1st in Lent — 10 February 2008
St. Mark’s, Maquoketa — 10:00 am
RCL: Gen 2:15-17;3:1-7 Ps 32 Rom 5:12-19 Matt 4:1-11
[He] was tempted in every way as we are, yet did not sin. [Proper Preface/Heb 4:15]
I’d like to see a show of hands. How many of you here have been tempted to turn stones into loaves of bread? Okay. Now, how many of you have been tempted to jump off a high building so that everybody would see the angels rescue you? Okay. (I don’t think I’ll ask how many have been tempted to fall down and worship Satan in exchange for all the kingdoms of the world!)
Well, let’s turn to the first reading, the Garden of Eden story. How many of you have been tempted to eat an apple that you weren’t supposed to eat? Okay, now how many of you have been tempted to eat a fudge brownie when you should have eaten an apple instead? Aha! Now we’re getting somewhere!
The Scriptures today are about temptation and sin—appropriate enough for the First Sunday in Lent! But is it at all clear what these two stories have to do with us—with me and my life, with you and your life? Maybe I’m a little dense, but aside from the generic “temptation” motif (Adam and Eve yielded to temptation and that was bad; Jesus resisted temptation and that was good), it’s not immediately obvious that these stories are about us. Snakes and apples and stones and bread and the pinnacle of the temple? (Some of you may already be ahead of me on this, because of course these stories are about us. Hopefully we’ll see why.)
Let’s take a look at what’s going on in the story from Genesis this morning. (And let’s be clear that these stories from the early chapters of Genesis do not have anything to do with astrophysics or geology or paleoanthropology. That’s not what they’re about. They’re about who we are, and our relationship with God, with each other, and with the world we live in, and in that respect they are true stories.)
The man and the woman have the care of the garden, and the run of it, except that they may not eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And the serpent comes. But notice: the serpent does not say, “Hey, why don’t you guys defy God?” And the serpent certainly does not say, “Defy God or I’ll bite you!” He says (the serpent is the most subtle of all the beasts), “Did God really say not to eat that fruit? Oh, surely you must have misunderstood! This is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil! Its fruit will make you wise—just like God!” Oh, well now! We must indeed have misunderstood! Surely God wants us to be wise! And what I want for myself must certainly be what God really wants for me! So—crunch!
Nor does Satan come to Jesus in the wilderness and say, “Jesus, give it all up! Tell God you don’t want to be the Messiah after all!” (Do any of you remember The Last Temptation of Christ — a novel by Nikos Kazantzakis made into a movie by Martin Scorsese a number of years ago? When the movie came out there was a lot of silly fussing by some Christians who should have known better. By all means read the book or rent the video, if you want to. Just be aware: Kazantzakis and Scorsese didn’t get it about the temptations of Christ.) Satan doesn’t come to Jesus saying, “Jesus, don’t be such a religious fanatic. Go home. Get married. Have kids.” No, no. Satan says, “Of course you’re the Son of God! And you want to be a good son! You want to bring in God’s Kingdom! You need to make sure you’re strong and fit and prepared! Get the energy level up for your ministry as the Messiah! Make yourself a sandwich! And besides, people are starving all over the world—and you can feed them! You can do it! People are lost, they don’t have anything to believe in—show them the power of God! Prove that miracles still happen! And some people just cannot live in peace, there’s hatred and bigotry and terrorism and ethnic cleansing—put an end to it! Enforce God’s righteousness! Make them straighten up, or else! You can do it! You’re the Messiah! You’re the Son of God! It’s for God’s Kingdom—do whatever you have to do!” Unlike Adam and Eve—indeed, in reversal of Adam and Eve—Jesus says No. Jesus knows it’s all a lie, that Satan is The Liar.
What’s going on here? In the garden: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—for us that may sound very intellectual, like being an expert scholar in the fields of ethics and moral philosophy—but then we’re Westerners, products of Greek head-tripping and Roman legalism. For the Hebrews, knowledge is not just intellectual and cognitive, but personal and experiential, heart-and-gut-knowledge and not just head-knowledge. And “the knowledge of good and evil” means universal knowledge, knowledge of all reality. And knowledge is power. The Hebrews were acutely aware of that. “The knowledge of good and evil” is universal power, utter self-sufficiency. The man and the woman could be their own gods, at license to do their own thing, accountable to no one, no longer responsible to anyone but themselves. That’s “the knowledge of good and evil.” The issue is control. The issue is power.
In the wilderness: Satan doesn’t try to talk Jesus out of being the Messiah. He wants to turn Jesus into a corrupt Messiah. Jesus too is tempted by power—ultimately the same temptation which confronts the man in the garden comes around again to The Man in the wilderness. Magical power. Manipulative power (off the pinnacle of the temple! Is that a media event or what?). Bread and circuses. And political power; and if all else fails, there’s always the military option. Whose Kingdom does that build? Not God’s, says Jesus. Whose kingdom are we really building? The real issue is control. The issue is power. I want to be, I have to be in control of things. We’re going to do it my way.
Yes, these temptation stories are about us. Because they aren’t about eating apples (or even primarily about breaking commandments), or about turning stones into bread. They’re about the temptation to control, the temptation to power. Satisfying ourselves, buying influence, impressing others, manipulation, using leverage, clever management, subtle extortions, imposing my agenda. Getting you to do what I want you to do—even for your own good, even when it really is for your own good—instead of what you freely choose to do. I’m not talking about open debate, considered deliberation, cogent argument, inspiring example as a way of inviting people freely to change their minds or their actions; I’m talking about getting an edge. Oh, yes, that’s us. It’s you. It’s me. And, brothers and sisters, it has been the Church — and still is.
In the garden we were tempted to power, the power of knowledge, the power of worldly wisdom. In the wilderness Jesus said No to the temptation to power—the power to manipulate people into the Reign of God by magic or PR or legislation or force. The only power of the Reign of God is the power of love itself, the power of truth, the redemptive power of suffering.
No more than that is needed. No less than that is sufficient.
© 2008 William Moorhead