The Seven Acts of Mercy by Pieter Brueghel, the Younger

The World God Loves — John 3:16-18

KATHLEEN RUSHTON explains how the meanings of “the world” in John 3:16–18 are related to our involvement in good works. 

The Gospel of John distinguishes between those who did not accept the Word (Jn 1:11) and all who receive the Word, believe, and are given power to “become children of God, who were born . . . of God” (Jn 1:12-13). Over what is John making this distinction? In John’s community members understood themselves to be “born of God” and to be “children of God”. Three examples. After telling us to love our enemies, Luke adds we will be “children of the Most High” (Lk 6:35). Matthew says that peacemakers “will be called children of God” (Mt 5:9) and in the First Epistle of John we find “everyone who does justice is born of God” (1 Jn 2:29). When we find these two expressions in other texts, their contexts are about “good works”.

In the milieu of the New Testament “good works” and “evil works” had precise and limited meanings. Walter Grundmann explains: “Good works are actions of mercy on behalf of all those in need of them, and they are works of peace that eliminate discord among people.” Good works became known as the works of mercy, which evolve and encompass “the signs of the times”. Pope Francis extended the seven corporal and spiritual works of mercy to include an eighth work of “care for our common home”. As a spiritual work it means gratefully contemplating God’s world, and as a corporal work, it calls for performing daily gestures that help to build a better world.

“Evil works” are precisely the opposite or when “good works” are not done. In Matthew 25:31-46, the only description of the last judgement in the New Testament, doing good works or omitting to do them are the only criteria for judgement. We have a tendency today to water down, romanticise or generalise love of neighbour and under the guise of loving everyone to embrace rich and poor equally. However, biblical love of neighbour, like biblical mercy, is action orientated and anything but neutral towards social injustice. Against this background of good works and evil works, I turn now to John 3:16-18 in which “the world” is found four times as well as the well-known verse: “God so loved the world that God gave the only son.”

World Has Several Meanings

What is known today as “the universe” is named in Scriptures as “the heavens and the earth”. Later, the Greek word kosmos (“the world”, from which we derive the word cosmetics and which described order and beauty, as when rowers in a boat sat in order and worked together), became a technical term for the order of the universe. In John we find three meanings of “the world”.

The first is the natural universe which is the created reality that God so loved that God gave the Son (Jn 3:16). The expression “comes into the world” highlights the physical universe and is associated with Jesus, the light who has “come into the world” (Jn 3:19). The expression “coming into the world” relates to Jesus the Messiah (Jn 6:14). “To be sent into the world” describes the mission of Jesus (Jn 3:17) into which disciples are drawn when he prays: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (Jn 17:18).

The second meaning of the “world” is humanity as created universally and loved by God. Humanity is part of the natural world yet it is created in the image and likeness of God and called to divine/eternal life. This world God so loves is the whole human race in the sense that “God sent the Son . . . that the world might be saved though him” (Jn 3:17). Humanity is viewed as natural, open to grace by a new birth which is a work of God through which the human being co-operates with God and shares in the divine life.

The third meaning concerns humankind and suggests a construction of created reality that is able to respond. This means individually and collectively human persons respond by continuing the good works of God or by choosing evil works (Jn 7:7). This is the one meaning of “the world” which can have negative overtones. Evil works comprise the aggressive force (“the ruler of this world” Jn 14:30), working in the individual and the collective behaviour of persons in the political, economic, social and religious systems which throughout history organise reality and the resources of the Earth and humankind to cause, support or exploit evil.

The World Today

What this might mean today is clarified in Catholic Social Teaching when John Paul II wrote about “sin” and “structures of sin” in his encyclical On Social Concerns. He names “the collective behaviour of certain social groups, big or small, even whole nations or blocs of nations” where “cases of social sins are the result of the accumulation and concentration of many personal sins”. These personal sins cause, support or exploit evil. Those in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit social evils fail to do so out of laziness, fear, silence, complicity, indifference, or take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world or sidestep the effort or sacrifice needed. In this way individuals comprise and support the structures of sin.

Laudato Si’ reiterates that everything is interconnected. In this situation: “Each of us has his or her own personal identity and is capable of entering into dialogue with others and with God . . . Our [own] capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality and to create art, along with other not yet discovered capacities” (LS par 81). Francis declares bluntly: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” (LS par 21). Because of the part our personal lives, culture and nation play in this shocking situation: “A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us, and it will demand that we set out on the long path of renewal” (LS par 202). Francis warns that “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (LS par 49).

Resistance and Witness

John’s Gospel is shaped by resistance and witness because Jesus breaks into the lives of people subjected to the Roman Empire and whose religious, social and economic life was lived under imperial domination. The theological concern of the gospel writer is to expose the Empire for what it is — a threat to the works of God in this world — and to resist its values, just as we must today. The tension between good works and evil works is set against the imagery of light and darkness (Jn 1:4–5). Darkness implies a dynamic evolving situation which requires ongoing resolution through our continuing the work of God. In a wonderful phrase, Pope Francis described the world as God’s construction site.

Each person, society and humankind — “the world” — responds by choosing light or darkness, to believe or not to believe the Word. Faith and action are linked. Today in this world, in this time, we — the human persons who make us “the world” — judge ourselves. We are people “who loved darkness rather than light because their works were evil” (Jn 3:19) or people “who do what is true [and] come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their works have been done in God” (Jn 3:21).

Note: Above, I refer to “the son”. English translations insert the pronoun “his” where here, and elsewhere in John, the Greek has “the”.

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 216 June 2017: 24-25