Sunday, February 26, 2012

First Sunday in Lent

2 Corinthians 6:1-10 / Matthew 4:1-11

We want, or surely we should want, the power or influence to make a difference in the world. Not to want to do so, to know how people suffer, and suffer needlessly of hunger, of violence, and of ignorance, largely, or perhaps even entirely, because those who are charged with their care do nothing about it, or worse even promote it, and yet on our part to be content simply with knowing this to be the case, is certainly a reprehensible attitude. Such a passing by of the cries for justice from our brothers and sisters, remaining unmoved to seek the power to do anything, looks on the face of it like the paradigm case of having received the grace of God in vain.

Yet, in the Gospel, Jesus seems to do just that. The devil three times offers Jesus the power to make a real difference — to feed the hungry from mere stones, to dazzle the people so clearly that they could not help but heed his words, and finally to have authority over all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them. Each time, Jesus turns the offer aside, the third time rebuking the Accuser and sending him on his way.

We might protest that the comparison is unfair. After all, we know, as the devil who is without supernatural faith does not and cannot, that Jesus is not merely Son of God by title only, the Holy One by way of metaphor, but indeed the only-begotten Son, God himself. As such, no one eats anything whether to feed a craving or to ward off death by starvation save by the mighty intervention of Jesus, no one is moved by anything whether simple or sublime from doubt to faith save by Jesus' first having moved his soul from within, and no official has any power whatsoever whether over the licensing of pets or over global health policies apart from it having been given to them from above by him from whom all power and authority flows. So, we might assert, the temptations of the devil were ultimately easy for Jesus to turn aside. He was being offered nothing he did not already possess, and that more eminently and superabundantly than anything the Evil One might have proffered and at what would be, if it were even theoretically possible for God to sin against himself, a risible and despicable price, submission to the devil and rejection of the Father.

However, what the Gospel reminds us here is that we are not in any different situation. In Christ, in whom we have been made members by our baptism, we share the very same power to overcome the world, if not in our own persons then in our Head. We are moved by the same Spirit, by whose loving presence in our souls and sanctification in our lives, nothing the Tempter might offer could even compare, would we but be attentive to the promptings of heaven. Our weakness in the face of worldly ills is, then, while certainly real in one sense, ultimately not the final word nor the most lasting truth. When we find we have exhausted every effort to address the sufferings of the world, when we have made good use of every heavenly grace and blessing, and we see people who still suffer from hunger, from violence, and from ignorance of the Good News, we can be assured that no deal with wickedness, to compromise to "get things done" will ever be for our own good, nor of those we mean to serve. The deal remains the same as it was in the desert, to exchange what we already have in eminent superabundance for what is risible and despicable.

We are not alone, and we do no struggle alone. In the desert of our weakness in the face of the world we, too, are ministered to, but not merely by angels. We are loved by God himself, and called by his power to a new and everlasting life to taste even here and now. The Psalmist's words spoken prophetically of the Messiah, then, are no less true of us: The Lord will overshadow thee with His shoulders, and under His wings thou shalt trust: His truth shall compass thee with a shield.

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