Based on Matthew 4:1-11
I have a lovely book by Parker Palmer called, “The Active Life – a spirituality of work, creativity and caring.” I found in it a refreshing view of the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness so I am pleased to be able to share some of it with you. For today’s purposes, I’ll use `devil’ and `tempter’ interchangeably.
Stones to bread: The temptations listed in this story only take up 7 verses – surely any of us could manage a pop quiz on the last day of a lovely forty day retreat. But Matthew says Jesus was tempted for forty days – so welcome to the constant presence that confronts, questions, twists the truth, and creates the doubts. We begin with the devil using Jesus’ hunger as an opportunity. If you are the Chosen One, turn these stones to bread. The main temptation isn’t to do a magic trick, and it’s not even about satisfying his hunger. This is more than the temptation to be relevant to the situation.
Parker Palmer say the taunt that takes a familiar form. “If you are the Chosen One…” He says, “Though few of us get needled for thinking we are Chosen, the tone of that taunt should remind us of those voices in our own head, or outside of us – If you are so able, if you are such a good parent,…if you are a real man… or woman… if you are truly the caring person you say you are…. The temptation is to prove our identity, which many of us feel we must.“ But identity on whose terms? Jesus idea of being the Chosen One (the Messiah) was radically different than what the tempter was suggesting.
Throw Yourself Down: Theologian Henri Nouwen calls this the temptation to be spectacular. If you make bread you have to deal with hungry people, and that just sounds like more responsibility. But to just be spectacular – wow – you can inspire awe that leaves your ego inflated without any obligations. If you can jump unharmed from the top of the temple, you might get invited to lots of parties. I expect that when we live in such a highly individualist society, the pressure to be spectacular is particularly great. Whether it’s pushing everything else out of your life in order to reach the top – think of the sacrifices one has to make to achieve Olympic gold, or committing acts of violence that say, “Look, I have power, pay attention to me,!’ we want to be noticed.
Is it ok not be spectacular? Is it ok to just let your light quietly shine, and not be a firecracker?
Again Palmer writes “When I think of the great works we are called to in our lives, works we avoid at peril of our souls, I think of works in which we cannot possibly be “effective.” I meant such things as loving other people, opposing injustice, comforting the grieving, bringing an end to war. There can be no “effectiveness” in these tasks, only the commitment to work away at them. And if we judge such work by the standard of measurable outcomes, the only possible result will be defeat and despair.” P76
I wonder, are we ok with not being particularly spectacular or effective? When my Dad and I get on the phone we razz each other about our jobs. `It must be nice’ he says to me, to be in ministry and only work one hour a week. ’To which I respond, ‘Yup, sure is. It must be nice to be retired and not do a darn thing.” My Dad is the curator of the museum in Ft. Nelson, and, in the summer months puts in 10 hour days, seven days a week. At 81 years old he’s spending this weekend robbing banks with a jalopy full of cancan girls, but that’s another story… (Trapper’s Rendezvous in F.N.) We both know that we do work that doesn’t look very effective. It defies measurement.
Once more from Palmer – “Jesus’ ability to see through the illusion is at the core of his resistance to the devil. He knows `right action does not require us to be relevant, or spectacular. It only requires that we respond faithfully to our own inner truth and to the truth around us. The right action is no more or less than the action it is right to take, taken without anxiety about results. If right action is taken with integrity, its outcomes will achieve whatever is possible – which is the best that anyone can do.”p115
It’s a strong temptation – to be effective, or better yet – spectacular, when what we really need to do is be faithful to our calling and our identity. Where have you seen faithfulness in action? Where have you lived it out and where will you live it out?
I will give you power: Then we hear of Jesus flirtation with the idea of power. The tempter says, “All this is mine to do with as I will, and this is your lucky day, I’ve decided to give it to you, all you have to do is worship me – acknowledge that I am the source of all you need. Note that power means power over someone or something, not power with or for.
Palmer say there are two illusions that go with power over: The first is thinking that power over will keep us from being immersed in the suffering of those under our power.
What I found on my visit to Palestine and Israel, is that as long as the Palestinians are not treated with justice and compassion, the Israeli people will live in a constant state of defensiveness and fear.
Lest we look only at others, the thing that hooked me about going to Palestine, the thing that really made me pay attention was hearing Natalie Maxon give a 15 minute presentation on the up and coming trip last fall at Naramata. Just for a moment, Natalie lost her composure as she talked about the arrest of Palestinian children as young as 12 years old, being blindfolded and handcuffed with zip-ties and being hauled off to jail in the middle of the night. She compared it to the compulsory rounding up of First Nations children in Canada, some as young as 5 years old, being loading into a cattle truck and being hauled off to residential school.
Well, last May I attended Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Kamloops and listening to the testimony of residential school survivors made it abundantly clear that having power over others is not life-giving for anyone. We will be immersed in the suffering of those under our power until all hold power equally.
The second illusion – Power will not corrupt us. (Well it won’t corrupt me!) You just don’t have to think too long before you can think of numerous examples of things going sideways – senate scandal anyone?
Besides, is power the devils’ to give? Palmer says, “People cannot give away what they do not have, and yet a million exchanges are made every day in which people promise to do exactly that.” P110 E.g. ads… buy this body spray and you will have gorgeous women swarming around you like cats in heat, (actually, it will more likely give your girlfriend a migraine), Get this educational degree and you will have status and dignity, or… a big student debt and a job for which you are way over qualified. How about `You’re not just buying a home, you are buying a lifestyle.’ (Yes, it’s also called debt!)
When Jesus quoted scripture back to the tempter, about worshiping and serving God alone, he wasn’t just being pious. He was stating the fact – power and glory are not the devil’s to give. They belong to God alone, and only through God can we share in them. P111
That wild and holy Spirit that sent Jesus out to the desert also sends us from time to time, to examine what motivates us, what frightens us, inspires us, inhibits us, challenges and tempts us.
In Matthew’s version of the temptations, the tempter leaves and angels come and minister to Jesus, and we feel we can breathe a little easier now. In Luke’s version it says that the tempter finally left, to come back at an opportune time, which, angels or not, seems much more likely. For we face temptations daily (the quote on the church fridge says, “Lord, keep me from temptation, especially when I know no one is watching.” May the Holy Spirit companion us on our Lenten journey, and may we prove to be – not relevant, not effective, not powerful, but faithful and loving. Amen.