Saturday, February 09, 2008

Called to the Wilderness

Jesus' temptation in the wilderness is a regular story for reflection at the beginning of Lent. This year I have tried to let my engagement with the telling of the story in Matthew's Gospel (Matthew 4.1-11) guide my Lenten discipline as a preparation for Easter.

Some things to note about the story. First, Jesus goes into the wilderness immediately following his baptism, and God's identification of him there as 'my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased' (Matthew 3.17).

Second, Jesus is led into the wilderness by the Spirit. This is not something that happens despite God's call to him - it is a constitutive part of God's call to Jesus.

Third, the story is a retelling of the call of the people of Israel and their being led from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. Thus the time in the wilderness comes after Jesus' passage through the water of baptism in the Jordan, just as Israel entered the wilderness after they had passed through the waters of the red sea. Thus Jesus is identified as God's Son, as Israel is identified on various occasions as God's Son (cf. also Matthew 2.15). Thus Jesus spends 40 days in the wilderness, as Israel spend 40 years there.

The temptations also reflect Jesus' faithfulness to his calling at just the points at which Israel was unfaithful in the wilderness. Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread. Almost as soon as Israel was free from Egypt, they began to complain that they did not have enough to eat (Exodus 16.2-3). In refusing to turn stones into bread, Jesus is being faithful to his calling, where Israel was not.

The second temptation again refers to Israel's failure to trust the Lord to provide. When they came to the next place in the wilderness, Israel complained that there was nothing to drink (Ex. 17.1-7). Again, they began to wonder if it would have been better in Egypt as slaved. Moses called the place Meribah and Massah (which means 'proof' and 'contention').The Psalms refer to this as a test (Ps. 81.7) which Israel failed, hardening their hearts (Ps. 95.8) and angering the Lord (Ps. 106.32). Jesus is tempted by the devil to throw himself off the Temple to prove that God will care for him. It seems a different thing, except that the Book of Exodus tells us that at Massah and Meribah, the children of Israel put God to the test by saying 'is the Lord among us or not?' (Ex. 17.7). Jesus certainly recognises this parallel, for the quotation he uses to rebuke the Devil comes from a passage that in full reads 'You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah' (Deut. 6.16). Again, Jesus is faithful where Israel was not.

Finally, the third temptation on which the Devil takes Jesus up a very high mountain recalls Mount Sinai on which Moses receives the Law. Famously, while Moses was in the presence of God receiving the Law, the people of Israel were forging an idol - the golden calf - and worshipping it (Exodus 32). Jesus' faithfulness is complete, Israel's was empty.

The whole pattern of Matthew's account of the temptation follows Deuteronomy 8 (which is the source of Jesus' first quotation). The force of Deuteronomy chapter 8 is that the wilderness is a foundational experience that must not be forgotted by the people of Israel. They were fed in the wilderness (first temptation) so that they might learn to be humble and not exalt themselves (second temptation) nor forget the Lord and go after other gods (third temptation).

[Two asides for theology nerds:
1. Matthew's account seems to me a very sophisticated reading of Exodus 15-32 through the lens of Deuteronomy 6-8. Matthew uses Deuteronomy to interpret Exodus, so that the significance of the events and Israel's faithlessness is revealed. He also uses Exodus to undermine the implications of Deuteronomy that the faith of Israel in the wilderness is the foundation of Israel's ongoing faith (see especially Deut. 8). for Matthew, it is Jesus who fulfils the vocation that Israel failed at.
2. Because of this and because of the logic of the order of the three temptations, it is hard to resist the conclusion that Matthew has the original order of the temptations, and that Luke's account (which transposes the second and third temptation) is a later alteration (cf. Luke 4.1-13).]

In fact, I think that the whole of the story is about the nature of God's call to Jesus, and also God's call to us. All of this material about Jesus fulfilling Israel's vocation is not simply a bit of clever Biblical scholarship. It goes to the heart of what Jesus time in the wilderness was about, and to how we are therefore to use this season of Lent. Jesus in the wilderness is testing his vocation. He has been told who he is - God's beloved Son - and in the wilderness he learns what this means.

We too were told at our baptisms that we are God's beloved sons and daughters. This is a calling, not simply a status. Baptism is the source of all Christian ministry, because it is God's call to us all to follow. We all have our vocation, and we are to be faithful to it.

As I reflected on this, it seemed to me that my Lenten discipline this year should be to try to identify what it is that makes me faithless to the call of God. I don't mean by this vocation to ordained ministry or any other sort of 'professional vocation'. I mean what it is that gets in the way of our calling to be the people who God made us to be - his beloved sons and daughters. Fasting and prayer are the background to this, as Jesus fasted for 40 days before he met his tempter. But the point of all our Lenten discipline is to come to the renewal of our baptismal vows at the Easter vigil with a greater faithfulness to the one who calls us onwards.

My thanks to members of Foundation who attended a Bible study on the above passage and helped me get my thought together here.

1 comment:

Susan Harwood said...
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