The Gospel lesson for this week is Mark 4:1-11, which you can read here. It occurs to me that Satan is acting a little bit like an internet troll in this passage. He’s purposely putting a shallow spin on things, trying to move away from the deeper truths that can transform us to shallow details that are not really the point, in order to goad Jesus into abandoning his mission.
I can almost imagine their conversation happening on Facebook:
Satan: Okay, you say you’re the Son of God, so prove it.
Jesus: Prove it?
Satan: Yeah. Jump off the Empire State Building so I can watch the angels save you.
Jesus: Um…it doesn’t work like that?
Satan: Yeah. I thought so. Nice try, loser. If you’re the Son of God, so’s my cat.
Or something. But of course, the exchange wouldn’t happen on Facebook. Everybody knows Jesus does a Facebook fast during Lent.
I don’t mean to be unduly flip. It’s just that I have traditionally had a hard time placing this story in my life. I’ve probably read or heard this account 30 or 40 times, maybe more. And I’m almost always thinking something along the lines of “Oh, this story is to show us how exceptional Jesus is. When he goes off into the wilderness, he’s so important that the devil himself goes to try to thwart everything.”
I don’t usually think of those temptations as particularly relevant to me—after all, I’ve never been able to turn stones to bread, and I’ve never had any experiences that persuade me to try the Jumping From a High Place So Angels Will Catch You And Gently Lift You To The Ground Without A Scratch thing either.
But it does occur to me that if I try to get below the surface of the three temptations that are mentioned, I’ve managed to give in to all of them. Because really, what is Satan saying with his symbolic suggestions? I don’t think it’s really about bread. I think the temptations are stand-ins for attitudes that put us at odds with God’s will and authority in our own lives. (And if you’re thinking, “Well, duh,” here, you’re right. I can be terribly obtuse about things that have always been obvious to everyone else.)
First, we worry that God won’t take care of us (the bread). Second, we recklessly abandon our responsibility for our own lives, throwing up our hands and saying, God’s in control so there’s nothing I can do (the cliff diving). And third, we decide for ourselves what God should want from our lives, and start pursuing that to the exclusion of all other concerns (the Satan-worship).
I’d even go so far as to say that these aren’t three different temptations at all, but the same one, presented in three different ways. Essentially, I think it boils down to keeping things in the right perspective. So, when I’m given over to worry, I need to remember that I’m not the one in charge here. And when I’m overwhelmed by the enormity of what my life seems to be requiring of me, I need to remember to stay engaged. And when I look around me and see people who seem to be doing this whole life thing better than me (for me, this mostly comes up around the wonderful people I know who have actually managed to publish their novels), I need to find my perspective again.
It’s tough, because that perspective sits somewhere in the middle of the first two concerns: I belong to God, and he will take care of me, but I need to act on his behalf out in the world—he’s not going to do it all for me.
I think we all find “somewhere in the middle” a hard place to be. How do you know when you need to be trusting God to provide, and when you need to be baking bread? When do you, like Kierkegaard said, step off the cliff in the fog, and when do hang back and wait because you’re on treacherous terrain?
At the extremes, the rules are clearer, and there are teams to join. There are the die-hard Republicans and the Bernie or Bust Democrats. There are the religion-is-destroying-the-world atheists and the my-denomination-is-the-only-one-that-gets-it-right Christians (or Muslims or *insert any religion here*). Anti-vaxxer? You’ve got a team. Anti-anti-vaxxer? You’ll find lots of friends.
But subtlety doesn’t lend itself to tribalism. Positions that are complicated and nuanced are hard to sell to the masses. There’s always some rabble-rouser happy to shut a person down:
“Oh, so you believe that God will take care of you, huh? Well, then, he won’t mind if you make yourself some bread, will he? Oh, it’s not as simple as that? I guess God was for bread before he was against it.”
It doesn’t matter that the rabble-rouser is purposely misunderstanding. It doesn’t matter that God knows each of us intimately, individually, and without a need for sweeping generalization. The world will always try to section us off, and claim us for itself. It shouts, Getting children vaccinated is the Most Important Thing! Equal rights for everyone is the Most Important Thing! Feeding the hungry is the Most Important Thing! Stopping abortions is the Most Important Thing! Trusting God to provide the bread is the Most Important Thing! Working for God in the world is the Most Important Thing!
If this morning’s Gospel lesson says anything, it says that keeping a God-centered perspective is the most important thing. So I’ll be hanging out here somewhere in the middle, making bread when God provides the means to buy flour and yeast. I believe it’s where we all end up. And I’m glad. After all, we’re on the same team.