First Sunday in Lent, Year A
By the way, if this blog entry had a title, it would be "Scripture and Discernment between the Now and the Not Yet." If you're interested in having a small group book study or a class for a congregation on the subject, I highly recommend Luke Timothy Johnson's Scripture & Discernment: Decision Making in the Church as a way in to the topic.
Matthew 4:1-11 - link to NRSV text
"For it is written ..." the devil says in today's gospel. This passage, along with its parallel in Luke, is what prompted Shakespeare to point out that "the devil can cite scripture for his purpose" (The Merchant of Venice, Act I, scene iii), and seeing scripture used as a means of temptation here speaks strongly against the ways we are sometimes tempted to use scripture as we engage in discernment.
One of those ways is what I call the "Magic 8-Ball" method. It's quite a popular method -- so much so that I actually keep a Magic 8 Ball in my office to illustrate what I mean when I talk about the method (which I do pretty frequently). The 8-Ball resides in its original box, which says, "The Magic 8-Ball Has All the Answers! ... Ask a question ... Turn over for the answer!" In the 8-Ball method of interpreting scripture, we come to the bible with a question. We then pick up the bible and open it to some fairly random portion of it as we might shake the Magic 8-Ball, reading whatever biblical passage comes up as being somehow related to the question about which we're in discernment. Or, as we see in this Sunday's gospel, it can be tempting to selectively cull words, phrases, and sentences from what we know of scripture -- often from entirely different documents, written at different times and in different contexts -- and to read the resulting combination as a kind of secret message to us.
Neither of these methods of using scripture in discernment is particularly helpful; they tell us more about our own psychology and interpretive prejudices in a given moment than they do about God's will. I believe 2 Timothy's statement that "all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). It's worth noting for us 21st-century readers that when this passage of 2 Timothy says "scripture," it refers to the Hebrew bible, what we call the Old Testament, and doesn't include the New Testament, which didn't exist as a compilation at that point -- but the statement still holds true. All scripture is inspired, and is useful for instruction. But scripture's inspiration and usefulness does not make it a magic book, an oracle that has the answer to any question we might want to ask and will yield wisdom without work to interpret it. It's not even a matter of saying that anything a passage of scripture says on a topic will be helpful in a given situation if the passage is interpreted "correctly." Even true statements that would be very helpful in one context could be destructive to the health of the Body of Christ if applied elsewhere without sustained and prayerful attention to the new context and how well a particular insight gleaned from scripture applies in it. Just think for a moment what the consequences might have been if, hypothetically, St. Paul's messengers had gotten confused and mixed up the letters intended for the Galatians and Corinthians. If each of these Christian communities had received the other's letter and assumed that the instructions were written to and for them, then these quite different communities might actually have been led astray by Paul's advice, corrections, and encouragements that were intended for people facing very different challenges in their Christian walk.
That's a little like what's happening with these devilish quotations of scripture in this Sunday's gospel. On the face of it, the devil in the desert is telling Jesus the truth. The devil tells Jesus that as God's Son, he can find bread in the desert. That was true in the past: God miraculously provided bread in the desert for the children of Israel after their exodus from Egypt. It's going to be true in the future: in stories to come, Jesus will, through God's power, provide a miraculous abundance of food for five thousand and seven thousand people.
The devil also says that the kingdoms of the earth would bow before Jesus. That's true. Jesus does indeed bear the name before which "every knee should bend, and every tongue confess" his lordship (Philippians 2:11) -- and we believe they will. We pray for the full realization of that truth every time we say, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
The devil says that God will care for those God loves, and particular for Jesus, God's beloved Son. That's true. God's care for each one of God's children is trustworthy, and Jesus is God's beloved Son. Every point that the devil makes is, in a sense, "biblical." Every point the devil makes is, in a sense, "true."
But though the devil's words are true, they're not the whole truth. Though the devil's words are from scripture, God's word, they are not God's word to Jesus at that moment in his vocation. While all of the devil's points are, in a sense, "true," or are at least based on partial truth, they are not helpful here.
So I thank God that Jesus is not the "God said it. I believe it. That settles it!" type. I thank God that Jesus does not believe that every word of scripture is equally applicable to his circumstances. Jesus will not accept just any word from scripture as God's word to him at that moment. For Jesus, it's not just about God's truth; it's also about God's time, God's call, and most of all about God's love.
Although God will, through Jesus, bring vast crowds together for an abundant feast, this moment is not God's time for Jesus to use God's power to provide. Although we believe that the end of history is in a vast and abundant messianic banquet, this is not the time and these are not the circumstances for the feast.
Although God will reveal the full extent of Jesus' authority, although Jesus' glory will be fully shown, this is not the time and these are not the circumstances for that revelation.
Although Jesus will be lifted up, and although God will in Jesus fulfill the promise made to David that "you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One experience corruption" (Psalm 16:8-11), now is not the time -- or in the words of the passage in Luke that parallels this Sunday's gospel, now is not the "opportune time."
And so here, on this first Sunday of Lent, God's word to us is one of the hardest words for us to hear: "WAIT." But there is no better word for us to start a holy Lent. WAIT. We are called to wait, and watch, and listen deeply, so that we can enter as fully as we can into the story before us in these forty days, and in the dramatic week coming after that.
We know the story is headed toward the Cross, though the Cross is literally veiled from our sight just now. It's headed toward the full revelation of Jesus' call, and the fullest revelation of God's love. But that can't happen here in the desert, where there is no one to forgive. It can't happen now, before Jesus' life -- his teaching and healing and freeing people from the powers that bound them -- has testified to the meaning of his death.
Jesus is Lord, beloved of God, but the kind of authority Jesus exercises, the character of the God who calls Jesus God's Son, and the means through which the world will be gathered for the messianic feast are revealed most fully through Jesus' self-giving love and forgiveness. Having resisted the temptation to use God's power and God's gifts to further his own privilege, Jesus is prepared to proclaim with his whole life the kind of self-giving love, radical openness, and unconditional forgiveness that is the character of the God of Israel.
But wait. Let's enter in to the tension of Lent, the tension between the now and the not yet which we still live. There are still temptations to quote scripture to consolidate power, to read the bible for indications that we deserve the privilege we have and are justified in keeping others down to further it. But Jesus showed us a different way. Come in from the desert, and be nourished by the Body of Christ. Join with sisters and brothers to wrestle together with what we find in scripture, and to help one another listen for the voice of the Spirit, who leads us into the truth of God's call to us here and now. Be suspicious of any voice that suggests that God's power should be used to further our own privilege, but trust Jesus' self-giving love, which is good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). Trust the call to extend that love to others.
Thanks be to God!
Thanks for this, Dylan! I especially liked your sentence about being "out in the wilderness with no one to forgive." I'm taking the approach that these questions Satan asked of Jesus were primarily about identity, not morality, and Jesus' first identity is the One who forgives sins, not the one who, as you said it, uses God's power for the justification of our own privilege. Good stuff.
Posted by: Scott | Feb 7, 2008 2:14:42 PM
Thanks so much for your comments, Dylan! I especially liked your points about waiting - that it isn't just about God's truth, but about God's love and God's timing. Some of these ideas may get into my sermon this Sunday!
Posted by: Jerry | Feb 8, 2008 2:29:13 PM