+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The flirty, bawdy Mae West, probably Hollywood’s most notorious sex kitten in the ‘30s, maybe ever, described her life: “I was pure as the driven snow until I drifted.”
Mae West reveled in being a temptress, but most temptations are so much more complex than what she offered… as distinguished and marvelous as it was. Most temptations we encounter are far more subtle than seduction by a buxom blond.
We’re more likely to drift off course in trying to achieve something positive than pursuing something obviously evil. Sometimes, in order to do something positive, something good, we are tempted to do something bad. Sometimes we are tempted to do something good for a bad reason. Real temptation calls us to do things that are not all bad, but contain some good. Even Mae West whispering in your ear is luring you to something good, just in the wrong circumstances.
For centuries Christians have read the story of Jesus’ temptations on the first Sunday of Lent, the season of repentance, a time to take stock of our lives and the direction we’re headed, a time to concentrate on renewal. But too much emphasis on temptation can deform our sense of repentance. Temptation talk limits our understanding of repentance to its association with sin.
Lent is a time to deal with our sin, our separation from God, how we’ve missed the mark, but it’s a lot more than that as well. Lent is not just for moralists, not just for tsk-tsking. Repentance means more than being sorry that we’ve drifted and succumbed to temptation.
Mark summarized Jesus’ basic message as God’s kingdom, his rule of love has arrived. Repent. Believe the gospel. But we notice as we read the gospel that Jesus hung out with a lot of people whether they repented from their sins or not.
In ancient Palestine, controlled by the Romans, Jews considered tax collectors to be sinners. Tax collectors took from the poor and gave to the oppressive, exploitative Romans, and they made as much profit as possible for themselves, often by corrupt, illegal means. Tax collectors were part of a class of people, sinners, the wicked, people who lived apart from God, ignoring him and scoffing at his way.
Jesus befriended sinners, and it scandalized everyone. When Jesus called Levi the tax collector to follow him, Levi threw a party with the disreputable types, and the upright religious folks came by and attacked Jesus for eating and drinking with sinners.
Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, a rich man, sought Jesus, climbed a tree so he could see Jesus, and Jesus called him, and then Zacchaeus took Jesus to his house. Jesus said nothing critical of Zacchaeus, but rather improved Zacchaeus’ status, a holy man going to a sinner’s home. Zacchaeus then changed his behavior, promised to give away half his income to the poor and to repay quadruple those he had cheated. A big change of life. But Jesus had never told him to repent.
While Jesus called on people in general to repent, he never told individuals to repent. Never. Jesus hung out with sinners and crooks, but he did not condemn them, or scold them, or criticize them. Some of the sinners repented after they had been part of Jesus’ circle, but not because Jesus ordered them to repent. They belonged first, felt accepted, close to Jesus, and then they changed.
The gospels suggest that Jesus enjoyed the company of sinners, possibly more than the company of religious folks. Nathan Baxter, once the Dean of our cathedral, now a bishop, quipped, “Whoever said, ‘I had rather be a doorkeeper in the house of the Lord than dwell in the tents of sinners,’ has never dwelt in the tents of sinners.”[i] Perhaps Jesus found sinners better company, more fun.
Think of someone you disapprove of. Think of a group of people you disapprove of. Now think of Jesus hanging out with them, laughing with them, enjoying their company. He didn’t tell them to change their ways or reinforce their shame. Instead, he identified with them, became friends with them.
It says something to the church, that people don’t earn their way to God, that it’s a gift, that Christians might try to widen our own circles. It tells me: lighten up, reach out, appreciate every person you meet, accept people as they are.
I bet that Jesus never told any individual to repent because that would have been drawing a line, implying that some people need to repent and others don’t. The deeper truth is that we all need to repent: not repentance merely about succumbing on occasion to temptation, but a fuller repentance.
In Jewish scripture, the Hebrew word we translate as “repentance” means “to turn” or “to return.”[ii] It implies a journey of return. It implies a historical event: the best and the brightest of Israel were taken away into exile in Babylon. Decades later, when they were released from captivity, they returned to the Holy Land, the land of milk and honey, the Promised Land, Jerusalem, Mount Zion, the place of God’s presence. From the point of Jewish scripture then, repentance is not so much about contrition or sorrow for sin, but rather about a return to God, being close to God.
The evangelists and Paul imply this return imagery in their writings, but they wrote in Greek, not Hebrew, and the Greek word for repentance is “metanoia,” which literally means “to change one’s mind or heart,” or more precisely “to go beyond the mind we have now.” Repentance implies seeing in a new way, seeing beyond convention, beyond what we think we know. There’s an element of learning in it. Repentance, the season of Lent, places less emphasis on sin and contrition, and more emphasis on change, growth, seeing in new ways, going beyond where we are now.
The value of reading the temptation story in Lent is not merely Jesus the great moral exemplar, the one who can put Satan in his place, wittily quoting scripture to stick it to him. Perhaps more exciting, Jesus’ responses to the devil help us see God in new ways, to raise our sights. Jesus helps us see God’s way more clearly.
First, the devil asked Jesus to turn the stones into bread. Jesus, led into battle by the Holy Spirit, the gentle, dove-like Spirit, suffered hunger. He didn’t eat for forty days. Weakened, famished, the devil tempted Jesus’ control over his physical desire. It’s a temptation for Jesus to take away the physical suffering of the world. Surely, the millions who hunger pray and long for God to take away their suffering, to turn stone into bread. Surely, God could do that. Why doesn’t he? Perhaps we see that’s our role, our work. Repentance, returning to God, involves serving others, sharing and caring, giving and receiving care.
Second, the devil offered Jesus political power, the potential to do good on an enormous scale, the possibility of creating Utopia, the perfect community. The devil offered a kingdom of this world where justice and peace are compelled, but not freely chosen by the people. Surely, the oppressed and exploited of the world, the victims of war and violence, pray and long for God to act, to use his power to crush human power. Why doesn’t he? Maybe we see that it undermines the possibility for people to have authentic, close relationship, to be together united despite conflict and differences. Repentance, returning to God, involves reconciling with others.
Third, the devil prompted Jesus to test God, to make God prove himself. If Jesus leaped from the top of the Temple, God would act to save Jesus. The religious authorities would fall in line behind Jesus. All people would recognize Jesus as Son of God. Surely, in a world where God often seems absent, those longing for proof of his existence long for God to reveal himself, to be clear about himself. Why doesn’t he? Maybe we see that it eliminates the journey to God. The devil wants Jesus to give us instant gratification instead of having us engage in the work of life. The devil says faith in God, trust in God, must be coerced, forced. Repentance, returning to God, involves growing and learning, a gradual change of heart and mind.
If Jesus had succumbed to any of the temptations, he would have diminished human dignity, his vision of us as children of God. Instead, the good news: by refusing the devil, Jesus affirmed that we are capable of caring for each other and sharing what we have; that we are capable of working together and being close to each other; that we are capable of growth and learning.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Rev. Lane Davenport
[i] Quoted by Greg Carey, Sinners¸ Baylor University Press (2009), p. 22. I relied upon Carey’s discussion of Jesus’ Table Company (pp. 21-29) and his observation that Jesus never asked an individual to repent.
[ii] Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian, HarperOne (2011), pp. 158-59 on meaning of repentance.