The following homily was delivered by Colleen Hartung at Sunday Assembly on March 13, 2011. The Gospel reading from the lectionary schedule that day was Matthew 4:1-11.
Today’s scripture readings tell two different tales of temptation. In the first reading Eve is tempted with a piece of fruit. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate…”. Who wouldn’t? In this reading a forbidden fruit is presented as the super food of all super foods. All you need to do is take one bite and you become healthy, wealth and wise. She gives a piece to her husband and he eats too. In today’s gospel reading, after being baptized and led up by the Spirit into the wilderness in order to be seduced by the devil, Jesus is tempted by the prospect of his exceptionality. “If you are the Child of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” If you are the Child of God leap from this tall building in a single bound. If you are the Child of God assume your position as the ruler of the world’s principalities and kingdoms; all this, presumably, for the good of humanity; superman to the rescue. Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He says no to the apple, the pomegranate, the gogi berry; pick your poison.
In an easy reading of these two stories, Eve falls prey to temptation. Jesus does not. The traditional interpretation of this juxtaposition generally includes something to do with the fallen, sinful, disobedient nature of woman and man on the one2hand. On the other hand there is the advent of the new Adam where humanity is made new, redeemed by the grace of God through the wisdom of Jesus Christ. And so for Lent (since today is the first Sunday of Lent) we contemplate our sinful nature, our corrupt desires and our weak choices and aspire to the wisdom and courage of Jesus.
But for some reason, perhaps as a Lenten penance, I feel called to resist, if just for a moment, the easy reading…this easy wisdom, in search of something a little more complex and little more humanly familiar. And so I will tell you my own little tale of temptation of a boy, a girl, a pair of scissors and a stuffed bear.
“And God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die’”. I don’t thing I said, “…or you shall die” but I definitely said, “don’t you touch this box…don’t you touch these scissors without mommy. We are just practicing for preschool next year. Our little red plastic scissors are for cutting the pieces of paper in our cutting box. Big people cut hair and other important things.” They were definitely forbidden to open the cutting box without supervision. So a few days later, I was horrified when Mary Kate handed me a fist full of her soft curly hair. She didn’t have that much hair to begin with and the gaping hole in the middle of her forehead was dreadful. I looked into her big brown eyes and said, “Why did you do this?” And she said, “I didn’t. Michael did it.” Ah, a classic tempter, he told her she would look pretty. I banished them both to their quiet chairs in the dining room and put the scissors out of reach. Effective consequences to deal with this fall from grace…or so I thought.
A year or so later, I was cleaning Mary Kate’s bedroom. The sun was shining, just right, across the surface of her favorite stuffed panda bear, nestled, lovingly on top of the pillows on her bed. I stood there for a minute…looking. It took me a while to make sense of and bring into focus the haphazard, jagged edges of her panda bear’s fur. I could not believe it. This bear had a haircut. It was her favorite toy. I was mad and sad because her beautiful bear was ruined. This hair wasn’t growing back. That afternoon, after preschool, both Mary Kate and Michael were in her room playing. I stepped into the room ready to dispense my judgment. I picked up her bear and asked about its fur. The both turned toward me and gave me a funny look. They told me that had happened a long time ago. “We’re in preschool now”, they said. “We don’t do that anymore.”
A year earlier, innocently colluding, they had crossed a little line, twice. It looked simple…easy…making things prettier, making things better, with just a little snip. It turned out that the wisdom of haircuts was not as easy as they had thought. They were older now. They knew better. Things were not that easy especially not haircuts. They had made a mistake. And they had learned. This new wisdom was not an easy wisdom. It was a wisdom hard won at least from a preschooler’s perspective. Mary Kate’s panda bear would never be the same. But as it turned out even though he had a really bad haircut, he wasn’t actually ruined, just a little more worn and maybe a little more real. Sixteen years later, this little piece of hard won wisdom still sits on her bed, a thousand miles away, in New York City. He reminds me a little bit of the stuffed bunny in the story The Velveteen Rabbit, who was made more and more and more real by his witness to a lifetime of struggle and love.
Which brings me back to today’s gospel. Parker Palmer, in his book The Active Life, reflects on today’s gospel temptation scene. He says that it would be a mistake to reduce Jesus’ struggle in the wilderness “to a few lines of snappy dialogue”. That would be a reduction of Jesus’ real humanity. Being tempted by the devil for forty days and forty nights is code, meant to suggest a long period of time. Jesus comes to this temptation scene with a lifetime of experience and struggle and love. Given his context, we can surmise that he has been witness to the suffering of his people under the weight of oppressive political and religious systems. He could be no stranger to human vulnerability and frailty—his own and others. In the face of this suffering why wouldn’t he be tempted by the thought of an easy wisdom, an easy exceptionality that would conquer such offence, such evil? The people of Israel, his ancestors, had, themselves been down this road of temptation. They wandered 40 years in the desert after erecting an idol in hopes of an easy rescue. In the end, their salvation came down to a practical, hard won kind of wisdom; honor your mother and your father, do not bear false witness, do not steal, do not covet your neighbors goods, love your neighbor as yourself and love God above all. In his encounter with the devil, Jesus comes down on the side of this hard won wisdom that is the essence of his heritage. In his response to the devil’s temptings, He remembers and recalls his struggle as the struggle of the people of Israel toward fullness. He quotes three times from the book of Deuteronomy about what it means to be real, to be fully human, to be a disciple. In response to temptation #1 Jesus says, “One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”. Bread is necessary but it is not everything.“Feed the hungry and clothe poor” is a word from the mouth of God. It is a Word that calls us beyond our own needs to a love for the neighbor and solidarity with those who suffer. In response to temptation #2 Jesus says, “Do not put your God to the test.” To be fully human means an embrace of our vulnerability. Jesus’ healing of the marginalized, of women, of tax collectors and lepers was astounding not just because he touched and healed these outcasts but also because he did this in the face of great risk to himself; a risk that would culminate in his death on the cross. In response to temptation #3 Jesus says, “Serve only God.” To be fully human is to assume a responsive posture that does not seek dominance but instead seeks to serve. This is a responsive posture that attends to the word of God…feed the hungry…in order to be shaped and formed and made real by the Spirit that is life, that is God.
When it comes right down to it, the temptation in all three of these stories is the same. It has to do with the desire for a way around the vulnerabilities and frailties that go along with being human and the longing for some super food, some superhuman power or some super legislative bill (as the case may be) that might accomplish this desire. The hope is for an easy wisdom that would make things prettier, make them better; an easy wisdom that would guarantee your husband and your children food, health and happiness; an easy wisdom that would impose solutions in situations of strife, forcefully maintain the peace and put an end to conflict in war torn world. But there is also something going on in these stories about the grace of the struggle and the possibility of a hard-won wisdom that comes to us across time in relation to our heritage and our life experience. We know more when we are in preschool then before we were in preschool. We learn through experience that life is not easy. We make mistakes and we live with the consequences of our mistakes. In the process we grow up, we become more compassionate and loving. We become more real. These stories expose a more complex juxtaposition between the innocent (or sometimes ignorant or even arrogant) desire for an easy wisdom and the hard unwillingness to dig deep and embrace the long struggle toward becoming more and more and more. Read a little against the grain, today’s scripture readings call us to a Lenten journey that is less about the contemplation of fallenness and sin more about the embrace of a life long journey that is a struggle for a hard won wisdom that makes us more real, more truly who we are, more fully human.