Thursday, 11 February 2016

Tangled Interpretations and Temptations

For Feb. 14, 2016. Psalm 91, Deut. 26:1-11, Luke 4:1-13, Romans 10:5-15

I took the dirty kitchen laundry home after the youth groups' Shrove Tuesday pancake fundraiser at church. When I pulled them out of the washer, the aprons strings were incredibly snarled, tied up in a Celtic-knot bundle with the long sleeves of one of Tim's nice shirts. It was a tricky un-tie job so they could go into the dryer!

The story of the temptation of Jesus, read every year during Lent, is also a tangle. The story is full of different strings we could follow,  There are so many interpretations, images, mythologies, parallels, and applications tangled up here. It's also a story so familiar, that one wonders whether there is anything new to be gleaned from it.

This is a story chock-full of opportunities for a preacher, there is so much packed into 13 verses. Should I focus on the parallels with other "40" stories? (Israel 40 years in the wilderness, 40 days of rain for Noah, 40 days fasting for Moses, Elijah's 40 days in flight to the mountain, ...), the anthropomorphising of the devil, (the whole good vs evil and what is the devil), meticulous interpretation of each of the temptations, ancient literary form analysis, (contest of wits), or a discussion of what the temptations look like to us today?

This is such a tangle, which string do I pick at first? Is pulling on this one going to help unsnarl things, or tighten up the troubles?

Personally, I do not want to interpret this story in blacks and whites. I don't think it is so very clear. I have some trouble with the way the "devil" is so conveniently and completely demonized. (That sentence sounds funny-demonizing the devil!) The word "devil" is problematic, because we right away imagine a horned, pointy eared, goatee wearing, goat-legged, red male with a pitchfork. That characterization means that we can dismiss what the devil suggests as completely evil. But that isn't quite right. These temptations are real and...tempting. They flirt with danger rather than marry it. If they were completely and obviously evil they wouldn't so hard to resist.

I find it more helpful to replace the word "devil" with words like "adversary", "slanderer", "deceiver"...and others like that. (These are actually good translations of the Greek. The word devil is only one of the possible translations/interpretations.) I find it more helpful, because then I admit I am not always able to discern what is right and what is wrong. The world of temptation is not always clear. Temptation is difficult stuff, a bunch of strings twirling around in the wash. How do we keep things clear, workable, healthy, faithful?

The temptations Jesus faced were very real, very tempting. They made sense in some practical ways. Here he is, just baptized, full of the Holy Spirit (verse1), contemplating his goals and how to get to them. The adversary offers realistic choices. It would be much easier for Jesus to gain his following if he were the provider of bread, or a charismatic and powerful head of state, or a celebrity whom angels miraculously protect. All these means to the end, however, are deceptive and somewhat coercive. They don't require followers to believe or do anything other than to jump onto the new bandwagon!

I will highlight two things I found strengthening as I read this story again. One is that Jesus is full of the Holy Spirit throughout the whole testing and temptation. The Spirit never leaves him alone to face tough decisions.God does not leave us alone either. The second is that the most beguiling temptations will come to us when we are weak. That is when the voice of escape or the easy path is strongest. When we are at the bottom in our wilderness experience it is hard to make good decisions. Jesus still manages it. We can too. (I take courage in knowing Jesus was human, he easily could have made a wrong choice, but he did not.) I've sometimes heard people interpret this story by saying that Jesus was too God-like to fall to temptation here. I don't think so. This is encouraging precisely because it was real temptation and it was (is) humanly possible to resist.

Finally, the deceiver leaves Jesus alone; "until an opportune time" (verse13). That is a foreshadowing, possibly to the time in the garden when Jesus prays for the cup to be taken from him (an easier way out), but he is able to resist that temptation too.

Question: How do you handle temptation, especially when you are at a low point in your life? Who helps you sort it out?

For a great podcast that engages the Luke 4 story of the temptations, click the link below.

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