Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Confrontations in the Desert: Part 2

This synthesis of recent studies and the current reading spurred me to be more attentive to Jesus’ other responses, recognizing there was more to his meaning than I’d previously taken note of. The devil next presents to Jesus a vision of “all the kingdoms of the world in a moment’s time” (Luke 4:5) claims dominion and offers them with only one caveat, that Jesus worships him. Jesus answers, “You shall worship the Lord your God and God only shall you serve.” The reference here is to Deuteronomy 6:13. The words Jesus actually speak follow closely on the footsteps of what is often referred to as “the greatest commandment,” “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” possibly because it was presented as such in the gospels during an exchange between Jesus and an inquisitive lawyer. It is worth noting that in this exchange there is an added phrase, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The words just preceding these are, “Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” which has become the Shema, the centerpiece of morning and evening prayer in the Jewish tradition. What really caught my attention here is the word “one.” During a recent morning of community prayer, one of my housemates prefaced his sharing point with an explanation of ones and zeros, “zero is a place holder, one is infinity.” One is infinity. This gave a sinking and soaring new depth to the phrase, “the Lord is one.” Satan offered Jesus a glimpse of all of the kingdoms of the world “in a moment’s time.” What is that in the eye of infinity?

Next comes Satan’s wildly decontextualized reference to the promise God makes via the writer of the 91st Psalm, “On their hands they [the angels] will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” If you believe this, the devil says; why not jump from this precipice? It seems an odd taunt. The Psalmist promise was made in the context of God offering loving protection and being a fortress at a time of attack, not being a safety net for daredevils. Jesus’ retort is less direct but abundantly deeper. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” he answers. But this is only the beginning of the sentence that, in Deuteronomy, is finished with, “as you tested the Lord at Massah.” What happened at Massah? This is a reference once again to the Israelites’ time in the desert, to the time when their gratitude for the gift of manna waned and they “quarreled with Moses,” because they were thirsty. Why, they asked, did you bring us out from Egypt? How quickly they forgot their chains and remembered only the convenience of a society with easy access to resources. The people are given water, but begrudgingly, and Moses names the place Massah [testing] and Meribah [quarrelling] “because of the quarrelling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, ‘is the Lord among us or not?’” It is also the core line in a Psalm that consistently makes my heart quiver, “Today if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did on the day at Massah, in the wilderness” (Psalm 95). The implications of Jesus’ response are far greater than a critique of Satan’s misinterpretation of scripture. It implies Jesus’ determination to trust that God is indeed among us, a fact that Jesus own presence affirms. And he would not prove it by dramatic self-aggrandizing acts but by a steady commitment to implementing the instructions inherent in the story of the manna—the theology of enough—even when it was inconvenient, unappreciated, unpopular; even when it got him in trouble with authorities and threw him out of favor with his own family and followers.

Following this, Jesus makes his first public address:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18-19, Isaiah 61:1,2).

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