February 21, Second Sunday in Lent:
Lent is often seen as a time to face temptation.
And real temptation is almost never the same as those cartoon temptations, with an angel on one shoulder and an devil on the other.
Each urging us to indulge in, or keep the fast of, whatever we’ve given up for Lent: chocolate, or the one glass of wine at night, or multitasking, or Facebook…
Sometimes those Lenten disciplines are difficult, and sometimes they’re not; they’re always better if they do cause us to stretch a bit. But real temptation…the kinds Jesus faces in the wilderness…the kinds we get caught up in everyday are never that easy.
Real temptations are always about something that is good at some level.
A partial good, or good for just us…but not for everyone. Good for me but not for you.
Taking care of our basic needs is a good, and turning stones into bread isn’t something we think we can do, but consider this: the Imperial Valley in California (near the Mexican border) through extensive irrigation, has transformed the Sonora desert into some of the most productive farmland in the state. But the Colorado River, the one that formed the Grand Canyon, no longer reaches the Sea of Cortez, in effect, in the Imperial Valley we have turned stones to bread. Taking care of a basic need is good, but the real question is: at what point does meeting a basic human need morph into the feeling that our need is greater than someone else’s, or that because of who we are we “deserve” more than someone else? Temptation.
Having power, either ecclesiastical or political power, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s a lot of good that can be done from inside the system…And very often it’s better to work within the system, moving things slowly rather than trying to change them all at once. But then think about all the cautions we have about wielding power…it’s corrupting influence, the responsibility that comes with it. The myriad examples in our culture of the abuse of power…Temptation.
And on top of all that, temptations easily come couched in the language of the bible…”The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” says Antonio in The Merchant of Venice. St. Paul today is warning the Philippians about being too rigid in following the letter of the law and thus falling into error. Even our faith…our deepest beliefs…can be the seedbed for our deepest temptations, believing that our way is the only way.
There is an insidious temptation at the heart of today’s Gospel.
It comes in the form of a warning…ostensibly out of concern for Jesus’s health and well being.
“Some Pharisees came and said, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
Again, not necessarily a bad thing…Save yourself…Protect your message…
If you die…If Herod kills you…Think of all the people who won’t be healed…all who won’t be saved…the poor who won’t be helped..If you’re not around to do it…sounds reasonable…almost helpful…but it’s a temptation, a partial good. In essence, it sabotages Jesus’ purpose.
It seems like such a reasonable thing, but it’s not. How do we tell the difference? How do we learn to discern between the Divine—the narrow way—that brings abundant life for all; and the demonic—broad way of death?
Significantly, this warning—this temptation—from the Pharisees comes in the midst of Jesus teaching about “the narrow way.”We’re in the midst of the journey to Jerusalem, “the city that kills the prophets.” In Luke’s wonderful phrase, Jesus has “set his face toward Jerusalem.”
He is leading us toward this ultimate confrontation with the principalities and powers –the tempters–of the world. And all along the way he’s been weaving together all these utterly bizarre and counterintuitive images of power and the kingdom…
He’s been telling us God’s realm is like yeast…like a mustard seed…tiny…insignificant…and more than a little unpredictable.
Which is utterly bizarre because everyone knows that kingdoms are large and powerful and very, very predictable…
Especially if you run afoul of them and their established structures. The realm of God should be like that, not like single-celled organisms or road-side weeds.
And even more perplexing…he’s also been saying that the last will be first, and the first will be last…
And that really messes with the way everyone knows the world works…
The first are first because we have all the power, and the privilege, and everyone wants to be just like us and that must be because God is on our side, right?
So the temptation today comes in the form of continuing to see the world the way the unjust, and unequal structures of power present it…and to be afraid to change it.
The temptation is—don’t upset the way things are…because it works for us…it benefits us…those who support (and are supported by) “the Empire.”
So, you know…don’t poke the tiger.
And in response, Jesus presents another bizarre—topsy-turvy—image of God’s realm…of foxes and chickens…
Now think about how this typically turns out?
The fox is cunning, and crafty, and a deadly predator, and the chickens are…well chickens.
Is there any doubt who comes out on top…
Except that Jesus again turns this all around. Like yeast, and mustard seeds…Jesus presents an image of God as mother hen…not a lion, or an eagle, or some other other creature that would make an easy meal out of the fox…
The image of power Jesus presents is not one of greater aggression and domination…but one of fierce love and self-sacrificing protection.
One of the biggest temptations we face today and everyday in our world is to continue to see the world the way “the empire” sees it…to see power as a tool used only for control, and coercion.
To continue to see our own positions of privilege and power as something divinely ordained, something we “deserve,” rather than as temptations to a partial good…good for us…but damaging and exploitative to God’s creation and other people.
So how do we know? How do we discern? If every temptation is a temptation toward a partial good we might begin by asking certain questions:
Are we only protecting ourselves, and our “lifestyle?” Or are we joining with God and others in the work of transforming the unjust structures of society?
Do our laws and our policies protect the weakest among us?
Do our choices benefit the poorest?
In the words of Wendell Berry: “will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child? Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?”
Or are we so afraid of upsetting the powers that be…are we so beholden to their world view…that we seek only safety and life for ourselves?
Sisters and brothers, I suggest that is our holy task in Lent…to examine our hearts and our habits. To become more aware of those temptations to partial goods…the temptations grounded in fear…the temptation to maintain our own privilege at the expense of others’…
And to strive to hear more clearly the voice that calls us in love; that desires to gather us as a mother gathers her children; that calls us away from partial goods to work for the greater good…of life and health and enough for all.