Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Temptations in the Wilderness

I was away this past weekend, so I am rebroadcasting last year's sermon on Luke's version of the story. I think it is still worthwhile, and would love your feedback.

(A sermon on Luke 4:1-13, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church on 2/21/2010)

This morning we are called to do some Biblical Investigation.

It’s often suggested that there’s a fundamental choice to make with the Bible: either you believe it word for word, or you don’t.

This just isn’t an accurate understanding of our vast texts of Scripture. To start, there are different types of texts. The letters in the New Testament, for example, are correspondence: they are responses to an ongoing conversation and relationship. The Books of the Prophets, in contrast, are a mix of history, reflection, and insights to the future based on the present. Genesis is the tradition of how the Hebrew people came into existence in relationship with God, and Exodus is the story of their liberation from slavery, and their establishment as a nation.

And then there are the Gospels: four very different texts that together paint the picture of Jesus’ life, message, and ministry.

“Word for word” is simply not really the way that anyone really understands the Bible. Here’s a different type of example. This morning’s Gospel passage from Luke is nearly the same in Matthew, with only one major difference: the order of the second and third temptation is different, Matthew has the devil tells Jesus to throw himself off the temple before asking Jesus to worship him. Even thought there is a clear difference, no one worries which Gospel is right and which one is wrong: after all, they are essentially saying the same thing. The suggestion that word for word is what’s important isn’t true. Everyone interprets.

There are, of course, bigger questions concerning this particular text. After all, Jesus was alone in the wilderness, and yet we have an omniscient view of the story, recounting the conversation between Jesus and the devil. Clearly Jesus did not take a scribe with him into the wilderness. So this story either comes from Jesus recalling what took place, or else it comes from someone creating dialogue to speculate on what Jesus wrestled with while in the wilderness.

Part of me can imagine Jesus and the disciples sitting around a fire one night, and Peter saying “Master, tell us about your time in the wilderness.” Perhaps that happened. However, since the Biblical accounts we have place us in the middle of the event as observers of what happened, it is most likely that someone else created the dialogue.

So, where did it come from?

Whenever we have an account in Luke that needs to be better understood, we start by checking with the Gospel of Mark. We can be very confident that Luke used Mark as a source. There is no record in Mark of specific temptations in the wilderness, or any dialogue. However, Mark does say that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan.

One might guess that Luke simply expanded on Mark’s account, creating dialogue to suit his understandings of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. After all, this is an acceptable literary device in the first century, and Luke clearly does this in various places. But before we can attribute something to Luke, we have to check with the Gospel of Matthew.

As I said earlier, Matthew and Luke have this same account in very similar language. This is important, because it points us to a different conclusion. When Matthew and Luke share a story that is an expansion (or doesn’t appear) in Mark, it is unlikely that they just happened to expand the story in the same way. Instead of originating with Matthew or Luke, it suggests that the story predates them, from a different shared source. We call that source “Q”: the “unknown source.”

No one knows if “Q” was a collection of accounts and stories of Jesus, or includes original material to the author. Did the writer of “Q” create the dialogue of the story, or record someone else’s version? We just don’t know for sure.

So, let’s put together what we know. The story is not unique to Matthew or Luke, so it’s not one of them expanding on an account of Jesus. While Mark doesn’t have the temptations or the dialogue, he does mention Jesus and Satan. All three Gospels place the account in the same sequence: immediately after Jesus’ baptism, but before the start of Jesus’ public ministry. With three Gospels concurring the action and order of events, we can reasonably conclude that this is established tradition of Jesus’ life, and that the dialogue was developed before Matthew and Luke was written.

So, after he was baptized, before speaking publicly, Jesus went off into the wilderness by himself. That we can say with confidence.

Having investigated the origins of the text, let us now look at the devil’s three temptations, using Luke’s version:

“Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”
“If you will worship me, (all the kingdoms of the world) will all be yours.”
“Throw yourself down from (the pinnacle of the temple)”

In isolation, this seems like an odd collection of temptations. To figure it out requires the context of the wilderness.

People usually go off and spend extended time in the wilderness for one of two things: seeking or sorting. “Seeking” involves an epiphany: an eye-opening moment, transformation or deep insight. “Sorting” suggests that the moment has already happened, but one needs to go off to be alone to sort things out, find direction, and discern the next steps to take.

Jesus, in his baptism, had his epiphany: “You are my beloved Son. With you I am well pleased.” Whether it’s incarnation or confirmation (pending on the particular Gospel and one’s interpretation), the eye-opening moment for Jesus (and us the readers) is when he comes out of the waters and the heavens open up. It’s clear that Jesus goes into the wilderness to sort, not to seek.

Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus goes into the wilderness to sort out what he is to do: what kind of beloved Son will he be? What will his ministry look like?

The devil’s temptations now take shape:

Temptation Number One: “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

This isn’t just about satisfying Jesus’ hunger after a fast, but something far greater is implied. By turning stone to bread, the devil is suggesting that Jesus take on hunger and famine. Feed the hungry.

Temptation Number Two: “If you will worship me, (all the kingdoms of the world) will all be yours.”

For the price of worship, the devil offers Jesus the opportunity to rule the world with justice. End the tyranny of Rome: instant regime change. Jesus could accomplish great things for the world by accepting this temptation, by “playing the world’s game for a good purpose.” (Sharon Ringe in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 2, edited by David Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor.)

Temptation Number Three: “Throw yourself down from (the pinnacle of the temple)”

This doesn’t sound like anything’s offered here, but in truth it may the greatest offer of all. Take control of the temple. Establish righteous leadership. Restore the rightful place of the temple as the center of faithful living. All it would take is an example to the community, and Jesus could have ultimate religious power to be used for good.

It might be troublesome to realize that the devil tempts Jesus with good things. We tend to think of the devil leading us to only do bad things, but that’s often not the case. Feeding the hungry is a good thing. Governance with justice is a good thing. Righteous religious leadership is a good thing. To make it harder, all of these things fit into Jesus ministry: Jesus, throughout his ministry, will feed the poor, advocate governing with justice, and faithfully wield religious power.

The devil seeks to move Jesus only to solutions, or to taking “the end justifies the means” approach. The devil seeks to divert Jesus from faithfully walking God’s unknown path towards a more certain one with results measurable to the it worldly goods, political power, or religious power. The focus for Jesus, however, is the kingdom of God...and remains so in the midst of the temptations.

Jesus emerges from his time in the wilderness fully embracing his role in the kingdom of God. His path not only results in good things accomplished, but the practice of them demonstrates love for God and neighbor. No shortcuts are taken.

We are called to the same pattern of living. As we enter the wilderness of Lent, we are invited to seek or sort out how we might faithfully walk the path of God with our lives...and come to realize that how we get there is as important as reaching the destination.


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