If you think you’ve understood God, 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? Piotr, a Russian soldier, poses this question to Jewish partisans fighting the Nazis in Primo Levi’s If not now when? (1982): “Is this your book of the Gospels? »

How do you explain this set of Jewish ceremonial laws and legends to a stranger? Rather than offer an explanation, a Jew named Pavel takes the man on a Talmudic experience.

What the Talmud is, I can explain to you with an example. Now be very careful. Two chimney sweeps fall into a chimney; one spring covered in soot, the other spring perfectly clean. Now I ask you: which of the two is going to wash?

Suspecting a trap, Piotr looked around as if seeking help. So he mustered up his courage and answered, “The dirty is going to wash.”

“Bad,” said Pavel. “He 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 contrary, sees the soot on the face of the other man, believes that he is dirty and is going to wash. Do you understand?

“Yes I understand. It is well thought out.”

“But wait; the example is not finished yet. I will now ask you a second question. These two chimney sweeps fall a second time into the same chimney, and once 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 will wash.

“Wrong,” Pavel said ruthlessly. “While washing after his first fall, the clean man saw that the water in the basin did not become dirty while the dirty man understood the reason why the clean man went to wash. So this time the dirty chimney sweep is going to wash up.

If you think you have it, you don’t. Indeed, you don’t have him until he has you!

Inscrutability is something Levi’s Talmud shares with St. John’s Gospel. Both engage us by destabilizing us first. If the Gospel of Saint John had a subtitle, it might well read: “If you think you have it, you haven’t.”

The fourth evangelist completes a creative arc that begins with St. Mark and sets the gospels apart from all other literature. These writings 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 proclamation and reception, the real experience of the first disciples: Everything changes when we meet Christ. If you think you have it, you don’t. Indeed, you don’t have him until he has you!

In the Gospel of Saint John, Jesus often speaks of fairly banal things: bread, birth, water, light and the temple. Often, he and his interlocutor use the same words, but they each speak of realities that could not be more distinct. We listen when someone thinks they have understood, that they have understood the Lord. But we realize, of course, that this is not the case.

Saint John wants us to meet Christ, not to listen to a lesson.

In this week’s reading, “a Pharisee named Nicodemus, leader 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 still walks in the shadows. And like anyone whose eyes are accustomed to darkness, the glare of light blinds him at first.

But if we think we have understood where Nicodemus or the woman at the well or the man born blind went wrong, we have been wrong. We think we have it, but we don’t. Not if we are not equally confused, unstable. Don’t forget that Saint John wants us to meet Christ, not to listen to a lesson.

The Gospels exist as tinder for the Spirit. If the Holy Spirit doesn’t come into the story and confuse you, then you’ve done nothing more than hear the story. You have not met 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’re not confused and upset by them, wondering how you’re going to rearrange your world in response, then you’ve never really heard them, never heard the Holy Spirit speak them. If you think you have it, you don’t. Indeed, you don’t have him until he has you!

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