating? Political liberation. Passover celebrated the liberation from Egypt, the fundamental event in Israel’s history. The feast of Tabernacles celebrated God’s protection of Israel in the wilderness. The feast of Dedication celebrated God’s deliverance of Israel from the oppression of Antiochus Epiphanes and the cleansing of the Temple by the Maccabees.
And this is the volatile situation into which John’s Jesus Christ inserts himself. As Passover is drawing near, he goes up to Jerusalem, enters the temple, which has tightened its security, makes a whip out of cords and uses it to cleanse the temple. Adding insult to injury, he pours out the coins of the money changers and overturns their heavy tables shouting, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”
It is after this that Nicodemus comes secretly, by night, to Jesus. One of the Pharisees whose job it is to maintain Jewish law and the Jews’ right to exist within a hostile empire, Nicodemus is a man of serious faith. He asks Jesus to clarify his theology of being born again, in other words, of what it means to be born anew into fullness of life. Nicodemus, it occurs to me, is beginning to question whether the bargain struck with Rome will ever result in the kind of true liberation which was at the core of these major Jewish festivals. I think he may be questioning whether the bargain with Rome is a bargain for life or a bargain for death. At the close of Jesus’ discourse, this intensely political Jesus identifies himself as the full-blown apocalyptic Son of Man sent by God to liberate the whole world.
And it seems to me that Nicodemus is beginning to conclude that the bargain the Jewish leadership has made with the Romans is a devil’s bargain. I think he has begun to conclude that oppression by definition cannot possibly be the solution for oppression.
Months later, during the festival of Tabernacles during which the faithful read Liberation Song 118 (sometimes known as Psalm 118), Jesus cries out, “let anyone who is thirsty come over to me.” And in what is a real shock to the chief priests and Pharisees, even the temple police begin to believe that Jesus is a prophet or even the long-expected messiah. Even one of their own, Nicodemus, says that Jesus needs to be given a hearing.
The people are going over to Jesus. The temple police appear to be going over to Jesus. And now, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, is going over to Jesus. And the Pharisees’ anxiety begins to skyrocket. “Search the scriptures,” they say. No prophet will ever come out of Galilee.”
So the chief priests and Pharisees call a meeting and say “What are we to do? If we let this man go on like this everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”
And Passover comes around again, and many ordinary Jews are deserting to Jesus and believing in him. And when Jesus enters Jerusalem on the colt of a king and the crowd greets him with shouts of “The King of Israel!” the Pharisees say to one another, “Look, the whole world has gone over to him!” And in a desperate effort to hold onto their authority, the Pharisees begin to excommunicate those who go over to Jesus. And they assist the Roman soldiers in their arrest of Jesus who is tried and crucified.
I think that it is a testament to the degree to which Nicodemus has changed his orientation that, along with Joseph of Arimathea, it is he who takes care of Jesus’ body, bringing about 100 pounds of myrrh and aloes to place inside the burial linens, according to Jewish custom. And this is on the day of Preparation, the day when Jews remember that freedom day when Israel prepared to leave Egypt.
This is one way to recall Nicodemus this Easter. As one who examined that good thing which he as a good Pharisee knew, that good thing he gave up in order to claim the freedom, the liberation which had been promised by God.
To be continued . . .