The following is a sermon delivered in Muelder Chapel, Boston University School of Theology, on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2008. This sermon was prepared for the weekly interdenominational celebration of Eucharist. The reading was Matthew 4:1-11, the lectionary Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent.
There is a song we sing every Sunday at Common Cathedral, the outdoor church for homeless persons, and it goes like this:
Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness
And all these things will be added unto you
I know that it is Lent, and as a good Catholic I know that, technically, we are not supposed to sing any alleluias during Lent, though I just did. You see what attending a progressive Methodist seminary has done to me … it’s made me a liturgical maverick. Anyway, I’ll leave it to Professor Westerfield Tucker to decide whether the inclusion or omission of alleluias is more theologically appropriate, and I will seek absolution for my liturgical transgression in a Catholic confessional at the earliest possible occasion. In the meantime,
Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness
And all these things will be added unto you
This, to me, is the moral of today’s Scripture reading. These words come from Matthew 6:33, deep in the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. Wise words from a brilliant teacher. How do they sound to you? Coming from my tongue, surely not as astounding or as profound as they must have sounded coming from Jesus, the one who taught with authority. How do you suppose the great crowds of people who followed Jesus from Galilee to Judea knew he spoke with such authority? How do you think they could tell? What did they feel? I don’t think it was by the healings alone that they were convinced of his authority. Rather, they believed what he taught because they saw Jesus embodying this holy wisdom in his own struggle to be faithful to God. And his struggle was just like theirs. There is a freshness and immediacy to the wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount that I believe comes right out of Jesus’ experience of testing, from the beginning of his ministry and throughout his ministry, up to the cross.
I want to focus on the beginning of his ministry, and this brings me to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation. The narrative comes to us in the form of a haggadic tale and resembles the challenges given to Jesus by the scribes and Jewish leaders later in this Gospel. All of these stories were crafted in such a way as to demonstrate the continuity of Jesus’ ministry with the ministry of Moses and the prophetic tradition of the Israelites. While Matthew has an axe to grind against the Jewish authorities, especially Pharisees, it should be kept in mind that the evangelist was positively emphasizing the Jewish roots of Jesus. His quotation of Deuteronomy in the dialogue with Satan is in keeping with Matthew’s desire to prove Jesus’ saving fidelity to Yahweh’s covenant with us. And this covenant faithfulness is exactly what is at stake in the temptation narrative. Would Jesus, proclaimed at his baptism God’s own Son, who had passed through the waters of his own Exodus, rely on God and God wholly and completely? Where generations of Israelites before him failed to hold fast to the providence of the Lord, could he endure courageously, faithfully in the wilderness of sin and doubt? Would he seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness?
Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert to be tested by God and tempted by the devil. Now let me be clear: I don’t think this is another case of divine child abuse. The plain sense of the text tells me that Jesus let himself be led by the Spirit of God. But this does not mean the Spirit of God tempted Jesus or was pleased to see Jesus suffer. He was tested by God, and to this testing he consented, but the temptation was not of God. God leads us always back to God, even if the journey leads us into tests and trials, but God does not lead us into temptation. God does not seduce or deceive us with the world God created to be good. Only we can do that; we let our natural desires be distorted into mindless passions, and we become acquainted with the demons. So testing and tempting are different things. God led Jesus into a confrontation with temptation, and Jesus found himself face to face, as do we all, with the devil’s seductions.
Now, why are the devil’s seductions temptations? Relieving hunger is a good thing. Self-sacrifice, when undertaken to realize a virtue or ideal, can be a good thing. Putting power in the hands of people whose hearts burn for justice is a good thing. But listen to Wendy Farley, who writes, “You see how tricky the demons can be. Wanting to be good, trying to be good—these are also temptations. There is a sense in which wanting and trying to be good can be good things, just as morality, self-sacrifice, and love can be good things. But all of these things are ways the demons try to get us to accept their bargain.” Farley is saying that in our insatiable desire for the good, we are blinded to the source of goodness, and we end up grasping at fragments of goodness, fragments of the divine mystery, and then we lose ourselves. Satan dares Jesus to seek fragments of God—God’s power, God’s protection, and God’s glory—for himself, not for God’s sake, or even for the sake of others. First, the devil provokes Jesus to turn stones into loaves of bread only to satisfy his own aching craving. Some commentators propose that the devil tempts Jesus to transform the stones in order to feed others, but this would only confirm Farley’s point that we are tempted by the good. Later, Jesus performs a miracle just as wonderful, multiplying a few loaves and fishes to feed the thousands, but there is a difference. There, he does so to satisfy the people’s hungry hearts, not only their hungry stomachs, and he does it to bring the masses closer to God. Neither Jesus’ appetite nor his desire for God and for others would have been satisfied had Jesus changed the stones in the desert, and Jesus would have lost sight of his Lord. Thwarted once, the devil then tempts Jesus to throw himself down from the Temple in order to be saved. Another temptation to the good—don’t we long to see some sign that God is powerfully protecting us, watching over and within us, supervising creation, gently but surely guiding us, rejoicing and mourning with us, deeply present with us in the face of suffering great and small? Wouldn’t a miracle rescue of the Son of God by the angels be just the awesome display of might that the Judeans needed, and wouldn’t that strike the hearts of the Roman occupiers with terror? Jesus would not give in to the devil’s delusions. This kind of self-sacrifice would be vanity and vexation of the Spirit, and it would be in vain: acts of faith can never be used to extort favor from God. Later, upon the cross, Jesus refused once again to give in to this temptation. In being raised upon the cross, Jesus let himself truly be thrown down, but not to save himself or Israel or even to prove he was the Son of God, but because he loved others, and by his pierced, crushed hands he would support others just as the angels supported him in the wilderness after being tested and found worthy. Finally, the devil offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. Jesus answers, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” He knew that to accept this offer would mean trading the genuine glory of God’s rule for the ungodly grandeur of empire. Instead of accepting the world for himself, Jesus Christ in his glory finally bestows the nations upon his disciples, fulfilling his own proclamation: blessed are those the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God; blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. He will give the world to the disciples so that all things may be given to their God. Jesus does not claim anything for himself except as granted to him by God whom he called his Father, and he offers even these things back to the Father in bestowing them to the disciples.
Satan insinuates that Jesus is being less than the Son of God if he does not demonstrate or lay claim to his divine power. “If you are the Son of God,” the devil begins twice, knowing full well who Jesus is and what Jesus can do. Farley says we are deceived into thinking we are worthless if we do not give ourselves over to the good we think we should be doing. In fact, we sell ourselves short, because we are denying the precious and beautiful persons we have already been created to be. And this is the basic temptation to which we always yield. That is one of the morals of the story of the Fall in Genesis. The man and woman, presented with the tantalizing possibility of being like the gods, of grasping the divine power, were in fact denying the spirit of God that was already within them. They could not delight in the gifts with which they had already been graced. They counted them of little worth, and as a result they suffered a wounding of their personhood and a separation from the divine Spirit.
But Jesus remembered. He remembered the covenant. He trusted in the Lord. He trusted in his own sacred worth and infinite dignity. He rejected the temptation to reject the reign of God within him and the justice of God around him. And his victory is our hope. God has drawn near to us in Jesus’ confrontation with sin, suffering, and doubt, and we can draw power from the person who we confess is the Son of God. Moreover, Jesus’ fully human struggle, in obedience to God and rebellion against the world, is not a distant cosmic ideal but our immediate flesh-and-blood model. So let us not seek the stony bread of security but the sweet bread and roses of solidarity; let us not seek terrifying and terrorizing displays of monolithic force but the constructive and healing exercise of communal power; let us not seek the consolidation of social, economic, political, cultural, and religious empires but the creation of the beloved community.
Jesus teaches us a simple but hard-won wisdom. Seek ye first the kingdom, the kindom, the reign of God, the peace of God. Don’t seek the power, the prestige, and the glory for its own sake. Don’t mistake the glimpse of God for some unfiltered beatific vision, for we see only in part, and what we grasp is but a filament in the strong web of interdependent being. And check yourself before you conclude that you are all right just because you believe you are seeking, glimpsing, and grasping these things for others. Don’t be tempted by false altruism; don’t be tempted the good. Seek ye first the kingdom of God. God will give us the power, the glory, and the miracles of love and justice we desire and for which this hurting world yearns when first we seek after the source of all good things. And this seeking is not so much a grasping for godliness as much as it is a growing into oneself and a growing into relationship with our God. Amen.