Getting the Story Right: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 21 February 2010

Revised Common Lectionary Readings for 21 February 2010 (Lent, Year C)

Deuteronomy 26:1-11 •  Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16 •  Romans 10:8b-13 •  Luke 4:1-13

I’m a bit ashamed to admit that, although I could probably recite from memory the “Wandering Aramean Creed,” as I sometimes call it, this is the first time I’ve noted its ritual context.  Because it’s a confession of Israel’s story among the nations, and because I’m part of a missionary tradition, I suppose I just figured that it would be something recited in formal receptions of foreign officials or perhaps when Israelites were traveling.

But today’s lectionary reading put my guesses to rest, situating the verses in a context of sacrifice and festival.  An Israelite, according to Deuteronomy, should celebrate the wandering of Abraham precisely when coming into the fixed location of the name of God, the city of Jerusalem, the temple of Solomon.  Thus the situatedness and the strength of the City of David make it the perfect place to rehearse the weakness of the years in Egypt and the rootlessness of the patriarchs.  And as each makes a sacrifice, the end result is the perfect sort of wastefulness, a festival celebrating God’s deliverance and protection.  God’s gift of land, the farmer’s months of effort, God’s sustaining the very process of vegetable growth, and the farmer’s willingness to turn over the produce come together in this passage to make for a wonderful and beautiful balance, the sort of complexity and resistance to reduction that the Bible once and again demonstrates.

No wonder, then, when the Diabolos (the troublemaker, an abstraction which only later came to be a proper name or even species of disembodied critter) comes to Jesus, resists the sorts of reductionist tactics that the troublemaker sets before him.  Tested with the possibility of feeding the masses, Jesus no doubt remembers the complexity of the moment in the wilderness, the fact that bread-without-teaching (Torah) would have broken down the important connections between God’s sustaining a way of life, people’s striving towards a way of life, and the nations’ witnessing that relationship.

Asked to acknowledge the troublemaker as the true king of a troubled world, one who can give and take nations to those who would acknowledge his legitimacy as king (a reading, by the way, that made sense to the editors of the 1560 Geneva Bible, if I’m reading the marginal notes right), Jesus remembers that the kingdoms that stand now rose in the vacuum left when God drove out the Greco-Syrians in the days of the Maccabees, and the Persians stepped in only when the Babylonians overstepped their divine mandate and God threw them down.  Likewise with the Assyrians and the Babylonians, and likewise with the Solomonic Empire and Assyria.  In other words, those kingdoms that rise because of other nations’ troubles soon enough find their own trouble; the reign of God, in whatever form it takes, must be one that serves only YHWH.

The third temptation, of course, is the one that has fascinated the most people; after all, the Troublemaker quotes a Psalm to Jesus, a hunk of sacred writing that the early Church would have called Holy Scriptures.  When Jesus responds with a passage of Deuteronomy, he necessarily creates tension, and he doesn’t seem entirely concerned with explaining his hermeneutical strategies to the Troublemaker.  (This moment brings most clearly to my attention that Jesus and the Troublemaker are the only characters in this particular wilderness, making me wonder how this narrative, in all its detail, got to us, the faithful in 2010.)  But assuming that Jesus was mindful of his forefather, the wandering Aramean (and there’s no reason to think he wasn’t), perhaps he remembered that those who went before him, those who led up to his own particular and world-shattering ministry, suffered for some time, calling out to God and waiting for God to initiate the grand displays of power that Sunday school classes now call the ten plagues.  (There are actually eleven, if one counts the Red Sea’s destroying Pharaoh’s army as an eleventh plague.  And I do.)

So plenty without justice, power without orientation towards God, and relation to the divine without acknowledgment of creatureliness all stand out of bounds for the One who stands in for Israel, the culmination of the wandering Aramean and the Exodus generation and the Davidic kingship alike.  To abstract such things from their complex and storied context stand not as genuine goods but as tests, moments in which Jesus could recognize or miss the character of genuine goodness and the shape of God’s work in the world.

I know that Lectionaries developed well after the canonical books took their final forms, so I realize that my own fanciful wishes for the text would not have occurred to the gospel writers, but all the same, I’d like to think that, after Jesus told the Troublemaker that he would serve YHWH only, that perhaps he made his way to a synagogue in which the people heard about this wonderful confession followed by a wonderful celebration, that resisting the wiles of Trouble (or Fortuna, if one allows Boethius’s Consolation to be a Christian story in other terms–and I do) might have been followed by a celebration of the One who leads the faithful away from trouble, or delivers them from evil, depending on how one tells that story.  It might never have happened that way, but I like the idea.

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