19 March 2017
3rd Sunday of Lent, Year A
The possession of knowledge is often a sign of power. Knowledge gives power; it gives the ability to get ahead, to rise above. It’s why we put such emphasis on education, going to college, or becoming a skilled worker. Those who possess knowledge possess a certain kind of power.
And it’s a power that’s used in many ways, even to squash an opponent. Of course, we’ll oftentimes see that happen during election season; the candidates each digging up dirt (that is, knowledge) about the other in order to undercut their opponent’s appeal to voters. In many ways, to have knowledge is to have power.
Now, during this season of Lent a major theme is, of course, repentance. We focus more on the sacrament of Reconciliation, and the idea of making our sins known to God. But the gospel story today about the Samaritan woman and Jesus tells us something: it makes it very clear that God already knows everything about us. The Samaritan woman had never met Jesus before, and yet, he knew all about the details of her life.
And so, when we go to confession, everything we say—God already knows. In fact, he knows it even before we know it. And how we react to that depends, I suppose, on how we think about others having “insider” knowledge about us. You know, part of the discomfort of going to confession is that all those things about ourselves we’d like to keep unknown and hidden...well, they become known. And it can be even more uncomfortable to realize that God already knows; we can’t keep anything hidden from God.
One of the images we find in Christian churches is the “eye of God.” At our Askeaton church, the image is right in the middle of the rose window up by the loft. There’s a triangle (as a symbol of the Holy Trinity) with an eye in it—an unblinking, steady eye which looks on us, and which notices everything. We can’t keep anything hidden from God. And that can be unsettling because, among other reasons like shame or embarrassment for our sins, it means that God has the ultimate power, not us. God is omniscient; God is all-knowing. And knowledge is power.
But even if that is unsettling, even if going to confession is a nerve-racking thing, it doesn’t need to be...because God is not like a mud-slinging politician; God is not someone who uses knowledge as a hammer. Instead, God loves us. And he “proves his love for us in that while we still sinners Christ died for us” [Romans 5:8]. If for no other reason, we keep the crucifixion of Christ front and center in our lives as a reminder of God’s love for us.
Consider also that Jesus came to a Samaritan woman and met with her alone. Now, Jews didn’t mix with Samaritans, certainly not with a Samaritan woman, and certainly not alone. And that’s why the disciples were “amazed” that he was talking with her. But Jesus wasn’t just any Jew. He made a judgment about the Samaritan woman, and the judgment was that she was worthy of God’s love—she and every other “outsider.” That’s why he sent St. Paul to preach to the Gentiles. God’s love is not reserved for these people or those people: God loves everybody, and he died, with love, for everybody.
And so, when we think about the “eye of God,” and how he gazes on us—unblinking and steady—we have to remember that the One who sees all and knows everything about us, is also the only One who loves each one of us to death. Knowledge is power; God is powerful. But God uses his knowledge of us for our good.
If we go to confession and we’re really nervous or ashamed, God sees that. He already knows our sins, but he also knows that we’re nervous, or ashamed, or embarrassed. God knows that and he treats us gently. Of course, there’s that other guy in the confessional, the priest. But, you know, as the person who is supposed to be Christ the Shepherd, Christ the Bridegroom to the flock, he should treat us with compassion and gentleness, too. Because, of course, he’s not only a priest, he’s also a sinner who knows from his own experience what it’s like to be nervous, or ashamed, or embarrassed going into the confessional.
Knowledge is power, but God uses that power for our good. The priest uses that power for the good when he offers advice and gives a penance that’s supposed to help us get on a better track. But, you know, it isn’t only God who has the power of knowledge—we do, too. Way back when, in ancient Greece, Aristotle said, “Know thyself.” Know thyself, examine thyself, get to know all about yourself. Because the more we know about ourselves, the more power we have to shape our life as disciples of Christ.
The reaction of the Samaritan woman to Jesus is interesting. Jesus tells her all about herself—he puts himself in a position of power—and she’s all the more intrigued because of it. She doesn’t run away from Jesus. She stays right there and wants to know more. In fact, she even starts to tell Jesus a little bit about himself—that he’s a prophet. The Samaritan woman knows that knowledge is power; she wants to know more about herself and about Jesus because, somehow, knowledge isn’t just about power, it’s also the key to life.
Knowledge, truth, honesty, awareness—they’re all keys to life. And they’re powerful keys. Knowledge opens up a whole world of possibilities for us, whether it’s knowledge of our sins and failings, knowledge of our strengths and abilities, knowledge of God, knowledge of others. The power of knowledge, especially self-knowledge, is that it’s like turning the light on in a dark room. Knowledge helps us to see where we are, and where we want to go.