Lent 1A, 2002
A Liturgy is also available
THE TEMPTATION TO DO GOOD?
What a appropriate outback story in this the Year of the Outback!
Jesus is led into the outback, into the desert.
No McDonald’s just around the corner.
No Toyota 4-wheel drive to get him through the flooded creeks.
No fleecy lined sleeping bag or Sundowner tent
to keep out the wind and dust storms.
He must live off the land and his own wits to survive.
If they were to make a TV series about it,
they would probably be tempted to call it ‘Survivor’!
And during that experience Jesus is tested.
He is urged to perform miracles and the like
in order that good events would come to pass.
Yes, tested, tempted, to do... good!
Now I suspect most of us are not used to that kind of thinking about ‘temptations’.
We’re used to thinking of temptations as something bad.
Usually morally ‘bad’, and connected with the abuse of alcohol, or
a member of the opposite gender. (If you happen to be an Australian footballer)!
Yet the options that were waved under Jesus’ nose, says Matthew,
are all based on three popular views of the Messiah, current at that time:
wonder worker, and
source of power.
And they all would result in ‘good’, as opposed to bad or evil.
The hungry would be fed.
People would be led back to God.
The countries of the world would experience peace and justice
under God’s imperial rule.
Sounds a lot like what we say every week in this congregation...
in the words in the spirit of the ‘Our Father’.
Yet this still doesn’t ring totally true.
So what is it that’s missing?
Maybe we should take a look at this story from another direction.
Let me offer a personal observation or two.
I find it particularly interesting that this week, this Lent, in this city,
our national Parliament began its new Session
faced with a protest against the government’s treatment
of asylum seekers - in the desert areas of Australia.
Each party also began this Session with a ‘wilderness’ experience of its own,
even if it was in the luxury of Parliament House,
seeking to define its ‘vocational ‘ focus for the next few months.
Months, when some of the most important and inflammatory issues
are likely to return to the political and Australian agenda.
Likewise, in Matthew’s ‘wilderness’ story, the focus of Jesus’ testing
is vocational rather than a lesson about private morality.
Indeed, according to the scholars of the Jesus Seminar,
they are a symbolic testing of the kind
not uncommon in the stories of the lives of great heroes
in the ancient world.
Take time out to face who you are and what is your calling!
Face up to the alternatives!
In Lent, in particular, we are reminded of the importance of doing so for ourselves.
This is something not just for heroes or political parties.
So what agenda might drive us?
Matthew tells a Jesus hero story about options and conflict and the inmost workings of Jesus’ mind.
So it is an imaginative story not a historical story.
And the major focus of this imaginative story,
influenced by what later Christians had come to believe about Jesus,
is on Jesus saying ‘no’ to certain models.
Models which not only might have been options for Jesus himself,
but also could have been models for those later Christians
seeking to follow in the way of Jesus,
such as Matthew’s own small community.
You are familiar with those options.
One option offered by ‘the hinderer’
is to gain followers through stunts or miracles.
A common option then and now, I’m afraid.
Another is to take the military option: achieve dominion by force.
While yet another could be to join the revolutionary movements of the day.
West Australian biblical scholar Bill Loader reminds us:
“Such traditions and expectations colour the gospel accounts of Jesus’ ministry. We can be sure that many would have listened to the fantasy of Jesus’ great trial with such things in mind” (WLoader web site, 2002).
All these options, Matthew takes from stories which were circulating
in his community about this itinerant preacher-sage.
Yet with a sense of real concern, he offers them
as a teaching opportunity to his group.
Teaching such as:
there will always be false gods - the will to power, materialism, and a spirituality of the sensational,
and saying ‘no’ to these other gods will require open and
honest discerning of what it is that God is about in the world.
There are plenty of spirituality's on offer today to each and every one of us.
Some of them are so-called secular - from within various political movements.
Some are religious - including from within Christianity.
Others get plenty of air time on late night radio talk-back programs
or display-space at conventions and special events.
Which is the way to go?
That can be the $64 question, can’t it!
Let me again offer some personal observations.
One way to go, is to retain a sense of critical theological reflection about what shapes our beliefs and church life.
Because ultimately what shapes our values and beliefs,
depends on what we understand God to be.
Belief in a God which is external, supernatural and invasive,
to borrow some words from Jack Spong,
is an entirely different understanding of God
as presentness, creativity, sacred, and mysterious.
Likewise, I am convinced we need to hear Matthew’s story
of the conflict between Jesus and ‘the hinderer’,
as a story about Jesus seeking to discover his own sense of vocation.
Not some pious statement about private morality,
often used to batter others with around the head.
But of sensing both what God/the Sacred is doing in human life
and discerning how he, Jesus, and other people
should creatively and compassionately respond.
And sometimes that meant for Jesus, as it will so often mean for us,
making a choice and saying a surprising ‘no’
to the temptation to do good.