Jesus embodies spiritual practices necessary for our wise handling of life. Let’s begin this Lenten period to read what is written all around us and to find what is necessary to live a Christlike response to being human.
As we begin the Lenten journey we will discover texts and stories we know well. We may have already decided what these texts tell us, what they are about and what they reveal about the Easter story we will soon hear. They fit a narrative we have breathed in over many years and a narrative that has informed our daily living and our worship/faith story. It is now so familiar we have forgotten it’s nuances and finer points, and may have difficulty in identifying how it influences our live.
Yet there are many, if not the majority of our present day society, to whom these familiar stories are foreign and unknown. A student at the school where I was chaplain said that if she hadn’t gone to the school she would not have known about Jesus let alone the Easter story. There was no family history of church, Sunday School or religion. Easter was just another embedded public holiday with no particular significance for her and her family. This was true of most of the students and when we began to read and unpack these stories it was a revelation for them.
While it was a revelation for them, the ideas within these stories were not immediately or readily understood. Living in a society where success, recognition and power were the valued goals and most were working for through good exam results, successful businesses or being discovered as a musical or sporting protégé, they found the ideas in todays story unimaginable.
Who, in their right mind, would say no to immediate gratification, adoration by the masses or the power to do just as you pleased? Who in their right mind would put themselves in a place to have to even confront such ideas? Who would decide for a way of life that put you at odds with all that you were being taught by an education system committed to a consumerist world?
The danger for those who hear or read this story is that we place it firmly in the Jesus tradition and see it as a story relevant only to his experience and the fact he was God incarnate and therefore responded to the challenges by conforming to type. It was inevitable he would reject these seemingly external temptations by a personalised evil.
The idea this was a battle between ultimate good and ultimate evil lets us off the hook. We may presume we do not have to face such questions for we are but ordinary human beings without the power or the options of Jesus. If we read Jesus with a high Christology, in other words as one whose divinity reigns above his humanity, then we find little in which to relate to in this story.
If we read Jesus with a lower Christology, where his humanity is as important as his divinity, we begin to understand this story as not only relevant to us, but as our own personal story. The decisions and developing self-awareness Jesus experiences are akin to the decisions and developing self awareness we experience as we move through the various seasons of our own human life.
Jesus goes into the desert to make sense of the events of his baptism – John, the call to repentance and the voice from above. This deep spiritual experience unnerves him and he needs time and space, a lot of time and space as indicated by the words 40 days and nights (a long time), to make sense of it all. He has to wrestle with his human needs and desires and find a way to reconcile his awareness of God’s call on his life.
The temptations mentioned are a summation of the many different and difficult questions he faced, some minute in impact, others of great consequence. They are not just boxes to tick in Matthew’s attempt to define Jesus as the one expected, but are representative of the battles human beings face if they are serious about living lives committed to wholeness in relationships and experience.
At some point in our lives we have to make decisions about the importance of objects such as money and possessions, of objects such as success in work and life, of objects such as power and control over others; the failure to address these issues results in these questions returning unresolved in violence, anger, frustration and more.
Domestic violence, child abuse, racial vilification, persecution and more are examples of a failure to answer these questions effectively or not to answer them at all. Ignorance does not excuse us for our behaviour. At some point these are questions that come up in wedding vows, adulthood, communal living and more and if we fail to confront them they will not just go away. Our subsequent life will be in some punctuated by their breaking in on our lives.
Jesus understood this and confronted these questions with the experience of the saints and the scriptures. He resorted to tradition, both lived by others and experienced in the natural world – “it is written” – not just words on a page but words in lives and the created environment. Tradition in this context is the lived experience of those who translated their experience to oral and ultimately written record. He was not standing against these inner urges based on his own limited life experience, but reaching back to the community of saints who had found proven ways to deal with human nature.
In this way the desert confrontation is one of human experience versus the base desires within each human being. This is the universal challenge commenced at the beginning of creation and continuing today. It is the evolutionary urge for wholeness and the conflict of random chance, order and adaptation.
Imagine for a moment how different the Jesus story, our meta-narrative would be, if Jesus had responded differently to the questions being human asks? Image for a moment how different our lives would be if Jesus had agreed to follow his basic interests and left each person to find their own way? Now some will say this could never have happened for Jesus was God’s Son, God incarnate; but may well have happened because Jesus was also human, every bit as human as you and I.
“It is written”, the tradition of the communion of saints sits at the core of Jesus response to being human, it also sits at the centre of our own. Reading the Biblical stories or spiritual biographies and reflections, retaining the values and parameters of faith and experience, and spending time in reflection with a spiritual guide or mentor all help us to make our responses to the temptations of being human. We cannot do it alone and neither did Jesus. He was surrounded by nature, the image of God in creation, by angels and by the Holy Spirit, he was surrounded by the saints. “It is written” everywhere for us and our guidance. The temptation is to rely on our own experience and feelings and to ignore those who have made this journey before and with us – people, places and creatures.