by Mike Kinman, Rector of All Saints Church, Pasadena
The gospel isn’t meant to be gulped down on Sunday morning, but gnawed on through the week so it really becomes a part of us. You’ve got to work at it, like a dog with a good bone! Here’s the Gospel for this Sunday with some notes and more “food for thought.”
First Sunday in Lent: Matthew 4:1-11
After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying 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.'” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
The Backstory – What’s Going On Here?
As we begin Lent, we jump back in Matthew to where we were nearly two months ago. Jesus has just been baptized by John in the Jordan and the voice of God has boomed down: “This is my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” And then no sooner is he out of the water than he is led out into the desert for 40 days.
Matthew is written for a Jewish audience, and the imagery for them is unmistakable. Passing through the water into the desert for 40 days to be tested? If you think that sounds a lot like crossing through the Red Sea and wandering in the desert being tested for 40 years, you’ve got the right set of eyes and ears for this Gospel! The romance of God and the people of Israel is always about faithfulness. From the very beginning when the serpent tempted Eve out of faithfulness to God … to the tempestuous relationship of God with Israel in the Exodus and in the wilderness and then through the periods of judges, kings and prophets. God’s only wish for Israel was to be faithful, “to have no other God’s before me.”
And Israel, beautifully and tragically human and fallible, continually kept falling short and messing up. So now as God incarnate, Jesus walks the same path
that Israel walked before him. Through the water and tested in the desert. This truly is “God with us.” The message from Matthew is clear: “You have called yourself people of Israel … but you are people of THIS story, people of Jesus now.”
A few things to chew on:
“Original sin” is a term that has been used in really destructive ways to try to cast humanity as evil. But nothing could be further from the truth. The truth the creation myth sings is that we are created in the divine image and good – unstoppably, irreversibly good. Original sin is about turning away from that goodness, putting something other than God – who dreams for us to live fully into that identity of being created in God’s image – at the center of our lives. What happened in the story of Adam, Eve, the serpent and the fruit is that humanity was tempted toward self-centeredness. To believing that it is our power not God’s that is the greatest force in the universe.
In this Gospel reading, the devil tempts Jesus not to evil but to good. But the road to good in this case is the road of original sin. Now, The one who provides manna in the wilderness is God … but here the devil is asking Jesus to take this role on himself. (We need to remember here that although Jesus was God incarnate, he was also fully human … and in the indecipherable biology of the incarnation it is that humanity that is being tested). Jesus quotes scripture back to the devil (and it’s interesting to note that all the scriptures here are from the people of Israel’s time in the desert) and shows he knows his place … and knows God’s place as well.
As the Church in a land of incredible wealth … where even small amounts of what we have can save entire villages around the world … it is tempting for us to fall in love with our own power to provide and save. To see ourselves as agents of God, and even congratulate ourselves on how lucky God is to have us around.
Answering as Jesus did in the wilderness means not feeding the hungry out of our largess, but recognizing that God has provided all … and our task (like the people of Israel’s in Exodus 16 ) is not to hoard.
The final temptation is particularly convicting for us as the Church, because it is the one to which we have most notably fallen. The Church of Acts and the Epistles is a persecuted Church — as it still is in some areas of the world. It is no mystery that in persecution the church is at its strongest and most faithful because the cost of discipleship is so clear and persecution renders mute any thoughts of compromise.
But in most of the world, since the time of Constantine, the church has accepted the devil’s terms. We “have all the kingdoms of the world, and their splendor,” and that possession and our desire to keep it has done more to lead us away from the demands of the Gospel and into compromise with the world than anything. In his excellent commentary on Matthew, Stanley Hauerwas notes that Dostoevsky says this eloquently in The Brothers Karamasov. When the cardinal Grand Inquisitor in telling Jesus that he cannot do his work on Earth because it is at odds with the work of the Church, actually castigates Jesus for not unifying humanity and accepting the devil’s offer:
“Had you accepted the world and Caesar’s purple, you would have founded a universal kingdom and granted universal peace. For who shall possess mankind if not those who possess their conscience and give them their bread? And so we took Caesar’s sword, and in taking it, of course we rejected you and followed him.”
We sometimes talk about the “Hard Sayings of Jesus.” Our temptation when confronted by those hard sayings is to make them easier — to explain them away somehow in a way that makes the demands of the Gospel less on us — so that we can hold onto the kingdoms of the earth. When we do this, we are being like the Grand Inquisitor — making the church into something that actually fights against Christ working on Earth. What is your tendency with the hard sayings of the Bible … do you try to dive into them and see where they convict and invite you to be refined? Or are you tempted to try to explain them away so they can let you keep living the way you are?
Many of us have never felt true physical hunger. Though we live among siblings to feel it regularly. For those among us who have never felt hunger, fast days (like Ash Wednesday) can be a way of connecting with that feeling, meeting Jesus in the hungry among us, and to be in a place of want and need. As a person of extreme privilege, who doesn’t have issues with food, fasting has been an important spiritual discipline for me on days like Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
But that qualifier is important. Fasts are not meant to be self-abusive, but for those among us who have eating disorders, are challenged by body image or have problematic relationships with food, fasting and the language around fasting can be not only difficult but downright harmful if not deadly (eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness – http://www.anad.org/get-information/about-eating-disorders/eating-disorders-statistics/). I encourage you to read this blogpost about one person’s struggle witih church and her eating disorder (http://decolonizelutheranism.org/2017/02/decolonize-the-body-of-christ/).
The foundational theology of fasting is one of joy – of resting in God’s loving provision for us. For some, refraining from eating is a way to embrace and respond to that love. For others, it is not appropriate. For others, perhaps a better spiritual practice for Ash Wednesday is to meditate on the truth that our bodies are divine gifts, that they are beautiful and good. To take a “media break” and intentionally shut out images that tempt you toward negativity about your body.
For all of us, it is a good time to remember that we experience the devotions and traditions of the church differently – and to listen deeply to one another’s experiences, hold one another in grace and love, and reach out together toward God.
What is it that you long for deeply? Or maybe, who is it that you long for deeply?
That’s what hunger is. It’s a deep, deep longing.
Have you ever been hungry? I mean, truly, truly hungry. Poets talk about hunger as not just your stomach but your whole body crying out for food, aching for it.
Hunger is intense. There is a something critical that is missing, a hole that needs to be filled so that you can be whole. True hunger is a deep longing to fill that piece of us which is empty.
What do you hunger for? Whom do you hunger for? What is your deep longing?
Matthew’s Gospel tells us that in the desert Jesus was famished. Hear that word. He wasn’t peckish or a little nibbly or even simply hungry. He was famished. His whole body was crying out “I need. I need food. I need food or I will die.”
We have all been there, I suspect. Maybe it was when someone we love rejected us or died. Maybe it was a deep longing to know … or to be known. Maybe it’s a deep hunger to be left alone … or never to be alone again.
The one thing our deep longings have in common is that they are not bad. We are created in God’s image, and there is something in God that said it’s not good enough just being me … I need something beyond myself. And that’s why we were created. God felt a deep longing, a deep hunger, and it is out of that longing that creation came into being. And we are created the same way. We are created as creatures who intensely hunger, who deeply long.
It’s because our longings our so powerful, such an integral part of who we are and how we see ourselves, and often so undefined – often we just know that something is missing and we are looking for anything to fill that hole. It’s because of this that we are incredibly susceptible to temptation. Temptations to fill the hole quickly.
The entire advertising industry is based on this. Advertising is based on the principle of tapping into your deep longing and convincing you that whatever product they have to pitch is going to fill that hole. That whether it’s Rogaine for your hairline or more riboflavin for your diet that if you just buy this, if you just do this, it’s all going to be OK, that the hunger will be satisfied, that you will be complete.
The Devil came to Jesus in the desert and tempted him. Not with evil things. Not with appeals to the worst of his nature. But with a sales pitch. You’re hungry, Jesus? Have some food. Food is good. And you can not only feed yourselves, you can feed everyone who is hungry. You want to make a difference, Jesus? Have some power, you can make all the difference in the world. You want to glorify God, Jesus? Jump off this ledge and God will save you and everyone will see that God is great and praise God’s name.
The Devil, the great pitchman, tapped into Jesus’ deep longings and offered him easy ways out. Things that were good. Things that would stop the pain. Would stop the longing.
But Jesus said no. Because Jesus knew that there is a point to the longing, a point to the hunger that is beyond just satisfying it. Jesus knew that our longings remind us of what God knew in those moments before creation – that we can never be fully whole by ourselves or by the labor of our own hands. We need to reach for the love that brought us into being. The love that has been calling to us and has been the root of our longing since before we were born.
The opportunity of the desert, of the longing, of the hunger, is not to get what we think might satisfy it .. but to reach beyond that for the source of all love, all desire, all longing .. and that is God.
That is the journey of Lent.
Collect for The First Sunday in Lent:
(Pray this throughout the week as you gnaw on this Gospel.)
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The Lectionary Page has all of the readings for this Sunday and every Sunday — click here for this Sunday’s readings.
“Gnaw on This” is a weekly invitation to reflect on the Gospel for the upcoming Sunday offered by Mike Kinman, Rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena. For more information about All Saints, visit our website or call 626.796.1172.