Going too far . . . or not far enough?

Text: Matthew 4:1-11 (Jesus tempted in the wilderness)

What did you think of the translation of today’s Gospel reading? Taken from John Henson’s 2004 translation of the New Testament titled “Good As New: A Radical Retelling of the Scriptures,” it translates the Greek word for the Devil into the fears and desires of Jesus. Do you find this translation refreshing or heretical; and did it make the passage more or less meaningful for you?

Translation is not an optional question for those who take the Bible seriously. The books of the Bible were written in ancient Hebrew or Greek. We don’t know the exact words of these texts because we only have handwritten copies of copies of copies of them, and none of these copies exactly match with any of the others. So, we rely on the best guesses of scholars as to what the original words might have been; and unless we know Hebrew or Greek, we rely on the work of translators to read them.

I appreciate the effort of John Henson to restate the Gospels without supernatural elements. At the same time, I don’t take his translation, or any of the hundreds of other ones, as definitive.

As in all translations, today’s passage shows Jesus dealing with three temptations: 1) to turn stones into bread; 2) to rely upon God to prevent physical harm and death; and 3) to rule the world.

When temptation is discussed in church, the focus is often on our actions as individuals and on personal sins we sometimes commit. But after some thought, I have also made some connections between the temptations faced by Jesus and sins that are more social than personal.

The first – to turn stones into bread – reminds me current disputes over resource development; the second — about being saved by God from a terrifying fall – reminds me of how we tend to deny our mortality; and the third – about controlling the world – reminds me of war and imperialism.

In Alberta today, “turning stones into bread” could mean fossil fuels. Alberta is blessed with huge deposits of coal, gas, and oil. But do we have to turn all of these stones into bread? Do we need to generate more profits from petrochemicals so that they can be turned into cars and highways, parking lots and power centres, and auto body shops and car insurance firms . . . and into the sprawling suburbs that make the previous items necessary?

Fossil fuels are the remains of ancient forests that have been trapped in the crust of the earth for more than 100 million years. Over the last 200 years, humans have discovered many of these deposits and have burned them as quickly as they can be mined. But should we continue on this path even though climate science says that the resultant carbon pollution is making the world uninhabitable?

Given the stakes, I wonder why our governments don’t declare a moratorium on fossil fuel development – perhaps for five years, or fifty, or even a thousand. Coal, oil, and gas have been lying in the crust of the earth for millions of years. So, what is the rush, I wonder, to extract them so quickly?

Well, just asking this question reveals the strength of the temptation to “turn stone into bread.” Competition ensures that the world economy grows without limits. We enjoy many of the consequences of this growth as evidenced in all the delights of modern, technological life, while others of the consequences, such as habitat destruction and climate change, we don’t like. But since no global mechanism exists to eliminate competition — or to at least turn it toward forms of development that don’t involve releasing carbon – I am sure the world’s fossil fuel “stones” will continue to be turned into “bread,” our climate be damned. This has little to do with the choices made by individuals and more to do with how the world is organized.

Natural resources are also developed as quickly as possible because of the third temptation. A country either grows in population, money wealth, and military power, or it is conquered. If Canada were to decide to turn its back on rapid resource development in favour of happiness and love, other countries would not long leave us alone. Since this is the case, the temptation of imperialism is another one we seem powerless to resist; and similar to endless economic growth, it leads to a sin that is more about how the world is organized than about what we do as individuals.

The middle temptation – of ignoring one’s fragility and mortality – helps to strengthen the others, I think. All individuals and human institutions are mortal. But a strong tendency to deny this reality is well-nigh universal. Nevertheless, the call of Lent is to wake up to our mortal reality.

When, with grace, we respond to this call and take up our cross to follow Jesus, we also open ourselves to greater love and joy. Accepting our mortality can help us rise above the desires and fears of our egos, and to embrace the beauty of the eternal web of life of which we are one tiny part.

There is very little we can do as individuals about endless economic growth. But when we wake up to our individual and social reality, we can better build a counter-cultural community like this one that upholds values of compassion, solidarity, and love. Doing so will not “save the earth.” But it can help us find respite from the pressures of consumerism and give us the energy to imagine that another world is possible.

There is very little we can do about living in a matrix of competing nation states. But waking up to our mortality can help us find the courage to stand in solidarity with all of humanity instead of just our “own” nation or empire. Such a shift won’t immediately stop war or lead to a global system that is more humane. But it can help us embrace the blessings of other people regardless of their cultural background or nationality.

So, this is some of what I think about Lent and today’s Gospel passage; and now it’s your turn. I suggest that we take a few minutes to share with one, two, or three neighbours.

Do you appreciate Lent with its focus on temptation and repentance? Do you find today’s reading on three temptations useful? And do you have any reactions to the analogies I draw between these temptations and resource development, denial of mortality, and imperialism?

No one is obligated to share. But I now invite us to spend three or four minutes talking with a friend or two. I will gather with Bryan and Len, and then I will call us back to the centre . . .

Thank you for engaging in that exercise.

Friends, the world is filled with temptations, many of which are baked into the structure of our society. Happily, in their journey to Jerusalem, Jesus and his friends model how to confront and embrace mortality and to rise from this confrontation to a new life of love with values different from those of the dominant culture.

In the new life that we seek at Easter, I pray that a logic different from endless economic growth and imperialism will take root in our hearts and help us to find others who want to follow a logic of love.

May it be so. Amen.