Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Confrontations in the Desert: Part 1

A Reading from Luke 4:1-14

I am always impressed by how a thoughtful reading of an old text develops new contours, shaped by daily learnings. I have long been fascinated by Jesus’ encounter with the devil in the desert. It is on of the few scenes where Satan takes the stage as a present character (the only others I can think of off-hand are in Eden—confronting Eve—and in heaven—reporting to and challenging God about Job). It is quite theatrical.

Originally I read this passage as little more than a character sketch. Satan is shown to be a manipulative antagonist, Jesus a pure-hearted overcomer. Over time the readings took on different shapes depending on teachers and circumstances in which I met them. The desert is a purifying space for Jesus. Now I read it as not only a time of refinement for him as an individual (and object lesson on using scripture as combat weapons), but a purifying of the law, a refinement of the historical understanding of God and God’s commandments.

Every word Jesus speaks in this scene is quoted directly from both the 6th and 8th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy, the book of the law. This is where God is reminding the Israelites of the lessons they received during their forty year desert wandering and outlining behavioral expectations preceding their entrance into the Promised Land. Jesus symbolically relives the Israelite experience, entering the desert for forty days, subjecting himself to hardship and temptation. He not only receives the lessons into his present context, but himself voices the words of God (in his Deuteronomical quotations) as he prepares to enter/usher in the Kingdom.

I was first struck by Jesus’ response to Satan’s suggestion that he turn stones to bread. “Man shall not live by bread alone,” Jesus says, directly quoting from the moment when God was reminding the Israelites of the lesson of the manna:

You shall remember the whole way that that Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, the Lord might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep God’s commandments or not. And the Lord humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna…that the Lord might make you know that people do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut. 8:2-3).

This reference to the Israelite experience with manna sprung to life for me since I had just been reading about it in Ched Myer’s book, The Biblical Vision of Sabbath Economics. The first chapter of this book introduces the manna story from Exodus as a story about “following instructions,” and a presentation of “Yahweh’s alternative to the oppressive Egyptian economy” (11). As Myers sees it, there are three defining characteristics to the instructions God lays before these desert wanderers. He works from the understanding that these are not arbitrary instructions that expire at the conclusion of the Exodus, but rather a training ground and introduction to a new economy for these people to practice as they enter their new life.

First, the “theology of enough.” The Exodus account states that “every family gathered just enough.” I have lately been contemplated the nuances of this word, “enough.” It can indicate both that there is plenty—“enough for all!”—and also that the verge of excess is being pushed—“whoa! That’s enough!” This first characteristic refers to the former. The “enough” that the people are being provided with contrasts with the destitution of their life in Egypt. The second characteristic draws on the latter notion of “enough.” Once again contrasting with the economic system of Egypt (and, to broaden the view, our current economic system), the people of Israel are firmly instructed not to store up. Wealth and resources are not to be accumulated. Finally, the characteristic of Sabbath discipline is introduced. Gather for six days, rest on the seventh. Myers points out that this is not only “good agricultural sense,” it also “functions to disrupt human attempts to ‘control’ nature and ‘maximize’ the forces of production.” It is a reminder that the earth and the resources we glean from it are belong to God and are a gift. Authentic practice of the Sabbath requires faith and, to borrow a phrase from Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “abundance mentality.” It requires faith in what Myers calls, “an economy of grace.” Jesus’ reference to this lesson in response to Satan’s taunt about turning stones to bread indicates his radical understanding of and faith in God’s instructions and simultaneously foreshadows the many times he will practice and proclaim this “economy of grace” amongst his contemporaries.

1 comment:

Hans-Georg Lundahl said...

I cannot say that this plus fifth joyful mystery are the heart of St Thomas Aquinas' spirituality. But I am pretty sure they are the spiritual heart of some of his writing.