|Christ in the Desert - Ivan Kramskoi (1872)|
The season of Lent is modeled on Christ’s retreat to the wilderness, after his baptism by John and before the start of this three year ministry. In this Year A of the three year Lectionary cycle, Matthew tells the story in much the same way that Luke does in Year B. It is given a distinctive slant, though, by the lessons that accompany it. The Old Testament passage from Genesis, and the Epistle from Paul’s letter to the Romans, make the connection with the Garden of Eden and Adam’s original sin as plain as it can be. To understand the wilderness episode, they say, we must see Christ’s resisting temptation against the background of Adam and Eve’s yielding to it. What they originally put wrong, Christ finally put right.
The line of interpretation is clear enough, but its contemporary meaning is not so easy to grasp. The worldview within which we operate today is radically different to the mindset of the Gospel authors. Can we understand their references to Satan? Can we accept the doctrine of original sin that Paul though to be obvious? Mustn’t we reject the sheer injustice that seems to underlie the suggestion that the sins of generations long since dead can be visited on innocent descendants?
|Satanic Self-Portrait -- Felicien Rops (1860)|
These are questions we cannot avoid. Yet, it is easy to exaggerate the difference between us and the people who lived two thousand years ago. Despite the obvious gap, there is common ground between their way of life and ours. Human nature and experience remain pretty much the same as they were in Biblical times. Hope and despair, honesty and deceitfulness, innocence and wickedness, sickness and health, calamity and blessing -- these make up the fabric of human lives just as much as ever they did, and we deceive ourselves if we think that the undoubted success of science and medicine has done very much to change that.
To believe in the Bible as Revelation, is to believe that, however much interpretation they may need, the books of Moses, the Psalms, the prophets, the Gospels, all still speak profoundly to the human condition. So what on this occasion does Matthew's Gospel have to say?
Temptation is a perpetual human hazard. Most of us are not positively inclined to cruelty or injustice. Our failings arise from a sort of weakness – the tendency to avert our eyes from wrongdoing by re-describing it in more acceptable, and even attractive terms. It was thus that the serpent spoke to the archetypes ‘Adam’ and ‘Eve’. The Satanic voice is the opposite of Conscience, and can speak to Man and Woman still, always in alluring whispers that suggest ‘this really is for the best’. It is this voice that Jesus heard deep within himself in his isolation – a fact that shows him to be Human. At the same time, he could see that temptation invites us to do something deeply idolatrous -- put God’s patience and justice to the test. That is what showed him to be Divine.