- Genesis 2:15-17
- Genesis 3:1-7
- Romans 5:12-19
- Matthew 4:1-11
Lent 1, Year A
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“In our search for truth in any area of the mind we have to recognize that we ourselves may belong amongst the great majority of humanity who are unwitting and unacknowledged captives, perhaps even slaves, to our particular culture. Moreover, this is especially true, interestingly enough, of intellectuals working in any scholarly field of study. This is just as truly the case amongst biblical scholars as it is in any other area of scholarship.” George A.F. Knight Christ the Center (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999)
Once each liturgical year we as church are invited to engage the stories of the temptation of Jesus. It would be easy to preach these texts if we ignored one salient fact: What Jesus undergoes in the temptations is paradigmatic of what we undergo as his followers. If these stories were about tests of glory, like, e.g., Heracles and his tests, then we might easily consider Jesus to be the hero, the conqueror. Now it is true as we have said previously that what Jesus undergoes in the temptations he does for us. But in Matthew’s gospel, in particular, what Jesus accomplishes in the temptations he also does because we too shall also be tested. Jesus is the model of overcoming the Satanic influence in our life.
We have said that the Satanic influence is not to be perceived as an abstract divine yang to God’s yin. The New Testament in particular deconstructs the Satan, demonstrating that the Satan is an anthropological category. This is one of the more significant insights that Rene Girard has brought to our reading of Scripture. The Satan is the abstract way we speak of the negative power of mimesis that structures our reality. Does this mean that the Satan is not real nor spirit? Absolutely not. Just as God has created created his heavenly messengers, what we call angels, so we humans, partners with God in the creating process, have created negative energies and powers, what Scripture calls the demonic. The demonic is our creation, “demons” are our monsters, our darkness, our orcs. Thus it is all the more important that it is Jesus the human who overcomes them, for he too had the possibility of being influenced by these powers of darkness that we created and continue to create.
In our Western scientific reaction to the dualism of ‘supernatural’ Christianity, we have lost our ability to discern real, spiritual evil. While it is true that gains have been made in recognizing that sin is structural (as do Barth and the liberation theologians), and while we have learned to see the influence of principalities and powers in our larger social world (e.g., the politics of war), we still treat the demonic as a throwback to more naïve worldviews. Others who insist upon retaining the supernatural bring with them all of the baggage of dualism and so end up with a cosmic devil that looms as large as God in the grand scheme of things. We seek to move beyond both of these false readings of the supernatural and the demonic.
There is a real demonic presence in the world. We remain ignorant of them (at least most of the time) because they it is part of their function to keep us in the dark about their machinations, plans and presence. (The scapegoating process functions only as long as it functions below the level of consciousness.) Because of this, we think that our lives are normal, our thoughts are normal, when in fact they are being bent to the purposes of mimesis and violence. (We might reference the movie The Matrix here as an ample analogue of that which we speak.) The temptation narrative of Jesus shows us that even Jesus was tempted to bend to this anthropological evil as well. Yes he overcame it, but all the same he was tested, just as we are.
M. Scott Peck in The People of the Lie took a great step forward in arguing that evil, real palpable evil, is not just a psychological construct, but a ‘beyond’, a ‘beyond’ normal behavior. What is essential in his reading of evil is that evil always creates scapegoats, and for those who engage mimetic theory, this scapegoating is the very dénouement of negative mimesis. Evil is hatred, hatred of the other. Evil despises, it brings ruin, it destroys. Evil is nihilistic. And this evil is not created by God but comes from the human heart.
Some exegetes will say that Jesus quoted ‘God’s Word.’ This is true but it is not enough. Jesus never simply ‘quoted’ the Scriptures; he always ‘interpreted’ them in the power and presence of God’s Spirit. Word and Spirit belong together; one without the other will not suffice. Word alone, Bible quoting alone, is done by the devil too. Spirit alone lacks the parameters to discern the voice of the Father in and through the voice of Jesus. Both are essential components, two sides of a coin (both Calvin and Luther stressed this).
We realize that speaking this way may cause consternation for some. But apart from the baptism of the Spirit and the subsequent discernment of the Father’s will how shall we ever know our purpose, our mission, our calling? Amid the turmoil of the loud cultural voices of the powers that are screaming for our attention, how can we hear that still small voice? When and how do we ever take the time to listen? What we offer next is a means to overcome the voices of the powers and to hear this voice of the Spirit for whom we so long and need.
Davies and Allison quote an illuminating rabbinic parallel to the temptation narrative between Abraham and Satan (commentary ad loc), as well as noting the other three ‘testing’ (peirazein) stories found in Matthew, 16.1, 19.3 and 22.34-35. These stories reflect the Matthean community’s own struggles with the ‘testing’ of their faith, thus suggesting that the temptation narrative of Jesus is again, paradigmatic for overcoming temptation.
An interesting aside: Bultmann in Jesus and the Word, (as quoted in James Dunn Jesus and the Spirit) says, “If a man (sic) must say that he cannot find God in the reality of his own present life, and if he would compensate for this by the thought that God is nevertheless the final cause of all that happens, then his belief in God will be a theoretical speculation or a dogma; and however great the force with which he clings to this belief, it will not be true faith, for faith can only be the recognition of the activity of God in his own life.”
This is where it is so important for us to see, to show Jesus the human dealing with these temptations. What Jesus does, responding with Word, interpreted by Spirit, is something we can all do, something our congregations can do. We need to resist the dualism described above that reduces Jesus to a mythic hero.
As preachers, we do well to acknowledge the seeming intractability of this evil, its pervasiveness, its seeming reasonableness. After all, it masquerades as “common sense” and “conventional wisdom.” The things that Satan proposes to Jesus are reasonable means by which to change a world of oppression that is recognizably evil (at least to Jesus and the residents of Palestine).
What is not clear to any of us is that there is a rational response to that oppression apart from one of those three options that Satan offers. And what today’s pericope offers is the possibility that, by our knowledge of the Word, interpreted by the Spirit, we can refuse to go the way of Satan and follow as Jesus does the way of reliance on Word, surrender (refusal to test the Father), and true worship.