Another foray into the 2011 ForeWords archive:
If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the debate about public schools and holding administrators and teachers accountable, you know that standardized testing is at the core of the discussion. Teachers and principals are increasingly being judged almost solely on how well their students do each year, generally in the spring. Some folks go so far as to say a teacher is a good teacher or a bad one simply as a result of that once-yearly testing. Teacher tenure, they further contend, exists merely to protect “bad” teachers (and here I must interject the opposite position that tenure is actually designed and meant to guarantee due process instead—but, of course, that’s another huge issue, best dealt with elsewhere). [Full disclosure: If you didn’t already know, I’m happily married to a now-retired schoolteacher.]
In our Western culture in which so-called objective data by and large reigns supreme, it’s not surprising that such “one and done” testing becomes the quickest way to judge success or failure. For students, passing the test means they can continue on with their schooling. For school administrators and teachers, “passing grades” (this year, next year, and the years after that) means they can keep their jobs. With all that as cultural background (or is it baggage?), let’s turn our attention to the lectionary scripture passages for this first Sunday in Lent.
The word “temptation” is most often used, but actually the story of Jesus in the wilderness and the corresponding story of Adam and Eve in the garden (with strong hints of Moses’ 40 days on the mountaintop looking out over the promised land and Israel’s 40 years of wandering in Sinai’s wilderness and, much later on, in a much different kind of wilderness: Babylonian exile) are more correctly about “testing.” The first consideration with these stories, however, is that none of them is really a “one and done” experience: Pass this test and you can move on to a carefree life, a biblical version of “happily ever after.” Notice that Jesus was not tempted/tested because he somehow departed from God’s will. No, he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. This fascinating story is often cited by well-meaning religious folk who think God sends the devil or at least allows “him” free reign to put personal or private enticements in their way. That could be anything from cheating on income tax forms, hiding bottles of gin around the house for solitary escapes of drunken stupor, or perhaps a hooker down at the No Tell Motel.
Rather, what’s happening with Jesus out in the wilderness during those 40 days after his baptism has nothing to do with private morality. It has everything to do with the nature and shape of his ministry once he gets back in town. Sure, these three separate scenes make for great theater, and fine sermons can be—and have been!—preached about denouncing the tempting offers of the devil or the power of evil or whatever name you want to insert here. But it’s also worth noting that Jesus later on fed a multitude of hungry people using a small basketful of loaves and fishes, he healed the sick and raised the dead, and publicly confronted the religious and political authorities in the Temple hierarchy and in Pontius Pilate’s court. On the surface those events look and sound an awful lot like what the devil was trying to get Jesus to do out in the wilderness. But that’s not the point here! Here’s what renowned preacher Fred Craddock had to say about this in a 1990 Christian Century article:
“Jesus survives the test in the desert and moves into ministry in Galilee. And how so? Not simply by quoting Scripture (Deut. 6:13; 6:16; 8:3), although the Scriptures were for him an enormous source of strength. The sword of the spirit is the Word of God (Eph. 6:17). Neither was Jesus’ victory in the desert achieved by denouncing the tempting offers. On the contrary, in the course of his ministry he did feed the poor, he did perform wonders among the people, his ministry did have and continues to have enormous political impact. Rather, Jesus’ response to every test was to refuse to try to be like God or to be God. As Paul put it, he ‘did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant’ (Phil. 2:6-7). He did not use the power of the spirit to claim exemption or to avoid the painful difficulties of the path of service. He did not use God to claim something for himself. And it was this serving, suffering, dying Jesus whom God vindicated by raising him from the dead. A church too fond of power, place and claims would do well to walk in his steps.”
No, the testing and tempting of Jesus did not end in the wilderness but came back repeatedly throughout his earthly ministry. Remember that Simon Peter even advised Jesus to avoid the cross. Certainly as we begin the 40 days of Lent it’s worth noting what’s just beyond the horizon: Jesus’ wrenching, sweating-blood time in Gethsemene. Yes, it was the same temptation/test put before Adam and Eve by the serpent: “You can become like God!” And that’s the very same temptation/test for the church today.
There are those who believe the kingdom of God on earth can be achieved through the actions of a big, powerful, influential institutional church. But how is that any different from the Christendom begun by Emperor Constantine? I count myself among those who contend we’re now in a post-Christendom era–and that’s a good thing! The kingdom cannot be forced by human effort, particularly humans who’ve come to think of themselves as “gods.” Such people, of course, have no room for struggle or doubt in their religiosity—in fact, those are actually seen as proof of spiritual weakness.
This week we’ve started out on our annual journey of Lent, fully aware of where it’s leading us. We, too, are challenged to minister as did Jesus: healing, feeding, comforting, confronting. Where will it get us? Most likely to our own Gethsemene, then to pick up and bear our own crosses. What a crazy bunch of believers we are! What happens in the wilderness does not stay in the wilderness. We—as did Jesus and that great cloud of witnesses that connects us to him—carry it with us daily.
My book, What Was Paul Thinking? (Isaac’s Press, 2010) is available at both Amazon.com and Barnes& Noble.com in print ($10) and e-book ($5.99) editions. If you’ve ever wondered just what Apostle Paul was getting at (and let’s face it, Paul can be hard to understand and appreciate at times) this is a good place to start.