The story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus is comical. Really, it is!
In fact, I liken it to one of the all-time classic comedy routines: Abbott and Costello’s, “Who’s on First?”
You know – that skit that revolves around a confused conversation about the starting lineup for a baseball team whose players have some very strange names.
Like the first baseman, whose name is “Who.”
The double meanings of the player’s name creates a breakdown in communication in this conversation between a sports writer and the manager of the team.
Because we, the audience, understand what each character is really trying to say, we sit back and laugh.
But as the complexity of the confusion escalates, we find ourselves caught up in the nonsense as well, until even we lose track of who’s who.
Well, if you can appreciate the genius of the humor in “Who’s on First”, then, strange as it may sound, you have the key to understanding this equally odd conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus.
John’s gospel is full of these “Who’s on First” type conversations where Jesus is talking on one level and the person with whom he’s conversing is misunderstanding his intentions– because he or she are thinking on a completely different track.
And just like “Who’s on First,” words that have double meanings mark the points where Jesus’ listeners get tripped up.
Nicodemus is no dummy. He is a respectable religious leader, a Pharisee, who drops by at night to visit Jesus.
The dialogue starts off politely enough. Nicodemus greets Jesus by saying “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus replies with a statement that seems to have nothing to do with what Nicodemus just said.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
Nicodemus tries valiantly to make sense of Jesus’ strange response.
“How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”
Here’s where the dialogue begins to go awry and starts to sound like Abbott and Costello.
When Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born from above, Nicodemus hears it as “born again.” Which is perfectly understandable when you realize that the same Greek word can have either meaning.
The limitations of the English language force us to choose between one definition or the other. Even different translations of the Bible choose differently. Some use “born again” and others, ‘born from above.”
But the early Christians who heard this story would have heard both definitions simultaneously… born from above/ born again.
Jesus’ comes back with another seemingly irrelevant statement from out of left field.
“Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit. Do not be astonished that I have said to you, ‘you must be born from above.’
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with every one born of the Spirit.”
This is not an explanation that is especially helpful for Nicodemus. Because, the word Jesus uses – pneuma — means both wind and Spirit.
As the conversation accelerates into a chain reaction of confusion, I can picture Nicodemus throwing up his hands and pleading, much like Lou Costello, “How can these things be?”
But Jesus doesn’t pause to explain. Instead, he rattles off what must have sounded to Nicodemus like a medley of uninterrupted nonsense.
Jesus speaks of earthly things and heavenly things; of ascending into heaven and descending back again; of Moses lifting up a serpent in the desert and the Son of Man being raised; of light and darkness, of flesh being flesh and spirit being spirit …
And, oh yes, something about God so loving the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. And about God not sending His Son to condemn the world, but to save it.
Did you catch those last couple of verses? Because they are the “punch line” of this wacky conversation.
The answers to all the questions that Nicodemus brought with him to Jesus’ door that night; could be found in those two sentences.
In fact all the other stuff Jesus tells Nicodemus before that is really just Jesus’ attempts to open Nicodemus’ mind so that the old Pharisee doesn’t miss the point of those last two verses.
Jesus seems to know, from the moment Nicodemus shows up at his doorstep that his late night visitor needs to think outside the box if he has any hope of accomplishing what he came for – which is to learn more about Jesus.
Symbolism is a tool that John uses freely in his Gospel. So, the mentioning of Nicodemus arriving at night to see Jesus, it’s supposed to tell us more than that the sun had gone down. It’s a clue that Nicodemus is in the dark about who Jesus really is.
For all his intelligence and experience, he is clueless about Jesus’ identity. If anything, his wealth of knowledge proves to be a barrier to “getting” Jesus.
So, the first thing Jesus needs to do is break down that barrier.
Nicodemus tells Jesus that some of the Pharisees know that Jesus is a teacher who has come from God because they’ve seen the miracles he’s been doing.
But Jesus knows that observing something with human eyesight is not the same as having the insight to understand the meaning of what you see.
Jesus wants Nicodemus to know that grasping the true significance of his ministry requires a different kind of vision – a heavenly assisted perspective.
He says, “Very truly, I tell you, NO ONE CAN SEE the kingdom of God without being born from above.”
But because Nicodemus takes everything Jesus says literally, the more Jesus tries to help him think outside the box, the deeper his confusion grows.
These words and images were not part of the vocabulary Nicodemus was accustomed to using to describe his relationship to God.
Nicodemus and his fellow Pharisees understood a person’s connection to God to be defined by careful and obedient observance of the commandments.
The Law was plain and simple; all there in black and white.
It was solid and dependable. It didn’t change directions the way the wind does.
You knew exactly where you stood with regard to the Law.
Jesus’ words about having to be reborn to see the Kingdom of God;
or of being led by the Spirit of God which moved with the freedom and unpredictability of the wind,
did not fit into the images of relating to God that had guided Nicodemus from the days of his childhood. Those ingrained assumptions and misplaced certainties were the root of Nicodemus’ inflexible reasoning and his being confounded by Jesus’ words.
So maybe we shouldn’t laugh too easily at Nicodemus’ befuddlement.
That is, unless we are willing to laugh at ourselves as well.
I wonder how often WE are not hearing what Jesus says to US because of our own misperceptions and misbegotten assumptions.
Maybe we are in just as much in the dark when it comes to “getting” what Jesus is saying to us, as was Nicodemus. If that’s the case, we can be grateful for the season of Lent.
Lent invites us to go deeper in our attempts to listen and understand the things Jesus said and did that may confuse and challenge us. To acquire open minds like that of a newborn child, who is eager to absorb all there is to learn about life, unencumbered by layers upon layers of misperceptions.
Lent invites us to unlearn whatever obstructs our knowing what is of eternal importance.
Beginning with what it means that God loves us so much that he sent his Son, not to condemn the world but to save it.
And what it cost God and Jesus — in terms of betrayals by friends and crucifixion at the hands of enemies — to bring us this salvation.
Maybe, then we can come to know, not only “Who’s on First,” but “Who comes First” in God’s heart.
Which is you and I and this whole confusing world.
So that, eventually loving God with all our heart, mind and soul, and loving our neighbor as much as we love ourselves, will be what comes first for us, as well.
© Raymond Medeiros 2017