Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon. Abraham died, and so did the prophets; yet you say, 'Whoever keeps my word will never taste death.' Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? The prophets also died. Who do you claim to be?” Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, he of whom you say, 'He is our God,' though you do not know him. But I know him; if I would say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him and I keep his word. Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
“It is the tragedy of the world that no one knows what he doesn’t know – and the less a man knows, the more sure he is that he knows everything,” wrote Joyce Cary. This seems to be especially true in the field of religion. Claiming to know what I don't know is a form of swindling: it is like putting forged money into circulation. The world is filling up with fundamentalists, all of them claiming to be certain of something. Their very aggressiveness shows that their ‘certainty’ is a cover for disbelief and confusion; it is a drowning man’s grip. When you are full sure of something, there is no aggression, just a quiet resolve to live by it. A friend of mine said about someone, “His faith is so weak, it borders on certainty.” Fundamentalists are afraid of doubt, so they claim certainties they have no right to, since they have not travelled the path themselves. Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626) wrote, “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
Jesus told his hearers bluntly that they did not know God. This was a stinging criticism of people who considered themselves “heirs of the prophets, and heirs of the covenant." God is not known in the way you know anything else. Knowledge of God is a strange kind of knowledge that seems at times like the opposite of knowledge. Think of the little 14th-century classic The Cloud of Unknowing. Intellectual humility is of the essence of theology. Having spoken about the limitations of theology, St Thomas Aquinas then added, “Nevertheless it is useful for the human mind to exercise itsel in such enquiries, inadequate as they are, provided there is no presumptuous claim to complete understanding and demonstration.” And in another passage he wrote, very challengingly, “This is the final human knowledge of God: to know that we do not know God.” We might have expected such statements from Meister Eckhart, who said, “If one knows anything in God and affixes any name to it, that is not God; God is above names and above nature,” but to hear the sober Aquinas say the same thing is very challenging.
“Before Abraham was, I am,” said Jesus. This echoes God’s revelation of his name to Moses: “God said to Moses, ‘I Am Who I Am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: `I AM has sent me to you'" (Exodus 3:14). Before Abraham was, “I am,” not “I was.” This is Jesus’ clearest claim to divinity in the gospel. He knew God because he was one with God.
If you refuse to pretend you know something about yourself or the universe, about life itself, then one sweet day, you will notice something very tender and delicate at the core of your being. It is where all wisdom and compassion come from.
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