Jesus opens His discourse with Nicodemus by recalling an important event in the history of the Exodus. The people complained against Moses and Yahweh, so deadly serpents were sent to bring the people’s trust and faith back to God. The bite of the serpent was deadly but God had Moses make a bronze serpent and put it on a staff for the people to view and when they looked upon it—that’s all they had to do, look upon it with eyes of faith in Yahweh—they were cured. (The story can be read in Numbers 21:4-9)
There are two important aspects of this story. First, when you read it you will notice that the people come to Moses—in much the same way as the prodigal son returning to his father—by first acknowledging that they have sinned against God. They ask Moses to petition Yahweh to remove the serpents but, this is the second important point, instead of removing the serpents God provides a remedy.
It’s no different for us today. Evil is a part of our worldly existence. We cannot escape it but God does not leave us alone to deal with it. Our repentance ignites His compassion and He provides a remedy to deal with and live with evil.
The first reading, recounting the Jews’ disobedience to God and their 70 years of captivity in Babylon, is in contrast to the serpent story in the desert but provides us a similar lesson. We cannot deal with evil without God’s help. If we try, we will be taken in by it and succumb to its deathly trap.
St. Paul summarizes the common theme between these two stories when he tells us, by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God. We know that Grace is participation in the life of God (CCC 1997), and he reminds us that Grace comes through Faith. The Hebrews in the desert had only to look upon the serpent, with faith in Yahweh, to be healed. Like them, we cannot save ourselves and “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” God gives us Faith and only asks that we hold on to it and live it for it is by Faith that we are saved, but we live our Faith through our good works, which are accomplished by Grace and in the name of God. Our Faith leads us to perform works clearly seen as done in God, which in turn beget more Grace that strengthens our Faith. This is God’s generous cycle of Life.