The unholy is the holy without vision

Week of Sunday Feb 14 - Lent One
Gospel: Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ 4Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’8Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
   and serve only him.” ’

9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
   to protect you”, 
“On their hands they will bear you up,
   so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 
12Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ 13When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.

The unholy is the holy without vision (David Tacey)

Jesus is full of a holy spirit, and he is led by the spirit, into the place of spiritual challenge and refreshment, and into the place of meeting God; namely, the wilderness. This is, says Bill Loader, "the Lenten space par excellence."

The wilderness is the place where Israel was formed. The link is made explicit by the number 40. 40 echoes both the time of Moses on the mountain of Sinai (40 days) and the length of Elijah's journey to Horeb-Sinai. (40 days)  Jesus will soon stand on the mountain with both of them. But most of all, the number 40 echoes the years Israel spent in the wilderness. When Jesus replies to the devil during the temptations,  each of his answers comes from Deuteronomy's description of the wilderness experience. Fitzmyer says, "Where Israel failed, Jesus succeeds." (The Gospel According to Luke i-ix, pp 510) In each answer, Jesus keeps to God's commands while quoting a passage from Deuteronomy which shows Israel's failure.

What does the passage say to us—especially as the reading set for the first Sunday of Lent?

One: This is a classic "proving the worth of the hero" story. You can trust Jesus as a hero to follow in life, because he shows himself worthy by passing the test.

Two: Each temptation is about trusting God. David Lose says

there is a crucial link between trust and temptation. To the degree that we trust God for our daily needs, for a sense of purpose, for our identity as a child of God, the temptations of the world have, frankly, little appeal. But to the degree that we allow our natural insecurity to lead us to mistrust God, we are open to the possibility, appeal, and temptation of the proposition that it is all up to us, that God is not able to provide and so we’d better take matters into our own hands.

The text is not about being good. There is no list somewhere of good and bad things. Rather the text is about whether Jesus trusts God for his future and his identity. As much as the text applies to us, it does not ask us moral questions. It does not ask if we are doing a good or bad thing at this moment. It asks us as children of God, and sisters and brothers of Jesus, if we are trusting God, as he did, for our identity and purpose and direction.

Three: The story of the temptations is a question following his baptism: You have been called. Are you worthy? How will you be worthy? The question is not so much "Ifyou are the son of God,"  but "Sinceyou are the son of God…" "The temptation has to do with how God's son should act." (Paul Achtemeier, quoted by Davis.)

It is in reading Jesus' replies in their context in Deuteronomy that we gain an understanding of the temptations presented to him.

In response to the first temptation he says, "One does not live by bread alone."

Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments.3He 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. 4The clothes on your back did not wear out and your feet did not swell these forty years. 5Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you. 6Therefore keep the commandments of the Lord your God, by walking in his ways and by fearing him. 7For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, 8a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, 9a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing… (Deuteronomy 8)

"…  it implies that Yahweh will supply him with manna once he lift his eyes above desert stones," says Fitzmyer, (pp511) The promise is that God feeds with an abundance beyond our imagining— without scarcity where you will lack nothing—and that doing it ourselves—taking matters into our own hands, as Lose put it— is an illusion. We think we have created bread by our own hard work, but we have swallowed stones.

The rich person who still feels poor, and who still keeps striving to get more, illustrates this spiritual disease. But observing them, we need to ask ourselves how much we are doing the same thing on a lesser scale, instead of trusting God. Do we strive to make a place for ourselves in the world, or do we trust the word that this is already given to us—bread without scarcity, milk and honey—and that the essence of life is in something else?

To the second temptation, Jesus says, "Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him." This reply is referencing Deuteronomy 6:

When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you—a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, 11houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, 12take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 13The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear. 14Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you... 

Again we see the promise of goodness, goodness that you did not build,  that you did not fill, that you did not plant. Do not follow other Gods. The god at issue for Jesus might be the devil himself. The temptation is to put the devil in the place of God by settling for leading a devil's kingdom.

Davis names this as "political commentary on the empires," which is the "way that βασιλείας [translated as kingdoms] from v.5 was most often used in the NT era." The empires "receive their territories and authority from the devil… the previous empires had bowed before the devil in order to receive their kingdoms."  Will Jesus do the same?

It is also a theological commentary or, at least, question. What is the nature of empire that it is devilish? What does something which is so great as an empire lack?

Jesus is being asked about the source of his power. What will empower him to be "Son of God?" (Son of God was a political term in the time of Luke.)  Whether or not he knew Luke, John offers commentary and insight into this. Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, and Jesus says he is, but not of this world. (John 18)

The Temple
There is a Jewish tradition from later than the New Testament that the Messiah would appear on the roof of the temple. (Fitzmyer pp511, 517)

Jesus' reply to this temptation comes from Deuteronomy 8. It is shortened from the original saying which, I suspect, would have echoed in people's minds:

 Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.17You must diligently keep the commandments of the Lord your God, and his decrees, and his statutes that he has commanded you. 18Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give you…

Massah is in the story of Exodus 17.

They camped at Rephidim, [resting place?]  but there was no water for the people to drink.  But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ 5The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah [test] and Meribah, [quarrel] because the Israelites quarrelled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’

And again we see the question of trust: Is the Lord among us or not?

Where does this emphasis on trust take us? There are three areas I am exploring this week.

One: Loader reminds us of our fascination with the spectacular.

Did not the early communities hail him Messiah, Christ? The answer was yes, followed by hurried footwork which had to sidestep the kind of expectations which informed such concepts in those days… Misinterpreting Jesus’ claims would lead to his bloody execution under the charge, ‘King of the Jews’. That could only be true ironically and yet profoundly so: here was a new model of messiahship, of power, of God.

These were important political and religious clarifications in a dangerous environment. They must have been the kind of options Jesus also faced as he contemplated his ministry. They become dangerous mostly in a different sense for us, although we should not forget those societies where being Christian makes one a target for the accusation of armed intent and ruthless suppression. The western dangers lurk in the lure of popular religion which lives (including: is funded!) from the sensational, derailing the vision of the change that really matters, and promises wealth of feeling and funding. (I have added the emphasis.)

Two: The Exodus promises of a land of milk and honey—a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing—recognise a profound goodness and richness of creation apart from the spectacular. C. S. Lewis wrote about change and promise:

The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself.  We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ… Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by an offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased. Lewis, C. S. (1996). “The Weight of Glory.” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. Ed. W. Hooper. New York, Simon and Schuster: 25-26. Quoted here

Lewis might say that the temptations are temptations to trust in something far less than what God offers us.

Three: The danger of trust in lesser things is reflected in work by David Tacey, who I will quote extensively from pages 154-162. (Beyond Literal Belief Garratt 2015.) Tacey says

Throughout the gospels it is the devil who thinks literally about things of the spirit, turning them into common objects or abominations of egotistical desire. (p 154)

Jesus is tempted by the devil, and although this is usually regarded as a temptation to power and wealth, it is, above all, a temptation to literal thinking and the "worldliness" that such thinking entails… The fact that this encounter with the devil was orchestrated by the Spirit is significant, for it is through this encounter that Jesus comes to develop his own metaphorical conception of the kingdom… (p157-158)

In psychological terms we might say the devil is not pure evil, but represents the ego and its desires. Those desires are hunger, the desire for spectacle and certainty, and the desire to rule and find power in a worldly sense. In particular, what this scene dramatizes is not a fight with a supernatural demon "out there," but Jesus' struggle with his own egotism, his desire for worldly conquest. (p159)

Worldy conquest: this is me! Every backbencher has his field marshal's baton packed in their rucksack, just in case. Every minister thinks about being Moderator or General Secretary. We want to make a success of life but, too often, we stop short of what we could be and settle for a little "worldly conquest," our own little patch of life. The temptations

represent Jesus' necessary encounter with his egotistical desires. He cannot live a full life without taking his ego into account, without confronting it as a "problem." As we have seen, this series of events is willed by God, or orchestrated by the spirit. Jesus has to decide which side he is on; is he with the ego and its urges, or the spirit and its transpersonal desires? …  (p159)

What this passage shows is that spiritual life is not generated by extinguishing the devilish impulses, as Christian morality has long argued, but by transforming them into impulses of a different order.

He quotes Wolfgang Giegerich.

Rather than rejecting "kingdom" altogether and opting for something totally different, Jesus pushes off from and sublates, sublimate, distils, evaporates the concept of "kingdom."

… [He] sees through the superficiality of the literal (political) kingdom. He gets a clearer, deeper self-understanding about his actual desire. He for the first time becomes aware that he is indeed striving for "kingdom," but also comes to realize that he would fool only him-self if he gave into this wish for "kingdom" in the external sense of literal, political power as offered by the devil, and that that sense of kingdom would not at all give him what his soul in truth needs. (p160)

Tacey says this is about metanoia. He insists on using this word rather than its translation "repentance," as he seeks to distance change and transcendence from mere moral overtones. Jesus learns the "devil is himself at a lower level; himself before metanoia has taken place." It is not desire which is the problem, but desire for the wrong things—setting our sights too low, and not seeing what our desires signify.

The temptations

Satisfy short-term needs, but not the needs of the soul. They are rejected because they do not satisfy the inner self, which is only satiated by a deeper kind of nourishment. They are "wrong" because their promises are hollow and short lived…. Spirituality is not about suppressing desire but transforming it. (p161)

I tried the suppressing-desire-being-moral path and found it, too, is a promise with is hollow and short lived. There is a miserable, self-abnegating, insular kind of faith which does not transform, but which traps us, abuses us, and makes us miserable and small people.

Last quote from Tacey:

When the untransformed self feels empty, it thinks of filling up with food and drink. [How much does this have to say about weight loss!?]  When the untransformed self thinks of spirituality, it thinks of miracles and wonders performed for entertainment. When the untransformed self thinks of rebirth, it thinks of transgressive and incestuous sexuality. When the untransformed self thinks of power, it thinks of politics and takeovers. But if reality is expanded, and things unseen are brought into the equation, the desires of the lower self find a more rewarding outlet. … The unholy is the holy without vision. (p162)

If we are to follow Jesus—deny yourself and carry our cross, indeed—there is a need to be transformed as he was. Maybe Lent is a rehearsing and re-inspection of where our life is centred: are we focused on lesser things—mud pies in a slum—rather than seeking real glory?  I find, uncomfortably, that life itself is this Lenten discipline, a wilderness journey aimed to allow me to give up even life for an "expanded reality."

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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