First & Franklin Presbyterian Church
First Sunday of Lent
March 5, 2017
When Jesus meets the tempter, the devil, the diablo, or Satan – he goes by a lot of names but we recognize him all the same — Jesus has been forty days and forty nights without food or water. Matthew tells us that he was famished. And then he undergoes temptation – while famished.
While hungry. Not exactly the way most of us wanted to be tested. We would prefer to have our Wheaties, our breakfast of champions. Not Jesus. He is not only at a disadvantage physiologically, he is also, in a sense, given to the tempter, to diablo, Beelzebub.
Satan seems to be given charge over Jesus – among other things, he’s whispering in Jesus’ ear, quoting from scripture, like the best (or worst) of them. What is really shocking is that the diablo literally takes Jesus – takes the Son of God up above the great city, and then up a great mountain where he tells Jesus that he, the devil, has the power to give him everything, every glory of power, if only he will fall down and worship him.
And yet with each offer, comes Jesus’ divine rebuff, always prefaced by “it is written” —
It is conflict to be sure, but it is not over the question of Jesus’ divinity. The Greek translated in the NRSV as “if” can also be translated, and I think more consistently with Matthew’s Christology, as “since” – “Since you are the Son God” – the question isn’t whether or not Jesus is living God. Instead, the question is what kind of messiah Jesus will be. The temptation here is a conflict between two kinds of kingdoms – the kingdom of the status quo and the kingdom of heaven which summons up a different kind of community. [i]
Satan takes Jesus . . .
That’s often the way it feels, when temptation strikes – it has all the advantages. It takes you.
Incidentally, Matthew personifies in the devil or diablo, the systemic opposition Jesus will face, especially from religious leaders. The only other people to “test” Jesus are religious leaders, who were often in league with Roman power. You might say that the “test” here comes in mythic form, foreshadowing all the other tests that Jesus will undergo. Another and related clarification: Jesus is not tempted by lust, stealing, or anything like that. Instead, all the temptations here have a socio-political dimension – it’s something like the way we ask, “What would you do if you had a million dollars?” Or, “If you were a king for a day, what would you change?”
Only in this case, since Jesus is God’s beloved son, since this isn’t merely speculative, since Jesus will, in fact, turn stones of scarcity into bread for the thousands, since Christ will announce that all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him, since this is not idle day-dreaming, the question at stake here is not whether Jesus is the messiah or not, but what kind of messiah will Jesus be.
When we talk about the power of evil, the power of say systemic racism or systemic sexism, we often mean something that is larger than the sum total of its parts. We are taken, if you will, by systemic evil. And many of us don’t even realize we’ve been taken by it until it’s too late or we’re too far gone into the system to extricate ourselves.
It’s like the old saying: we don’t know who discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish.
Think about Baltimore’s transportation system: our transportation system literally “takes’ us where we want to go. Or it doesn’t.
Alec MacGillis, journalist and friend of this congregation, writes that the Baltimore riots of April 2015 “started with a shutdown of public transportation.”
Following the Freddie Gray memorial, students were leaving the school, headed for the Mondawmin Mall, a public transportation hub for some 5,000 kids from area schools. What they found when they got there were several hundred police waiting for them, mobilized for urban conflict.
MacGillis called it, “Ramallah in Baltimore” – closing down the public transportation system set into motion an explosive confrontation between students and the police – students were literally dumped into this hub with nowhere to go, whether they had riots on their minds or not. Some probably did. Some certainly did not.
Shutting down public transportation was ill-conceived and no one, not the police, not the MTA, no one would ever take responsibility for that decision: “The closure became an act of nature,” he writes, “as unavoidable as a power failure in a storm: transit was shut down.”
That a transportation hub should be the site of this kind of unrest was either “fated” or “fitting” – transportation planning (or the lack thereof) contributes to the inequities that plague Baltimore. After all, it was the creation of I-695 – seemingly innocuous, neutral, maybe even as good as bread out of stones – that accelerated white flight from the city, “leaving a poverty rate in the core of the city that was triple the rate in the surrounding [suburban] sprawl. . . .”[ii]
The system takes over – and we are taken. How many of us have stopped to think about how our transportation system reinforces inequities? Mostly, we just make our commute – and that’s about as deep as we go.
Matthew’s temptation scene asks us to think carefully about our relationship to systemic sin. Let’s highlight a few things in the text that are interesting to consider in this regard. First, the devil quotes scripture. He doesn’t even really twist it. Jesus will do many, if not all, the things that the devil “tempts” him to do.
But remember Jesus is famished. Forty days and forty nights is a symbolic number. It goes back to other forty-day periods in the Bible. The people of Israel were in the wilderness for forty years – and they grumbled in their hunger, demanded a fast solution, manna from heaven. By contrast, Jesus waits on God alone.
Jesus refuses to be the “interstate” messiah of executive solutions. The devil tempts Jesus with the exercise of immediate solutions – turn these stones into bread – which would win him immediate obedience. But Jesus’ response always points to a deeper dependency on God: “It is written, human beings will not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”
It will not be our hunger or our appetite for quick solutions that will define Jesus’ messiahship. Jesus defines what it means to be the messiah, not the other way around.
Another thing here: the devil is stupid and he knows Scripture. But he doesn’t know scripture except through the lens of the status quo. When the devil says, I’ll give you the world, he promises Jesus the world with its necessary evils, with its corruption, with its inequities. When he says, turn these stones into bread, the tempter has no inclination to free us from our unruly appetites, but in fact, to make us into slaves of hunger. And Jesus refuses – he hasn’t come to rule over an old world, but to inaugurate a new world within the old.[iii]
Our president isn’t the devil. Some of you were wondering. But he knows scripture. Or at least he quotes it – he quoted it in his joint address to congress – if you remember, he quoted “There is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). He was speaking of the Navy Seal who died in an assault that he himself ordered. Here, as elsewhere, he quotes it through the lens of the status quo, with the assumption that the only world we will ever know and the only world we have ever known is the world defined by the sword. Yet the one who spoke these words never endorsed endless seas of white crosses, but instead called us to learn war no more, to turn our swords into plowshares and our shields into pruning hooks.
The devil doesn’t believe that human beings can ever be free of hunger or of coercion – they will always be slaves to whoever has bread; they will always be obedient to the one who has the most tanks and bombs; security can be purchased through walls rather than through community.
By contrast, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus teaches us how to read scripture – not from perspective of the status quo, but from the reign of God inaugurated in the resurrection and that means reading as if you were already experiencing resurrection, which I think would be like reading with lighting flashing through your eyes.
By the way, I said the devil is stupid. Evil is actually stupid (as well as boring) – but it’s crafty. I’m thinking here of something that Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about stupidity. Stupidity, he wrote, is not the same as being dull of intellect. You can be quite intelligent and still be stupid. No, he explains, stupidity usually occurs when there is an upsurge of power, socio-political and economic power. People start throwing around slogans. When you argue with people who are in the thrall of stupidity, they will create alternative facts. They will dismiss actual facts as inconsequential or inconvenient. They are also highly irritable when challenged. This is Bonhoeffer writing about the climate of the Third Reich, not about a White House press briefing. Even so, Bonhoeffer insists that you must resist the temptation to write stupid people off as deplorables. Why? Because that gives the devil too much credit.[iv]
Noteworthy here: Jesus teaches the devil. The devil was a lousy student, cheated on all his tests, but Jesus adopts the devil as his very first student. This bodes well for the rest of us!
Back in my first year of teaching at the seminary, I was looking over my class list, and I saw that a couple of theological troglodytes had enrolled in it. “This is no good,” I said. So, I went straight to the dean’s office: “Mr. Dean,” I said, “can I refuse to let these guys in my class? They make it almost impossible for me to teach. They’re perfectly deplorable.” “No,” he said, “you have to let them take the class. They’ve matriculated into the degree program, Dr. Hoch.”
“But you wouldn’t believe the things they say!!”
He just smiled. “That’s why you’re here,” he said, “to help them learn.”
Jesus’ first student was the devil – and as I look over our class list here today at First & Franklin Church – hmmm, no devils, but maybe a few of his advocates. . . .
Perhaps our work in Lent is a bit different than Jesus’ – the point of Matthew is that even though Jesus was famished, he was never diminished. He always operated, spoke, and acted out of the depth of his perfect unity with and love of God.
For us, though, being in that desert for forty-days, or being tempted by quick solutions – these things are difficult for us to resist. So, we need to look deeper, think longer, and do good.
Buddha says that if you want to find water, you don’t dig six one foot wells but instead you dig one six foot well. Don’t just quote scripture on the surface, but reach for its perfect author – I think that means learning to read the status quo as Jesus theologians, as people whose ultimate vision is oriented by the event of cross and resurrection.
Ordinarily, the status quo doesn’t look evil – it looks like a fast way to get home. Or it looks like a slow, inefficient bus system, that forces moms of small kids to get up at 5 or 6 in the morning to get from their neighborhood to their work.
Maybe it took a mother to see this, to see what others would dismiss as normal, people waiting for the bus, early in the morning before daylight. Sherrilyn Ifill, a lawyer and member of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, saw those young mothers and wondered: who’s getting their kids ready for school? What happens when they forget their homework? Or when they don’t eat their breakfast?
“What’s our reaction as a society to those children?” she asks. “We talk about that mother, about people not doing their job. But we aren’t willing to follow the thread to that bus stop on Edmondson Avenue — to understand the larger problems in the context of transportation decisions over decades, in the context of why Baltimore doesn’t have a city-wide system.”[v]
I get the feeling that she is looking at this with Jesus’ eyes – Jesus would never accept “quick” solutions. And maybe we should be a little suspicious when our governments – city and national – propose their versions of a quick solution.
Is slashing the budgets of the city schools the solution? It’s certainly a quick solution, isn’t it?
How about Executive Orders or border walls? What comes next? If we go along with the status quo, where are we headed? A wall today, perhaps an internment camp tomorrow? We’ve taken that road before . . . and we might also take another way.
I am struck by a story I read a couple weeks ago, about a white teenager who, during World War II, joined his Japanese classmates, and their families, in the Japanese internment camps. He dropped out of school. He joined people he didn’t need to join. Many of his friends were “taken” by the racism and fear of this country – taken to internment camps as a quick solution to America’s fear.
This was after Pearl Harbor. He must have seen just as clearly as everyone else that we were a nation at war. He could have joined the crowd.
But he was taken, if you like, by love for his friends. And that love took him to an internment camp.
Where will our love of Christ take us? Might it mean something as simple as choosing to take a bus to do our grocery shopping once or twice during the season of Lent?
Or might we join people who have been criminalized by the U.S. immigration system as they go to the Federal Building to be interrogated by Immigration, Control, and Enforcement? ICE would prefer that we simply get out of the way – so they can do their job without the interference of prayers and without the cameras of exposure.
Nine members of this community and a couple of dozen other immigrant activists joined Roxanne, an undocumented woman, wife and mother of four, as she reported for her ICE appointment at the Federal Building in Baltimore. She is not a criminal – but she has been criminalized by our immigration system. And she, and others like her, are told to pack their suitcase for these meetings – they might not be going home. We can only imagine the fear this casts over these families. We saw her daughters – young girls four or five years of age – clinging to their mom, like little ones will do when they’re scared.
I don’t know what happened behind the walls of the Federal Building – but I do know Roxanne was given a reprieve until summer. Not long, but it’s something. Maybe we played a part in that, exposing the status quo for what it really is by being the people God calls us to be. Satan left Jesus at the end of the temptation – there’s twenty-four more chapters to go in Matthew. We’ve still got a ways to go.
So, I ask again, where will our love of Christ take us? Where did Christ’s love for us take him?
[i] Eugene Boring, “Matthew” in New Interpreter’s Bible, 163.
[iii] Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 55.
[iv] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works: Letters and Papers from Prison, Christian Gremmels, trans., et. al., John W. de Gruchy, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 43-44.
[v] Quoted in MacGillis, “The Third Rail” in Places Journal.