‘the hard work of loving…’
March 10, 2019
Scripture: Luke 4:1-13
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.'”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
Today’s passage brings to mind the hard work of loving…the difficulty of loving others we may not often feel inclined to love. The hard work of resisting solutions that may to be easier than extending oneself on behalf of another. For sometimes it feels like a much safer route is to keep to oneself, to mind one’s own business, and not to interfere in the affairs of others even if it appears as though someone is being wronged or treated unjustly.
And yet, the example we have been given to follow is one in which someone chose to deliberately live in such a way that everything they did or said was for the benefit of another. This was Jesus’ way of living…living for the sake of, and for the sole purpose of lovingly advocating for those in need of his care and attention. His life was a constant witness of love extended without condition…and ultimately, it was also a lifestyle that came at great personal cost. ‘This is my commandment’, Jesus told us, ‘that you love one another as I have loved you’. Loving as Jesus loved truly is hard work.
Also, I must admit that this is another one of those passages that I have encountered so many times that I have perhaps forgotten how to really hear it…as though I have some idea in my mind already of what it means, and so instead of giving it a fresh read with an open mind, I just sort of go immediately to my previous understanding and interpretation of it.
And I’m not sure if this is also the case with you, but I find that this ‘tendency to lean on the familiar’ is one of those things we need to carefully guard against when it comes to the scriptures, for it does not leave room for them to truly be a ‘living word’. Assuming we already know, or already understand the words of a scripture passage may not leave any room for the Holy Spirit to illustrate anew how a particular passage may in fact speak directly to our present circumstances…circumstances in which a new understanding of a passage may run somewhat counter to a previous one. For truly, if we are capable of making the bible say what we want it to, which we most assuredly are, then our God is not limited at all in rightly interpreting the word to our hearts in ways that are fresh and new.
And so, when I first saw that today’s passage dealt with the ‘temptation’ of Jesus, I immediately went to my inner closet of meanings and pulled out the dusty old folder of previous understandings. These included firstly an assumption that the opposing force to Jesus there in the desert was in fact the ‘Devil’, or ‘Satan’ himself, bringing back to mind the serpent in the garden of Eden with his clever wiles and ways. A second remembrance was of the power and strength of Jesus as Lord…of his never-questioned ability to seemingly superhumanly resist what would surely have sunk the rest of us.
And lastly, I long held an assumption that this was a necessary step for Jesus in preparing him for his role as Savior and promised Messiah…an annoying and pesky little trial which he had to pass through to prove his ‘godliness’, both lifting up and then downplaying his ‘humanity’ in a sense, in order perhaps to make his eventual resurrection that much more believable. And notably, I always thought of it as something unique to Jesus, as a sort of purifying of his soul and person in preparation for his ministry.
But by grace, the Spirit was able to break through this bunch of old and tired assumptions once again. Somehow calling me to listen in a new and different way…perhaps to look and see if there was another angle that might offer new insight into this strange encounter Jesus had with someone there in the desertprior to beginning his ministry among us.
As regards my first previous assumption, that in which Jesus is ‘tempted’ by Satan or the Devil, it is good to note that the word ‘tempted’ in the Greek can also be translated as ‘tested’. Now this may seem like a small distinction, however the word or in fact the name we now use for Satan is not actually in the original Hebrew as a proper noun but rather a description of this particular entity’s function. ‘Ha-satan’ is the title given to this one who challenges Jesus. And ha-satan translates not as the ‘Devil’ with a capital ‘D’, but rather as ‘the one who tests, or the tester’. In fact, I am not sure if you noticed, but even in our translation the word ‘devil’ is not capitalized as one normally would, were it a proper noun or name.
And it is not clear, either here in today’s passage, or in the Book of Job in the Old Testament, just who it is that has sent these tests or trials to Jesus, or to Job. For those of you familiar with Job, ‘ha-satan’ seems very much to be an agent of God, seeking and receiving permission to bring what amounted to total calamity upon Job and his family merely in order to test his faith. And I bring this up only because it may allow us to consider other ways in which to view our passage.
For there seems to be a big difference in the perception of how we view this testing of Jesus if it is linked to ‘temptation’ along with all of its attendant baggage, as opposed to the word ‘tested’ which implies a force that is not necessarily seeking ill but rather gauging one’s ability. I think that if we can move away from this idea of our passage as solely an evil force seeking to do harm to Jesus for a moment, and instead truly see it as a stage of necessary preparation for the truly difficult work that lay in front of Jesus, then we might also be able to view the world as a whole and our place within God’s plan a little differently.
For if our world view is that of a battle between two super forces, one which is Godly and good and one which is slightly less powerful and devilishly evil in intent, then we might not have room for the possibility that there truly is only one God and not a lesser force at all. And the idea that perhaps the struggles of life, the trials, and what seems to be evil all around us is in fact a struggle within ourselves, or a battle between goodness and love and our own impulses and desires. Impulses and desires that are centered not in love at all but rather in the very human tendency to hold on to ‘Self-centered’ over ‘Others-centered’ notions when it comes to what drives our thoughts, words, and actions.
And secondly, returning for a moment to my opening assertion that this business of loving can indeed be hard work, this recollection of the temptation of Jesus in Luke’s gospel omits the assertion that after it was all over Jesus was so weak that he needed to be ‘attended to by angels’. Both Matthew and Mark’s accounts of the same story in fact do include this final note. Mysteriously in Luke’s account it says rather that the one who tested him left him ‘until some later ‘opportune time’…as though this business of being tested might not yet be over.
In either case however, it is clear that going through the trials that Jesus was forced to endure revealed not a superhuman effort and victory, but rather a very human trial resulting in a man who at the end was fully spent, weakened, and used up. And I find as well, that as we begin to open our hearts up to the call to follow in the footsteps of Jesus in the living out of the love we have been given, we too may experience this same exhaustion, this same weakness and emptiness that can only be filled in by a fresh flow if the Spirit. Loving can be hard work indeed!
Our passage also offers a timeless picture of the struggle humanity as a whole undergoes when seeking to move from ‘as-created-from-stardust’ humanity through to a place of evolved thought and culture. And this understanding may in fact allow new room for the belief that God is in fact a God of love-unconditional. One who is able to extend unconditional mercy and forgiveness for all people, and for all sin, be it past, present, or future. Such a view of there being one holy and loving God and one weak and sinful humanity also allows us to look to Jesus as the perfect one in whom to model our lives after. A model of one who was able to separate out personal and human desires and concerns for the greater good of those around him, trusting in God to provide for all of his needs.
And thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, my previous understanding or assumption that this set of trials was somehow unique to Jesus proves to be less convincing if we see the passage not so much as a historical record of the events in Jesus’ life, but rather as a road map all followers of Jesus will in fact travel if they accept this call to love others just as he loved us.
The ways and systems of a world always seeking to elevate the individual or the ‘Self’ over others still offers all of the same false temptations that Jesus was forced to deal with. His first temptation was a promise of security, both of wealth and provisions, an assurance that all of his personal needs would be met, including his immediate ones. The world offers this as well, unfortunately however, obtaining such security often only comes at a great cost to those we are called to serve…and it is seldom guaranteed.
Secondly, the one who tested Jesus offered him the temptation of great power and authority over others, a chance to reign over others and to elevate one’s own rank and privilege. And we already know that this is a false belief that has toyed with humanity from the beginning of time.
And lastly, Jesus was tempted to believe that he was immortal and could do no wrong, for the tester told him that God would protect and save him regardless of what we had or what he did…even unto testing Godself. Truly this is the root temptation of those who feel that the God of their faith allows them to stand in a position of superiority over all others, claiming that God is on their side and interested only in their own faithfulness to whatever it is they have decided is the proper or correct set of behaviors and beliefs. A faithfulness which by the way, they believe will insure their eventual entrance into heaven, while all others remain outside of the gates, crying and gnashing their teeth.
Jesus knew what lay behind all three of these tests, and knew that a life spent in the service of others, a life spent loving as our Lord and God loves us has no room for behaviors and understandings that elevate the ‘One’ over the ‘rest’. By rejecting all of these at the hand of the one who tested him, Jesus was signaling that faith is not something to be used for or seen as a way to obtain security at all.
Rather, faith is that which enables us to live in the uncertainty. The uncertainty of having security itself, trusting instead that our needs will always be provided for if we are centered in the will of God as it is expressed through the Spirit’s voice us. For we are called to seek first God’s ways and God’s blessed kingdom. And if in fact we do this, then all that the ‘tester’ was offering to Jesus will in fact be unnecessary. For God always provides for God’s will to be accomplished…to the full extent of our own willingness, and within the parameters of our own gifts, skills, talents, and abilities…no more, no less.
For indeed the Prophets foretold that God desires and seeks to bring about a day of abundance and peace for all of humanity. However, the advent of that day is most surely delayed when individuals maneuver to take more than they need for themselves…when individuals succumb to the temptation to live solely for and unto themselves, or ‘their own’.
For now, at this stage of our fitful growth into selfless love, I am afraid that the only ‘abundance’ that can be guaranteed to a follower of Jesus seems to be an abundance of God’s presence within one’s life…abundant peace, patience, and deep inner joy. Other than that, it seems as though some true measure of God’s abundance must wait until all see, hear, or by grace experience the love of God at the hand of one of our Lord’s servants and are moved to be a part of a new emerging reality in which the ancient Prophet’s promises begin to be seen and felt. No one person alone can do all that is required to usher in the Day of our Lord. Rather every believer, every follower, must do her or his part in creating that moment each day when the glory of our God is made visible to others.
So indeed, the story of our faith, and the example set for us by Jesus in our passage is good news. But it should be sobering news as well. For the pathway our Lord Jesus called for us to travel along behind him on is fraught with trial and struggle. Loving this world out of her self-centered, power-hungry, greedy, and unloving ways is a monumental task.
It was a task and a test given to Jesus, and a test which he passed. And in the end, it is also a test for us, a test that awaits each of us who dares to undertake the hard work’…