Beyond the Wilderness: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 17 February 2013

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 17 February 2013 (First Sunday of Lent, Year C)

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

I tend to make much of the parallels between Moses and Jesus as Matthew presents them (five books of Moses and five speeches of Jesus; murderous king plotting on the lives of young children; important messages from God on mountains), but as I’ve preached passages from Luke recently, I’ve realized that Moses is somewhere deep in the theological consciousness of Luke as well.  When Jesus enters the wilderness in today’s reading, the forty days is an obvious point to start thinking about Moses–after all, forty units of time in the wilderness is something that foreshadows Moses in the Noah narrative and occupies the core of Moses’s own story as the Hebrews spend forty years wandering in Sinai.  Here Jesus enters the wilderness and does not come out for forty of his own days.

What struck me this time around is that, the way Luke tells the story, the temptations do not start after the forty days but remain constant throughout.  Those offers of the Devil that make up the bulk of the chapter are temptations beyond the forty days, tests that lie beyond the Exodus wandering, in terms of the allegory’s logic.  Beyond that, two of the three the temptations that Luke recounts point towards the aspirations not of the freed slaves in the wilderness but to those of kings and priests in Jerusalem.  What starts to take shape is this reality: Jesus, in Luke’s telling of the temptation, faces the trials of Israel from the Exodus all the way to his own day.

As a literary device, that would be enough (Dayenu!) for a delightful story, something for the faithful to contemplate for the sake of devotion.  But for Christians living in moments like ours, when the temptations of Jerusalem translate so nicely into the temptations of the so-called Religious Right and the so-called Obama Evangelicals, the temptation of Jesus in Luke serves as a poignant reminder that Israel does not end where the Church begins but persists, both in promise and in problems, into the era of Christian witness.

The temptation of the kingdoms especially strikes me as a moment for me to repent.  As the scholars I’ve read have noted, nothing like a Satan-cult exists or even enters the imagination of the ancient Palestinian world until centuries after Jesus, so what the devil offers is really far more dangerous than an evening with Anton LaVey.  Paul, among others in the period, sometimes talked about a period of darkness before the apocalyptic triumph of light, and to call Satan or the Devil or the powers of evil the “masters” of that darkness was not uncommon.  Where Jewish apocalyptic breaks from their ideological neighbors is to say that those powers of violence and injustice and deception are not eternal lords of reality but ultimately fall (sometimes into a lake of fire) at the close of the age of darkness, exposed as usurpers and supplanted by the true LORD eternally.  What the Devil wants in this story is not for Jesus to sacrifice a cat in a graveyard (people who lived in Plainfield, Indiana in the early nineties know what I’m talking about here) but to recognize officially, in a way that apocalyptic always refuses, the legitimacy of evil as a force that governs the world.

Where does that connect with our own moment?  Plenty of places.  As the body of Christ, the powers that govern our own dark moment know full well that a numerous and energetic demographic like Christians stands to be a powerful ally.  And as with Jesus’s own moment, there’s nothing as blatant as a Pentagram or a 666 barcode to tip us off: we need to bear in mind what sort of Messiah we constitute, whose members we are.  The temptations always begin with “If you are the Son of God” in Luke, and I imagine several of ’em in our own moment start with “If you really care about Jesus.”  And like our Lord’s own temptation, there will be significant, super-human goods in it at every turn.  “We” could become more visible.  More prominent.  More powerful.  “We” could bring back a glorious “Christian” past.  Usher in a glorious “peace and justice” future.  And all of it makes perfect sense, “If you are the Son of God.”

What Jesus offers us is not a template for spotting every sort of temptation (though there’s certainly a warning that temptation can come with Bible verses attached) but simply the name “temptation.”  To discern between kairos (the opportune moment to proclaim the gospel) and peirasmos (a test, trial, or temptation in which one might betray one’s own nature) requires discipline and faithfulness, and unlike our Lord, we often miss the kairos and seize the peirasmos.  So did Peter, and so did Paul, and so did generations of the faithful in every time and in every nation.  To state as much, so baldly, will no doubt get me accused of peddling “cheap grace.”  So be it.  I can’t afford any other brand.  The point is that, for those of us living as the Body of the Messiah in the generations between the times, we do not get the option to stand in moral purity; there is no distinction between us and those possessed of the ideologies we find most odious, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  (I should copyright that last bit, shouldn’t I?)  Every blessed one of us has virtues for which we must repent, and as much as we’d like to point to the worship of the Devil as a sin we’d never commit, I for one can say that I’ve bowed down to more than one in my brief run as a mortal.  Thus Christian excellence is always saved excellence.  Thus Christian pedagogy is always a confession of sins first.  Thus Christian prayer is “Have mercy on me, a sinner.”

May our prayers name truthfully our temptations, and may God’s grace rescue us when we cannot pray rightly.

3 thoughts on “Beyond the Wilderness: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 17 February 2013

  1. I can’t afford any other brand of grace either, Nathan.  As a young preacher in my Twenties, too many years ago, before I started reading intellgent writers who actually dabbled in reality, the tension and contridictions in my life made me feel like a lone, grand hypocrite on display every time I entered the pulpit.  Those folks in the pew, with Bibles in laps, arms around spouses and children, singing beautiful harmony, with smiles and nods for every scripture quoted, looked like they had moral purity down to an art form.  But, we learn different as we grow older and pay attention, do we not?    
    A Heshel deals with the contridictions and tensions of life as well anyone I have read, and it is comforting.  It is not that I see what he says as an excuse to not try to make the right decisions and choices, but that being torn between the “good and bad” and sometimes, or often, choosing the bad is the only kind of existence that lies before us, and we come to terms with it with the help of God’s wonderful “cheap grace” And as for having virtues for which we have to repent, that’s every morning when I have the time to look back on the day before.

    1. 3am Mystic To be fair, 3AM, I did use the phrase “cheap grace” in a way that Bonhoeffer would have found entirely alien to the spirit of his project.  But Bonhoeffer’s heirs are not always as nuanced as the original.  (Thus the history of philosophy, no?)

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