Thursday, February 11, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 14, 2016:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

Second Reading: Romans 10:8b-13

Gospel: Luke 4:1-13

This week's text is the classic tale of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert. Jesus goes to the desert to find out "what it meant to be Jesus" (in the words of Frederick Beuchner). Jesus goes to the desert, that scorched, barren land. We begin our journey with Ash Wednesday, with scorched ashes from last season's palms that we used on Palm Sunday. Richard Pervo points out that it is a journey that starts in ash and ends in flames (think Pentecost). Along the way of our spiritual path, we will face similar temptations to the ones that Jesus faced.

The first temptation is so basic: basic sustenance, stones turned into bread. Most of us in the first world find ourselves caught up in a whirlwind of earning money. Why do we earn money? Well, of course, we need to cover our basic needs: food, shelter, clothing. But most of us have far more than we'll ever use. If you're like me, you have a multiple sizes of clothes in your closet, and even if you stayed within one size, you've probably got a month's worth of clothes that you could wear before you'd have to repeat. If you're like me, you've got a month's worth of food in the fridge and pantry, even when it's not hurricane season. If you're like most Americans, you have several cars, several computers, several televisions. Maybe you even have several houses.

In this time of Lent, it's worth the time to assess our relationship with our stuff.  All of our possessions require time and upkeep and money.  What might we gain by going back to the basics of providing for ourselves what we need and sharing our excess with others?  How can we trust that God will provide for more of our needs so that we don't have to work ourselves into a state of total exhaustion to do it?

Jesus is then tempted with power, and it's the rare person I've met who doesn't wrestle with questions of status and fame--and the power that comes with it. Even if you wouldn't sell your family or your self to be on TV, you've probably felt this temptation--or envy, because you weren't someone getting offers of fame and fortune. 

We don't seem to have very many people who are famous because of their breathtaking charity or their ability to bring light to a darkening world.  In a world where it's possible to be famous for being famous or related to famous people, how might our culture be different if we celebrated those who had brought light into the world? 

The third temptation shows the danger of succumbing to the second temptation: once we become wealthy and powerful, we're likely to forget that we're not God.  We use our money to insulate us, but we forget how fortunate we are to have that money. We begin to think that we earn that money because we're so talented, so capable, so educated--for many of us, the fact that we have one job over another is largely a matter of luck.

In our society, money makes us feel powerful. Fame makes us feel powerful. Acclaim makes us feel powerful. And these temptations take us away from God, where the true power lies. We want to think we can do everything on our own. We want to be like God--all powerful. We need to remember the words of John the Baptist: "I am not the Messiah."
We could also read this temptation as the yearning to control God.  How often do we pray in an attempt to control God? Maybe we pray for specific results to a problem. Maybe we pray for things we want, even if it's something that seems good, like an end to world hunger. Most of us aren't very patient with God's time scale. We wish God would just hurry up and show us the Divine Plan.

We need to look to the model of our savior, who also wrestled with temptation. We need to be resolute in our refusal.

The beauty of the cyclical nature of liturgical life is that it is full of chances to turn around. Even if you recognize that you've given in to these temptations or the many other temptations the world offers, it's not too late. God calls us to return. God gives us any number of welcome home parties. God waits patiently, like the father of the prodigal son. And God knows that we will stray again. Like keeping to a sensible eating plan, this spiritual path requires more vigilance than we can sustain all the time. And yet, the struggle to wage this spiritual warfare will yield results eventually.

Welcome to Lent, the season of ash and penitence. Repent, return, retool your lives. It is time again to commit to resurrection, to submit to the purifying flames of Pentecost. Turn away from the ashes and towards the light.

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