"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, March 06, 2009

Behold! I no can haz....

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry.

And the tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread."

But he answered, "It is written, 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"

Then the devil took him to the holy city, and set him on the pinnacle of the temple,

and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will give his angels charge of you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'"

Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'You shall not tempt the Lord your God.'"

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them;

and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me."

Then Jesus said to him, "Begone, Satan! for it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.'"

Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and ministered to him. --Matthew 4:1-11
The problem with the old, familiar stories is that they grow too old, and too familiar. I was re-reading these verses for the umpteenth time at the beginning of Lent and the "behold" snagged me, dragged me back, slowed me down, made me think. This is the premise of lectio divina, but I didn't subject the word to that kind of meditation. I didn't open my spirit to it. I just stopped, and looked at it, and beheld.

Had it always been there? Was it a quirk of the translation? No; it's there, in the original Greek. ἰδού (idou); a word, one lexicon tells me, used in imitation of the Hebrew style, and used to draw particular attention to what is said. "Behold!" In Luke, the angel uses it (ἰδού) to underline to the shepherds that they are there with news of great joy that will be for all people. Here, Matthew uses it to emphasize, not the nature and character of the temptations, or that Jesus overcame them, but that he was rewarded for his efforts: "and behold, angels came and ministered to him."

Well, of course they did, we think today. He was Jesus! But behold; because it isn't that simple.

Jesus has been led by the spirit; but he's left alone there, for 40 days (the Biblical equivalent to "a long time," not necessarily for a 40 risings and settings of the sun), and then the tempter comes, who first demands a show of power ("Make these stones into bread; satisfy your humanity by making use of your divinity"), and then demands a show of faith: "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will give his angels charge of you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'" The devil, as they say, can cite Scripture to his own purposes, and here he does, relying on the Psalms (Psalm 91, in case you were wondering). But no angels come, and Jesus is not tempted.

The last temptation is the temptation of politics, of power: you can run everything the way you want. You can be God on earth, and set everything right. The only price is that your worship me, instead of God. For the third time Jesus cites Scripture to refuse the temptation, and finally the tempter withdraws. And behold!

It's that ἰδού that grabs me. As if it weren't a foregone conclusion; as if the temptations weren't a set piece proving nothing, as if the angels weren't just waiting in the wings for their cue to come on stage. Behold! ἰδού He didn't just pass the test; he didn't just fail to be tempted. The angels came because...well, because of his faith. Or, we might say today: because of his faithfulness. Behold! Because this is what it leads to; because it isn't just a good story, it's a good outcome. And maybe the outcome matters as much as the story

The angels came, and they ministered to him. If he was really good, maybe they even brought him a chezburger.


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