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Visions from The Catacombs – Week Before March 9, 2014

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Matthew 4:1-11

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” 5Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” 7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” 11Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

What I am Learning:

Jesus is baptized and then declared the messiah by God. At this point in the story Jesus should get an agent, a media consultant and be taken to Jerusalem on a stretch camel. There he could have taken a selfie with the powerful and famous.

Instead the Spirit leads him into the wilderness for 40 days.

The biblical storytellers often used numbers to help us see connections between stories. It rained for 40 days in the story about Noah, and God’s sadness over the violence of on the earth. Moses went to the mountain for 40 days and neither ate nor drank. The People of Israel spent 40 years in the desert – learning how to live differently from the domination culture of Egypt. The Gospel writers emphasize that Jesus’s story is intertwined with these stories.

In this story we see the not only the daily temptations that Jesus faced, but how domination culture tempts all of us. The devil here is not some dude in a red jumpsuit. He represents the subtle forces of a domination culture that tempt us to be conformed to its values and to its vision for being human.

First Jesus is tempted to place his own short-term, individual needs first. Jesus answers with a small quote from Deuteronomy:

Deut. 8:3 He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.

How often does our larger culture tempt us to place our short-term needs before our long-term needs? How often does our larger culture tempt us to put individual needs before our collective and environmental needs?

Instead Jesus trusts that his body’s needs will be met just as the People of Israel’s needs were met as God gave them manna in the wilderness.

Then Jesus is taken to the top of the Temple at Jerusalem and told to prove his identity by jumping off. This is the temptation of privilege. Jesus has a special status as the messiah and he is encouraged to act out of that privilege.

How often does our larger culture tempt us to act out of privilege and status? How often do white folk behave in ways that diminish others who are no less children of God? How often do people of privilege thank God for their status, while leaving the obvious second question unanswered: if God blessed you with high status and wealth, then did God curse others with poverty?

At the 2014 Oscars, one white actor thanked God for putting him in the position to win an Oscar. No doubt it is a good thing that he thanked God for his life. But to thank God for such blessing, without noting the billions that live in poverty is something else. The actor that won best supporting actress in Twelve Years a Slave responded differently. She stated her awareness that so much good has come from playing a role portraying a person whose life held so much pain.

This is quite a difference!

Instead Jesus refuses to use his status to test God. He trusts God to care for him in God’s own time. He does not need to prove it to himself or the tempter. He once again quotes scripture:

Deut. 6:16 ¶ Do not put the LORD your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.

Then he is taken to a high mountain. Last week I said that mountains were thin places, where human beings are opened up to God’s presence. They also sometimes function in biblical texts as symbols of political power. In this case they were probably referring to Jesus being taken to Rome. Why the poetry instead of just naming it? Matthew was a Jewish Christian writing in around the year 80. He could be asked to produce his writing by the police at any time – if he was not careful he could have been arrested, his writing destroyed and his community endangered. In any event, why not use the theological poetry of his people?

On the high mountain of Rome, Jesus is offered the Caesar’s throne if he will worship his tempter.

How often are we tempted to use power over others to accomplish our well-intentioned goals? How often are we tempted to see violence as a saving power?

Jesus is unwilling to bow to the devil, the agent of the domination culture. He will only bow to the God. He again quotes Deuteronomy:

Deut. 6:13 The LORD your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.

By writing this story Matthew and the other gospel writers were not just trying to show us how Jesus is worthy of our devotion because he resisted temptation. Matthew is trying to show us the ways that a domination culture tempts us. How a bullying culture, a culture of power over others, can tempt us to act in fear for our own individual, short-term needs– harming our communities and the earth. Matthew is trying to show us how we can be tempted to use our status and privilege to maintain our dominance over others, instead of striving for mutuality.  Matthew is trying to teach us that to achieve our goals by violence and power over others is not God’s way. The ends do not justify the means!

This is a complicated story. It took me most of a whole day to write this. That’s the way it goes sometimes. I do not claim that this interpretation is right. But I think it is worth considering.

The gospel writers were not just reporting about Jesus’ life, but were trying to show how Jesus’ story was continuing in them. I think Matthew is trying to show how his community was tempted by domination culture. I think his writing invites us to see how Jesus’ life continues to live in us – helping to identify and resist the life warping values of bullying culture.

In helping us to resist these temptations, the Spirit teaches us to resist domination and restore creation, we also learn to be human how beloved of God we and all God's children are.