In the event you assume you’ve gotten God discovered, you don’t
A reflection for the fourth Sunday of Lent
Readings: 2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-23 Ephesians 2: 4-10 John 3: 14-21
What is the Talmud? Pyotr, a Russian soldier, asks whether Jewish partisans are fighting in Primo Levis, if not now, when against Nazis. (1982): “Is It Your Book of the Gospels?”
How do you explain this collection of Jewish ceremonial laws and legends to an outsider? Instead of offering an explanation, a Jew named Pavel draws the man into an experience of the Talmud.
I can use an example to explain what the Talmud is. Now be careful. Two chimney sweeps fall down a chimney; one shows up covered with soot, the other shows up completely clean. Now I ask you: which of the two is going to wash up? Pyotr suspected a trap and looked around as if seeking help. Then he gathered his courage and replied: “The filthy one goes to wash himself.” “Wrong,” said Pavel. “The one who is dirty sees the face of the other man who is clean and believes that he too is clean. The one who is clean, on the other hand, sees the soot on the other man’s face, believes it is dirty, and goes to wash himself. Do you understand? “Yes I understand. It’s well thought out. “” But wait; The example is not ready yet. Now I’m going to ask you a second question. These two chimney sweeps fall into the same chimney a second time, and again one is dirty and the other is not. Which of them is going to wash? “” I told you I understood. The clean chimney sweep washes himself. “Wrong,” said Pavel mercilessly. “When washing after his first fall, the clean man saw that the water in the basin did not get dirty, while the dirty man understood the reason the clean man went to wash himself. So this time the dirty chimney sweep is washing himself. “
If you think you have it, you don’t. In fact, you don’t have him until he has you!
Undetectability is something that Levi’s Talmud shares with the Gospel of John. Both engage us by unsettling us first. If the Gospel of John had a subtitle it could read, “If you think you have it, don’t do it.”
The fourth evangelist completes a creative arc that begins with Saint Mark and distinguishes the Gospels from all other literatures. These scriptures are not stories; they are not biographies; They are not a collection of the teaching of Christ. Yes, they can be read as all of these things, but they exist to reproduce in preaching and reception the actual experience of the first disciples: everything changes when we meet Christ. If you think you have it, you don’t. In fact, you don’t have him until he has you!
In John’s Gospel, Jesus often speaks about everyday things: bread, birth, water, light, and the temple. He and his dialogue partner often use the same words, but they each speak of realities that couldn’t be more different. We listen to someone think they understand, understand the Lord. But, of course, we recognize that this is not the case.
Saint John wants us to meet Christ and not hear a lesson.
In this week’s reading, “a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews” (Jn 3: 1) comes at night to meet the light that has come into the world. He comes at night because he is still walking in the shade. And like everyone else whose eyes are used to the darkness, the brilliance of the light initially blinds them.
But if we think we understand where Nicodemus, or the woman at the well, or the man born blind, went wrong, we have gone wrong. We think we have it, but we don’t. Not if we are not confused and insecure at the same time. Remember, John wants us to meet Christ and not hear a lesson.
The Gospels exist as tinder for the Spirit. If the Holy Ghost does not step into the story and confuse you, all you have done is hear the story. You did not meet the Lord who lives in and through history. The Gospels have no desire to record Christ. They exist so that we can receive Christ. If you understand them, if you are not confused and upset, and are wondering how you are going to rearrange your world in response, then you have never really heard them, never heard the Holy Spirit speak them. If you think you have it, you don’t. In fact, you don’t have it until it has you!
Further spiritual considerations: