Tuesday, September 16, 2008

temptation in the wilderness

To me the most interesting part of Matthew 3-4 isn't the story of Jesus' baptism. It's the temptation in the wilderness, when Satan appears to Jesus and challenges him to find out whether he's really the son of God.

Let's back the scene up a bit. Jesus goes down to the Jordan River to be baptized. That's not particularly surprising; everyone was being baptized. Dress an Essene up like Elijah, preaching repentance out in the wilderness like a crazed prophet – the first truly crazed prophet since Malachi and the others – and it's pretty reasonable for religious fervor to sweep the countryside.

People are hungry to know more of God, to hear about him, to fill the void in their lives. Jesus, who at the age of 12 had felt such a strong desire to connect with God that he actually ditched his parents and stayed at the Temple in Jerusalem to ask questions, is surely going to go down to be baptized as well.

Jesus probably didn't think of himself as the Son of God at this point. I think he saw himself as a person who believed strongly in God, perhaps even as someone with a unique understanding of God, but I don't think he had any notions of his own divinity at this point.

When he went to be baptized, I think he was trying to draw closer to God and to understand the Voice that he had heard calling him for years. And when he came out of the water and heard that selfsame Voice say "This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased," he got more confused than ever and went into the wilderness to sort it all out.

Matthew writes that Jesus was in the wilderness, fasting, for 40 days and 40 nights. The whole reason for this fast was for Jesus to set aside his earthly physical needs and understand the deep stirrings in his soul that had intensified since his baptism.

The longest I've ever gone without food was for six days; if Matthew is to be believed, Jesus did it for nearly six weeks. During that time he would have stopped having bowel movements, though for a while he would have felt the urge just from out of habit; he would have felt a little irritable from the lack of gustatory stimulation he was accustomed to; and he would have started getting weaker after the third week or so.

Matthew says that after 40 days, Jesus was hungry. A better word is "starving." When you've gone that long without food, your body has used up its stores of fat and even excess muscle. By this point, it's starting to digest itself.

And then, Matthew says, Satan appeared and tempted him.

I should state right here that I'm not wholly on board with the popular evangelical view of Satan  as the embodiment of evil. In the book of Job, we saw ha-Satan in an adversarial role, challenging God's position on Job's righteousness and leading to Job being sifted like wheat, so that Job and everyone else could see what he really was made of, and where his faith truly came from.

I see the same thing happening here. I imagine Jesus walking through a desert place, alone, hungry, hot and weary beyond belief, when he comes across an old man. The stranger is courteous to a fault, probably even giving Jesus a drink of water. If he makes Jesus think of anyone, it's not the mythic figure of Samael but of his own father or one of his father's old friends.

They fall to talking, and after discussion has gone this way and that, the old man cuts to the very heart of the struggle that has definied Jesus' every waking moment for the last six weeks.

"If you are the son of God," the friendly old man says, "turn these stones to bread." Find the answer to your question, and get something to eat. Resolve your hunger, both spiritually and physically. Don't put yourself through this any longer, you can settle the issue once and for all.

In "The Brothers Karamazov," the Russian author Fyodr Dostoevsky suggested the issue here was that by turning stones to bread, Jesus would offer the people physical proof and a physical reason to put their faith in him. "Believe in me," he would say, "and I'll fill your bellies!"

Proof means no doubt, and no doubt means no faith. If our eyes can see clearly, what need have we for faith, which hopes for things not seen?

Dostoevsky had the right idea, but he had the wrong audience in mind. Satan is asking Jesus to prove to no one but himself what he's been wondering at least since his baptism: Is he the Son of God? It seems preposterous; all Israel is the son of God. It's the pagans whose deities run around having children with mortal women, or the "sons of God" from the early chapters of Genesis who do this.

And yet the Voice at his baptism called him a son, and that corresponds with a yearning Jesus has felt his whole life. It would be so nice to have proof, one way or the other. If he is, then he has bread and can eat; if not, then he can laugh at the silliness of the whole affair, go home and get something to eat.

Jesus rejects the offer. He wants to know, but he wants to know God's way, and God works with faith, not evidence.

The second temptation is similar to the first: Throw yourself off the Temple, and let the angels save you. Again, it's proof positive, since Psalm 91 promises all sorts of rescue to the man who puts his faith in God.

And what's more, it broadens the scope. It's not just Jesus who would know, but the Sadducees who teach the people, and the people as well – everyone gathered near the Temple would see him start to plunge, and then witness him being caught by angels, and know him to be someone special. If the angels don't save him, then the nagging emptiness is gone, once and for all; but if they do save him, Jesus will have an instant audience for his message.

And that, I think, starts Jesus wondering: message? What message? Up to this point, perhaps, he's been preoccupied principally with questions about his own identity and his own relationship with the Almighty.

He's schooled in the teachings of Hillel, though, and he knows that no one exists as an island to himself. We are all one vast archipelago, connected by stretches of earth, rock, and sand that are only superficially obscured by the sea. When the tides pull back, we remember our interconnectedness once more.

If Jesus is the Son of God, then surely he has a message to share with the people, a message that comes straight from the heart of God, a message that will transform not only people but their society as a whole. Perhaps he imagines that message as a mighty wave itself, rising over the islands, drawing the water down to reveal the vast and unseen mass of land that joins all lands together, revealing the connections that we have willed or allowed ourselves to forget so that we can view one another with hostility. Not only Judea, but all the world could be swept up in this new understanding.

And then, from atop a high mountain, Jesus sees all the kingdoms of the world, stretched out in all their glory and finery. He is in the position of Caesar himself, able to bring calamity or peace to the Celts in Britain, to the Gauls in France, to the desert-dwellers in Assyria, and to those who live along the Nile.

All he would have to do is make his voice a trumpet, and the entire world will hear his message, from Spain to India. He's not even asked to prove whether he is the Son of God; it's assumed as a given. Instead, the temptation comes as an offer: "Worship me, and all this will be yours."

This one's a no-brainer, really, but it also sets the tone for the ministry Jesus will work at for the rest of his life. When he performs miracles, they are never self-serving like the miracle of bread would have been; and invariably he will tell people to keep quiet about them, lest the crowds come to him for the wrong reasons.

He teaches people where they are, even in crowded cities or temple courts, but often he withdraws to lonely places in an attempt to escape the crowds. And Jesus never, never seeks political power.

When Peter, thinking of the conquering Messiah, rebukes Jesus for prophesying his death, Jesus returns with a withering "Get thee behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the things of God, but rather the things of men."

Jesus' entire life from this point is a repudiation of the third temptation. In rejecting earthly power, although he probably didn't realize it until late in his ministry, Jesus accepted a lonely end on a cross, tortured to death by the very political power he had spurned.

This is all well and good, but it ultimately means nothing if it doesn't speak a truth into our lives. The best applications come when we find something within each character to identify with, both the noble and the ignoble.

It's safe to look at Jesus and see how he resisted the temptations when they came his way – far too many people point out that he relies on Scripture, as though this were a new insight – but there's no real application there, nothing that speaks to me as a person who struggles with sin, no insight into what snares may lay me low -- and no warning of the danger I may pose to someone else when I point them to a road other than God's.

First, I suppose, is the value of uncertainty. His response to the temptations reveal that Jesus consistently rejected things that would prove his divinity, either to himself or to other people, and he also rejected the position where he could enforce his will upon the people will they or no, even when it was for their own good.

For my part, I'm also content not to argue over or to seek proof for areas of faith, not even to hold God to the test. I reached the point some years ago where I could join Puddleglum in saying that I would be on Aslan's side, even if there was no Aslan to be on the side of, even acknowledging that there may very well be no Aslan at all, beyond our own imagining.

And in that vein, I don't feel very tempted to power, not often at any rate. I get disturbed regularly by the push and pull of Christians who have whored the church to one political party or another, and who think that we can make the world a more righteous, more godly place if only we can pass the right laws and elect the right people.

Which leaves me to identify with Satan.

A lot of commentators have noticed that the temptations Satan hits Jesus with ultimately point the way toward the Cross, and more than a few have noted the irony that he may have caused Jesus to realize the part he would play in God's plan of redemption. They go straight to the heart of Jesus' identity and his mission, particularly when Satan offers Jesus the ownership of the Roman Empire.

I can't help but wonder if that might have been ha-Satan's intent; i.e., if he's a member of God's court rather than wholly in rebellion to the Divine Plan, was his appointed role in this case to steer Jesus to a greater understanding of his role? (Of course, that could be the ironic intent that Satan was unaware of, given God's omniscient ability to play both sides of a poker game.)

I don't think I've encouraged people to put God to the test, not in a long time; nor have I encouraged stuff like using God to satisfy earthly wants and needs. I get turned off by teaching like that fairly quickly.

But I do like to take opposing views and encourage people to sift through the wheat to remove the chaff, and I wonder if I've ever destroyed or hurt someone in the process by encouraging them to ask questions they weren't ready for. How often, I wonder, have I filled the role of an adversary and unintentionally caused someone to stumble?

The ancient Hebrews believed the Satan to be an office in the heavenly court that an angel was appointed to.

I wonder if the angel felt any grief over the misery that came to Uz all because of what he said to God concerning Job. I wonder if he felt remorse over suggesting to David that he take a census of the fighting men in Israel, when David did, and famine broke out as a result. If angels have souls, does that angel feel his own soul is soiled by what he did?

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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