Lent I, Year C
When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, "Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us." When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: "A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me." You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.
"The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart" (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God
raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, "No one who believes in him will be put to shame." For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. "
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’" Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’" Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’" Jesus answered him, "It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
“The Bible is not like a book of edification, telling us many stories of humanity’s temptations and their overcoming. To be precise, the Bible tells only two temptation stories, the temptation of the first man and the temptation of Christ, that is the temptation that led to humanity’s’ fall, and the temptation which led to Satan’s fall. All other temptations in human history have to do with these two stories of temptation. Either we are tempted in Adam or we are tempted in Christ. Either the Adam in me is tempted – in which case we fall. Or the Christ in us is tempted – in which case Satan is bound to fall.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer Creation and Fall/Temptation (New York: Macmillian, 1978)
This is fundamental for understanding today’s narrative. For here we have not do with temptation in general, but specifically with the temptation put before God in Jesus’ relationship with his ‘abba.’ Furthermore, there is something else going on here that is easily overlooked when the temptation narratives are placed within a moral framework, as simply the choice between good and evil. Our society is oriented around the premise that because we are able to discern good from evil, we are responsible for our choices. The Scriptures point us in another direction. It is precisely the knowledge of good and evil that is the problem, not the solution to our dilemma. Why is this so?
We recall that the victimage mechanism generates ‘human culture’ and that law as ritual and prohibition are generated by the mimetic mechanism. Furthermore, the victim, when sacralized, generates a dualism, which is nothing more than the knowledge of good and evil. And as Bonhoeffer has pointed out and the apostle Paul long before him, humanity tends to look a lot more like Adam when tempted than Jesus.
In addition, the Christian church has long wrestled with problems associated with both Augustine and Calvin that play a significant role in how we understand temptation, namely the doctrines of (so-called) election and free will. Paul Sponheim has clearly articulated this in Christian Dogmatics. He points out that there are three essential elements which a purely monistic reading of the biblical text misses. The first is that God is for us as sin is not, the second is the ‘against-Godness’ of sin. Third, faith recognizes that sin is not only something I do against myself but that ‘it is also by me.’ The value of Sponheim’s discussion in terms of mimetic theory is that it addresses the critical problem of the origin of evil in anthropological terms.
If we do not insist in playing our anthropology on the Cartesian (Platonic) keyboard we observe that we are no longer enslaved to the notion of ‘individuality’ that seems to underlie so much of the discussion from Augustine to Calvin and Descartes and all the way into the 21st century. Rather, we shall be able to see the ‘interdividual’ character of human relations and the corporate character of human personality. Yet all of this is in the context of the revelation of mimesis in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, thus also showing us that there is a positive way to relate to God, the creation and others. Or as the apostle Paul might put it, the only real ‘I’ is the ‘I’ created in me in Christ. The ‘I’ that I think I am is really just a mimetic phenomenon.
So Bonhoeffer is correct in this regard to observe that it is essential to place the temptation story of Jesus next to that of Adam. We are suggesting that Adam’s temptation and sin are the story of negative mimesis, while that of Jesus is one of positive mimesis. Jesus does not engage in a moral conversation with the devil; he chooses the Father’s will.
There is a certain analogy we would like to introduce into the discussion of Jesus’ temptation. From this analogy we may be able to focus the issues behind the temptations and we shall also be able to demonstrate the rejection of the deus ex machina by Jesus.
The analogy is from the story of Grandfather, the Apache shaman who taught Tom Brown Jr. (Grandfather). Grandfather taught that there are three demons, self-doubt, the distractions of the logical mind and ego. Each of these has an apparent analogy in the three temptations of Jesus. The temptation to turn the stones into bread can be seen as the temptation of self-doubt regarding empowerment. Failure in this case becomes the act of self-preservation, success, the trusting God who feeds even the sparrows. The temptation to receive the kingdoms of the world then tests Jesus’ ego. It questions how highly he values himself over others. Failure here would be for Jesus to accept power within a mimetic system, to acknowledge that negative mimesis, rivalry, violence and scapegoating were to be given ultimate honor. Success is Jesus’ decision to live and speak as though nothing else but his abba’s honor was important.
Interestingly, the temptation to prove God is a hermeneutic test. Satan has a view of God that he would like Jesus to consider. He even quotes Scripture to support his assertion. The attempt is to create a distraction for Jesus. The distraction diverts Jesus’ attention from his abba to a false god, a deus ex machina. This distraction, this false god Jesus utterly ignores; he knows the Creator abba is not like the gods of religion. This is completely consonant with our understanding of Jesus’ peace orientation throughout his ministry.
It should not surprise us to find such a close analogy in a shamanic tradition. Whether or not Jesus’’ temptations actually occurred in the manner narrated is not as important as recognizing the three archetypal temptations that beset humans. They run far deeper than we know or imagine. In every case, Jesus is being tempted to reconsider who he believes the Creator abba to be. In every case, for Jesus, there is an implicit rejection of the deus ex machina, the god of power and might, the god(s) of religion.
We may find that over time, we too can begin to see the pattern of testing that lies before each of us. We may find that we are more Adamic than we may think or wish. But for Luke, we are also given the possibility of becoming Adamic, truly human once again, as bearers of the Spirit.
In the story of the temptation of Jesus we are faced with the historical conundrum: did it happen this way? Or do we have here an idealized portrait? For the Evangelical, since the Bible is God’s Word, the story happened exactly as it is told, these are Jesus’ real temptations. For Evangelicals, the point of the temptation narrative is that Jesus uses ‘God’s Word’ to combat the devil. The success of the temptation narrative proves Jesus divinity. For scholars, on the other hand, the temptation narrative is an idealized portrait which may (or may not) assert Jesus’ sinlessness. Again, the success of the temptation narrative proves his divinity (which in turn “proves” it is a community saying).
More discerning scholars will find that it is of a piece with Jesus’ exorcisms and mission, and that while crafted by the community, it nonetheless retains a consistency with the rest of the Jesus tradition. Jesus temptation has nothing to do with his divinity and everything to do with his humanity. To assert otherwise is to begin with gnostic presuppositions and thus falsify the purpose of the story.
There is a category in which to place the temptation narrative that is rarely used in biblical scholarship: the testing of the apprentice shaman. Jesus, who will receive the power of God in fullness, evidenced by the gift of the Spirit, will undergo his ‘final exam’ to see if he is ready. All other tests he may have faced before this were trial runs for what he would face in the desert.
Western scholarship and the church would do well to become acquainted with what Native Americans would call a Vision Quest, it’s purpose, it’s function and it’s value. They would find that such as Jesus experienced is not out of the ordinary, they would find that it is perfectly human.
Finally, we observe that Luke also views the temptation narrative this way as his geneology of Jesus stretches all the way back to Adam. It is Jesus the second or new Adam that is being portrayed.
The scapegoating mechanism, in order to be effective in dissipating mimetic rage, must operate beneath the level of consciousness. The Gospel disarms this mechanism by rendering it visible.
On this Sunday, we enter into a season of repentance, of turning (again) from our violent gods to the God and Father of Jesus. We do that by letting the Gospel open our eyes to our own participation in the mechanisms that differentiate, that exclude, that starve and murder the other.
Like Ebenezer Scrooge, we close our eyes to the real costs of our choices because, like Scrooge and his “church,” we believe neither in “interdividuality” nor forgiveness, and because of this, we can’t stand what we might see. If only we believed in the forgiveness of sin that results from God’s sacrifice on the Cross. If only we could see the way that our self-blame just makes us into a new generation of scapegoats for a deeper human sin that affects everyone, not just us.
In our story today, Jesus does not condemn himself, or even Satan. He simply makes (new) choices. He chooses to trust God for his bread. He chooses to ascribe all power and majesty to God, and not to a political system or himself. He chooses to believe in a God who does not need to be tested. All positive choices, none that exclude or revile. All positive mimesis, as he imitates the One he has come to know as “abba.”
Positive mimesis is possible for us, too. We need not revile others who choose differently to make (new) choices for ourselves. We need not revile ourselves for the choices we have made, these things only add to mimetic contagion.
It is painful for us to have our own participation in mimetic violence brought to consciousness, but only because we are still caught up in the idea of a dualistic, localized kind of responsibility that enables the scapegoating mechanism to function. The Gospel does not only set us free from the death that goes with those old choices, it sets us free to face them.
As preachers, bathe your congregations in forgiveness, in newness, in possibility, then, and only then, invite them to follow Jesus on this path to the Father.