The costly choice of freedom
Gospel: Matthew 4:1-17
The costly choice of freedom: This is not something I understand; I have no recipe. But it is something I am beginning to experience. There is some emptiness being filled. I begin to see hints of a new landscape; ridgelines and valleys, and new ways to travel. This is the map I am sketching to describe to myself what I'm beginning to see.
In Deuteronomy 30, Moses says, "Choose life… "
See I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity… (15) Choose life so that you and your descendants may live… (14) by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live… (16) (Deuteronomy 31)
The whole point of Deuteronomy, is that Israel did not do this in the beginning. (Deuteronomy 1:26ff) As a result, they spent 40 years in the wilderness. In contrast, the story of Jesus' temptation— 40 days in the wilderness— is that Jesus does obey the commandments, decrees, and ordinances! He does trust God. He is a true child of Israel.
He shows a human being can live well; that we can master temptation, as the story of Abel and Cain implies. "Sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it." (Genesis 4:7) We often read Genesis 3 to suggest there is something powerless about us in the face of temptation. But Genesis 4, and the temptations story of Jesus, suggest otherwise. The conspicuously human Jesus resists temptation, and trusts God. He calls us to be disciples of his way of being.
David Lose asks
Might it be that part of being human is being aware that we are insufficient, that we are not complete in and of ourselves, that lack is a permanent part of our condition. To be human, in other words, is to be aware that we carry inside ourselves a hole, an emptiness that we will always be restless to fill. Adam and Eve behold the fruit and conclude in a heartbeat that their hole is shaped just like that fruit. Yet after they eat, the emptiness remains.
Someone said every back shed and garage is full of tools and toys someone imagined would fill the emptiness in their life; it's the same longing for some kind of completion. And the devil seeks to unsettle Jesus by provoking such an emptiness in his life; he suggests it is there, unrecognised. "If you are the Son of God…" He challenges him by suggesting that the life God has for him is not sufficient. "If you are the son of God… you can fill this lack for yourself! You need not wait for God, who may, or may not, be there. You can be safe on your own terms."
You could say it's the Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 reading for this week, all over again. Adam and Eve lacked nothing. Why did they think they did lack something?
Even in the poverty of his time, Jesus could say,
Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly father feeds them… and the lilies … even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But strive first for the Kingdom of Heaven, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matthew 6:25-34)
Why, then, am I so afraid of poverty? Why do I neurotically fill my sheds, build bigger barns, and remain sure that God is insufficient for my needs? Why do I see only lack in life? Why do I believe that I must fill this lack? Why am I afraid?
Increasingly, I understand that my fear comes from knowing that I will die, and from knowing that I have almost no control over how and when I shall die. Each small victory over death, each small making peace with the limitations of life, is followed by a new showing of my mortality, a new challenge to my being and purpose. As Paul says, "The last enemy to be abolished is death." (1 Corinthians 15:26)
Our culture denies death. We seek to establish and own ourselves as a resistance against death. We seek to live as though it will not happen. Richard Beck and Arthur McGill, who I follow here, describe this an "identity of possession." Despite the fact that to be human means not to be sufficient in and of ourselves, (Lose) we seek the self-esteem of being self-made.
They say this "identity of possession" takes two forms: one form is aggression, and the other is appeasement.
Aggression gets, takes, holds violently if necessary, in order to maintain and protect our self. "I try to seize bits of the world for myself." Appeasement finds strength and protection in the approval of others. My being rests upon what you think of me! Beck says
[When we define our identity] in terms of a reality which we can have, and which we can securely label with our name, we live under the "dominion of dispossession. We live in terror of death, of having this bit of reality which we call ourselves, taken from us." (Richard Beck The Slavery of Death, pp65-68 Cascade Books 2014)
In the wilderness, Jesus is tempted to seek to possess himself. "Command these stones to become loaves of bread" is, in the end, a promise of life by aggressive possession. It is the exercise of power to "ensure" his survival. Rather than living with the planet, this act of power would seek to "magic the planet"— to manipulate it to remove the need to trust God and the harvest.
We Westerners are at particular risk here. We do not see that our technological prowess is an aggression against the planet, and an aggression against others. My post here goes into the economic, social, and environmental details of this. Our desire to own things— indeed, even my ability to dictate this essay into a computer, and your ability to read it; we need a computer, don't we?— enmeshes us into a global military-industrial archon— a power— which is so pervasive that we can scarcely see it. We seek to make bread— the stuff of life— out of stones, and if those below us resist us, we throw the stones at them: witness the outrage that flares against civil disobedience, and the disproportionate response by our "civil" institutions. (I have excerpted the relevant part of the post below under the heading, The Violence of Possession.)
The other two temptations for Jesus to preserve and establish himself, are appeasement temptations. "Get God to prove his approval of you. Force his hand." This temptation masquerades as a 'trust' in God which is entirely inappropriate, because it is not trust. It is a seeking of certainty in life, when one of the essentials of healthy humanity is learning to live in and with uncertainty.
Certainty damages us: witness the brittleness and violence of fundamentalist gatherings, and people, of all religions. We cannot own certainty, for certainty will own us. If Jesus tests God, he has already bowed down to Satan (the third temptation) because he has not trusted God, but trusted the word of Satan.
This is a text for our time. Everywhere I see people grasping for certainty, I also see violence; I see unrestrained fear. Giving into the temptation to certainty seems to place us under a particularly potent fear of dispossession of ourselves. The whole currency of fundamentalism is fear. (I speak as an ex-fundamentalist who gave the search for certainty a good try.)
In Beck's work, he names our particular death fears in the West as being neurotic; that is, we rarely ever need to fear for our basic survival. (Beck pp28ff) Our fears, if we were attuned to God, are unnecessary! Deuteronomy says, "Choose life so that you and your descendants may live." And Jesus says, "Your heavenly father knows you need all these things. But strive first for the Kingdom of Heaven, and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."
And today, I have read this:
Carl Jung said most powerfully. "Any form of neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering." Are we perhaps, the neurotic society we are, because we recoil from legitimate suffering either as discipline or as duty? The temptation of Jesus is essentially Jesus' costly choice for mental, spiritual, and physical health over the soft and cheap neurotic options he could have embraced for his ministry. I wonder how much healthier I would be [asks Peter Woods,] if I could do the same?
Woods answers his own question by noting that when Jesus chose the way of discipline, saying
"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.”
When we focus on our self on choosing life, when we focus on "his righteousness," then being famished, the hunger of the wilderness, is filled. Our emptiness is filled. We are given sufficiency from outside of ourselves, and the burden of being sufficient to ourselves is lifted from us. The angels wait on us. Beck says Jesus has an
"ecstatic identity," an identity that is not owned, but received as a gift… Because Jesus did not own himself, he could not be dispossessed of himself…. (pp70)
It means, for us, that
I am freed of the anxiety of always having to keep possession of my own reality in order to be. (pp71)
We are reading the story of The Temptations at the beginning of Lent. Last week we read the story of the Transfiguration. In that vision, Peter and the others saw Jesus transfigured; made fully human. He shows them what becomes of us, what is given to us, when we follow the way of Jesus, and when we listen to this new Moses at the borders of our Promised Land.
The choosing of life means giving up ourselves— denying ourselves, even to the point of carrying a cross. (Matthew 16:24-28) It means to stop seeking to be sufficient to ourselves, and accepting that our life is pure gift, and not ours to own. This loss becomes freedom! It means we can find life. We step out from under the "dominion of dispossession and the terror of death." (Beck)
Immediately after the Temptations, Jesus comes saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." (Matthew 4: 17) There is a certain hangdog, I-am-a-useless-sinner," approach to faith, which always seems to me to be a soft option for faith, to use Woods' expression. It lists a set of moral shibboleths which appease the local congregation, and excuse one from the harder work of repentance— the work of living a different way, of being changed. When I was here, it actually put me in the centre of things! My poor, useless, disempowered self was an excuse not to change beyond essentially cosmetic shibboleths which I could define for myself! It gave me, from within myself, an identity to own!
To be fair, this sophistry and self-deceit is often presented as the height of piety. Where God says to Cain in Genesis 4, "sin is lurking at the door, you must master it," the whole hangdog approach lets Cain say, "I can't help myself, God will fix it." Where Paul is utterly frustrated by his failings in Romans 7, (I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate,) there is a soft option piety which becomes comfortable in its strictly limited repentance.
We're not saved by our works— we cannot save ourselves, but the discipline of the works, especially the work of letting go of our self, the work of loving and being compassionate, and the legitimate suffering of being plunged into neediness and vulnerability, is the path to freedom. Stripped of our self-sufficiency, diminished by love, suffering "a real deterioration of the self" (McGill, quoted in Beck pp 66) we are at last in a position to see that the lilies of the field truly are clothed in more glory than Solomon.
The subtlety seems to be that we do not grasp (Phil 2:6) at a piety, but that we allow ourselves to be emptied in ways we cannot predict and do not choose; this emptying opens us to a new vision of reality. I am thinking here, upon Beck's meditation of the emptying of Christ in Philippians 2. (pp74) I wonder if I glimpse something which approaches exaltation; (2:9) a raising up and being seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Eph 2:1-10)
It goes without saying that my living out of this is even more fragmentary than the sketching of this theological outline! But even the limited living of it has startled me. In what is a season of mourning for me, I find an astonishing joy. Situations of which I was deeply afraid, and which still discomfort me, seem to be ushering me into a new vision of reality.
I stumbled across a poem by Kevin Hart.
When the last day comes
A ploughman in Europe will look over his shoulder
And see the hard furrows of earth
Finally behind him, he will watch his shadow
Run back into his spine.
It will be morning
For the first time, and the long night
Will be seen for what it is,
A black flag trembling in the sunlight.
On the last day
Our stories will be rewritten
Each from the end,
And each will hear the fields and rivers clap
And under the trees
Will cover themselves with flesh;
Spears, bullets, will pluck themselves
From wounds already healed,
Women will clasp their sons as men
And men will look
Into their palms and find them empty;
There will be time
For us to say the right things at last,
To look into our enemy’s face
And see ourselves…
And after these beautiful words, I was shocked to read
Forgiven now, before the books flower in flames,
The mirrors return our faces,
And everything is stripped from us,
Even our names. (Kevin Hart, From The Flame Tree)
Yet, somewhere in that stripping of everything, is the final freedom to simply be in the presence of God, with all things as they should be, with no thing needing to be held, not even my name.
The key reference for me in this post is The Slavery of Death, by Richard Beck (Cascade Books 2014) You can get it on Kindle, too. Richard also has a series of posts on his site about eccentricity beginning with Eccentric Christianity: Part 1, A Peculiar People. These also examine where we find our identity.
Notes on the Text
The language about the devil in this text is not outdated, or naïve. At one level, it does not matter if we think of an individual being tempting Jesus, or if we see the incident as a storied presentation of the "Satan [who is] the actual power that congeals around collective idolatry, injustice, or inhumanity, a power that increases or decreases according to the degree of collective refusal to choose higher values." (Wink, quoted here.) The story examines just how high our values are.
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.
The Spirit of God leads him there. "In the NT … God typically only 'tries' or 'tests'… with hope of a good outcome…" Davies pp51. The readers in Matthew's Jewish community would see the parallels with Deuteronomy 8:2-3:
2Remember 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."
Brian Stoffregen says
Temptation is not coercion. The serpent in the garden didn't make Eve and Adam eat the apple. The devil in our text can't make Jesus turn stones into bread. "To tempt" means to try and convince someone to do something. It means enticing someone to want to do something. Tempters can't make someone do something bad, but try to make the temptee want to do something bad. They don't take away the will. Rather, they try to change one's will.
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.” ’
There is something of Genesis 3 here: he is being invited to imagine a lack, or a limitation where there is, in fact, none. The Greek for Deut 8:5 refers to son: the son of God recognises this testing is a disciplining of God, not a punishment; "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." Jesus is not just swapping verses here; he understands what is a stake in being human and what it takes to live successfully. (Deut 8:5 Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you.)
John Petty has an insightful description of this:
Jesus is arguing that the Lord humbled Israel by letting them go hungry so that they would be open to receiving manna. Get hungry enough, and you'll eat what I give you, says God, who gives the people of Israel a new thing--"with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted"--in order to get them to understand that God's providence may come to them in new ways.
In this story, "Jesus… stands in stark contrast to Israel. He continues to fulfil all righteousness." (Loader)
Well then, says the Devil, if you really trust God…
5 Then 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.” ’
The devil quotes scripture, surely a lesson to remember when we are besieged by those who rattle of chapter and verse. Such a facility has, on its own, nothing at all to do with holiness or the will of God. He quotes Psalm 91 which was used as— my new word for the week—" an apotropaic prayer." The apotropaic means words or actions designed to deflect evil. Davies says there is a
great irony [here]: Satan [is] quoting from a text that was used to drive away evil spirits. One might even find humour here: the devil is so incompetent that he seeks help from a text that is his enemy. (pp52)
Matthew will play on this later: "If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand?" (Matthew 12:26)
In his reply, Jesus is quoting Deuteronomy 6:16:
16 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, 19thrusting out all your enemies from before you, as the Lord has promised.
Again, Jesus is not proof texting. He is talking about right living, and about trust in God by doing that right living. The incident at Massah is related in Exodus 17:
2The people quarrelled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?’ 3But 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?’
I'm always intrigued that in the hard, hard land of the mallee, the last isolated town in South Australia, on the way into the mallee dunes of the Sunset Country is called Meribah.
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour; 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.
Davies notes that the very high mountain "seems to be the counterpart of the mountain in 28:16." In other words, the devil is inviting Jesus to shortcut the road to "all authority in heaven and on earth." You do not have to die! As Jesus will tell us, he does have to die. He calls us to follow him. (pp53)
Petty's comment is also helpful:
The devil does not cite the passage directly, but his words definitely recall Psalm 2:6-8: "I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill. I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.' "
It is an ingenious citation since it refers to son-ship, which is at the heart of the devil's challenge. The promise God makes to this "son" is precisely that he will rule the nations and possess the earth. Psalm 2 continues: "Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession." Just worship me, says the devil, and you will actually fulfill God's own promise. The devil is, of course, lying, but the true issue at hand is openly exposed: Who is God?
… (Matthew 4:17) From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’
There is a thinking which almost reduces Jesus life to some kind of cosmic transaction: he resists temptation, he goes to Jerusalem, he is killed and rises again, and therefore we are saved. But the temptations are presented in the lead up to Matthew 4:17— verse 17 is a part of the temptations story! The temptations establish his bona fides for the proclamation of the kingdom, and we are called to repent; that is, to change our direction, and to live , like Jesus, a life which actively resists the devil. Whatever God does and whatever God gives, we are called to be an active part of it. Repentance in Matthew— consider Matthew 25:31-46— has nothing partial about it. As Bill Loader says, we cannot "reduce it to a lesson about facing temptations in the area of private morality.
Poverty: ( Malina and Rohrbaugh in the section Rich, Poor, and Limited Good, 5:3)
Essential to understanding poverty is the notion of "limited good." In modern economies, we make the assumption that goods are, in principle, in unlimited supply. If a shortage exists, we can produce more. If one person gets more of something, it does not automatically mean someone else gets less, it may just mean the factory worked overtime and more became available. But in ancient Palestine, the perception was the opposite: all goods existed in finite, limited supply and were already distributed. This included not only material goods, but honor, friendship, love, power, security, and status as well - literally everything in life. Because the pie could not grow larger, a larger piece for anyone automatically meant a smaller piece for someone else.
You will notice that Malina and Rohrbaugh say that "we make the assumption that goods are, in principle, in unlimited supply." Our current climate crisis, and the social unravellings which have given rise to Trump's ascendance, question that assumption very harshly. The next excerpt says "acquistion was, by its very nature, understood as stealing." Much of our neoliberal economic "growth" is predicated on the idea (the propaganda) that the unlimited goods will "trickle down." Maybe it's just stealing.
An honorable man would thus be interested only in what was rightfully his and would have no desire to gain anything more, that is, to take what was another's. Acquisition was, by its very nature, understood as stealing. The ancient Mediterranean attitude was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person (Jerome, In Hieremiam 2.5.2; Corpus Christianorum Series Latina, LXXIV, 61). Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud. The notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron.
To be labeled "rich" was therefore a social and moral statement as much as an economic one. It meant having the power or capacity to take from someone weaker what was rightfully [theirs]. Being rich was synonymous with being greedy. By the same token, being "poor" was to be unable to defend what was yours. It meant falling below the status at which one was born. It was to be defenseless, without recourse.
I said in the beginning that the Beatitudes "challenge the very basis of our existence; that they re-set the way we even imagine ourselves to be a person and an individual." What does Jesus' understanding of riches say to a society which honours— lionises— the entrepreneur? Might it be that we are finally learning the true insight of these ancients: that the biospherical pie cannot be made to grow larger? That there is always a cost, and something is always taken from somewhere else?
Malina and Rohrbaugh say of the Beatitudes
The language used here, that is, "blessed," is honorific language. Contrary to the dominant social values, these "blessed are ..." statements ascribe honor to those unable to defend their positions or those who refuse to take advantage of or trespass on the position of another. Obviously then the honor granted comes from God, not from the usual social sources.
This might imply that the way the rich— that's us— may regain honour is to become poor… and not just in terms of money. The rich are called to return to honourable, and merciful, ways of living, and the honour comes from God. Society will not honour us for this. It will persecute us for the judgement implicit in our honouring of God.
One of our problems is that we have gained the advantage of being free from the strictures of tribal culture due to our industrial capability to produce goods excess to our immediate survival needs. (I use the term tribal because of my experience of the tribe and its claims upon people, which still exists in many forms today. Malina and Rohorbaugh more properly name Jesus' society as agrarian1, so it is perhaps more accurate to say we tend to maintain tribal behaviour in our current industrial society.)
In short, we can be individuals. The problem with this is that we then need something else to provide us with honour; individualism discounts the honour— the affirmation, support and identity provided by the community, even if partly and properly in reaction to its abusive and restrictive aspects.
In the west, especially in the last fifty years, we have redefined the source of honour as wealth, as being in the accrual of (even unneeded) material possessions, and as the possession of coercive social power; that is, the kind of power that can make things happen independently of others.
To be very clear: social power in Jesus' time was honour based. Honour was "the status one claim[ed] in the community together with the all-important recognition of that claim by others." Trump, as an extreme perversion of our time, gives no care for that kind of honour; he coerces. He is the focal point of his power; it does not come from the community, as in Jesus' time. Without money, and the ability to coerce, Trump would be powerless. (Malina and Rohrbaugh say Jesus lived in a society "in which power brought wealth (in our society it is the opposite: wealth "buys" power)."
In short, Trump has made himself God, surrounded by sycophants who are rewarded enough to ensure a certain loyalty, but always liable to being fired. He reflects us. As a society we have made our selves God, and then we give some people around us subordinate, or client value: family, those who watch our back, those who help us make money. But we are God.
By contrast, Jesus' "individualism," his freedom from the dyadic strictures of an honour society, was from being related to God, properly related to God. We need to regain this. We need to learn again that we are not God.
Our problem has been to seek to overcome "the limited good" by material production. But ultimately, this has still been theft; to being with, it steals from the factory workers— industrial history is a cycle of the workers gaining rights, and some humanity, and then the industrialists "off-shoring" to a place of lower rights expectations— theft. And material production has, in the end, sought to steal from the biosphere. This theft is turning into a disaster. Because we have been anything but lukewarm in our greed, earth may spit us out. (Rev 3)
As I have seen teeming life in even the "spoiled places" around Adelaide, I am more inclined to see the live planet as its own self-regulating system; a system which self-corrects. (See, for example, the Gaia Hypothesis) We are one small part of it, and I wonder if we have even less autonomy than we have imagined. It may not be our destructiveness which makes the planet uninhabitable for us; the planetary system may "correct us out of existence" to allow life to go on. (Andrew Prior: Wondering through Wilderness)
Could it be that Matthew, in pointing us to the Kingdom of Heaven, (it's mentioned three times in the twelve verses of the beatitudes) is pointing us to the one unlimited thing: the love of God. Jesus' people understood that honour was limited in their word; we know its limitations and its tribal, scapegoatish abuses. And Jesus' people understood the damage of riches, (you cannot serve God and mammon) an understanding we are finally having thrust upon us as the world falls apart.
God's love (the honour from God) is not limited; not for those in ancient Palestine, nor for us now. (Andrew Prior 2017)