Friday, March 11, 2011

Peter Gomes on Matthew 4:1-11

Re-posted from a colleague:

Peter J. Gomes on Matthew 4:1-11

The Reverend Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and Minister at the Memorial Church, Harvard University, died February 28 at the age of 68. For years considered one of this country's greatest preachers, he gained a widely admired public persona when he revealed in 1991 that he was gay--especially surprising news from someone who was an African American, a Baptist, and a lifelong Republican. Later, he became a renowned author as well, particularly his 2002 volume The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart.

In 1995 he also contributed to Fortress Press's Proclamationseries, writing on the texts of Lent for Year A. This is Gomes's reflections on this Sunday's Gospel reading, Matthew 4:1-11, which gives a taste of his sly, thoughtful writing voice. Greatly missed but unforgettable, we commend our brother Peter to God and give thanks for his life and ministry. Peace, Peter.

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The lectionaries are unanimous in their provision of Matthew 4:1-11 as the Gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent. From ancient times the account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness has been read as appropriate to the beginning of a season of spiritual discipline, self-denial, and prayer; and all of these occur within a season of temptation. As most preachers will be unable to resist the temptation to preach on the Gospel, we should spend some time on the issues it presents for the faithful and the curiously uninformed.

Perhaps the most striking thing of which to be reminded here is that this series of temptations follows immediately upon Jesus' baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Matthew 3 concludes with an account of the baptism, the descent of the dove, and the pleasure God took in the baptismal act. The last words before the temptation are these: "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." What could be a more auspicious beginning to a new life?

Yet, the first encounter of the newly baptized is with Satan. Jesus does no good work, he performs no miracle, he is not granted a heavenly vision. He is led up, directed into the wilderness where he undergoes trial by ordeal. It is not a small thing to note that the context of the life of the baptized is a constant and ever increasingly sophisticated warfare with the devil. Baptism does not immunize one from temptation or from Satan: quite the contrary, it raises one's consciousness. The newly baptized meet temptations that they could not before ever imagine.

This point may be salutary to those for whom Christian baptism holds still some magical power, and it may help them to understand that at baptism their troubles are only beginning. This will be less clear a point in those places where baptism has become simply an empty rite of passage, a naming ceremony, or an affirmation of the identity of the group into which the baptized is welcomed. In those places where something of the terror of the Christian profession is still expressed in the baptismal rite, however, the point will not be lost. Moviegoers will recall the opening scenes of Godfather III, where the baptism of the third generation of Corleones takes place against a montage of incredible Mafia violence of murder, gore, and assassination. The child is baptized into the very world his baptismal vows are meant to renounce. This is not mere irony or artfulness. The fallen world, with its inevitable and unavoidable sinfulness, is the context within which and against which one makes these solemn vows. It is for this reason that every teenaged confirmation of inquirers' class should be required to see Godfather III as a parable of life after baptism.

In the Episcopal Prayer Book of 1928, following an ancient formula the godfathers and godmothers are asked on behalf of the child:

Dost thou, therefore, in the name of this Child, renounce the devil and all his works, the vain pomp and glory of the world, with all the covetous desires of the same, and the carnal desires of the flesh, so that thou wilt not follow, nor be led by them?

The answer is:

I renounce them all; and by God's help will endeavor not to follow, nor be led by them.

Baptism may be an act of repentance, but it by no means assures the absence of that for which repentance is required. Instead of selling baptism as a user-friendly way to maintain and extend the church, we should be warning those who wish to be baptized, and those whom we wish to baptize, that life after baptism is full of "many dangers, toils, and snares." If they doubt you, or if you doubt the truth of this, read Matthew 3 and then read on directly into Matthew 4: the sequence is clear and unambiguous.

And so, if we learn first off that the consequence of baptism is conflict with Satan and with one's own self, for both are involved here in this account of our Lord's season in the wilderness, we learn also that the conflict cannot be managed on our own or with our own resources. This will be a helpful and necessary insight to those of your people who, in a fit of moral athleticism, have decided to break with their normal way of doing things, and either give up or take on something, or both, for Lent. Dieters and exercise faddists know the risks of attempted self-renovation by oneself. And, like the alcoholic, they know as well the terrible discouragement of "falling off the wagon." The novice moral athlete will attempt to make up for a lifetime of indulgence with a Lenten crash course in abstinence, and, when he or she inevitably fails and falls down, will think either themselves or the gospel impossible and inadequate. Oscar Wilde said, "I can resist anything but temptation"; and the town drunk said to his reformingly zealous wife, "I've fallen off more wagons than you've ever been on."

The new or renewing Christian will need to be reminded that the disciplines of Lent are not meant to demonstrate moral superiority, nor are they meant to secure divine or human approval. They are meant to toughen the soul. The faithful are to be reminded that these would-be solitary acts are not for oneself alone, but are for the well-being of the whole church. In other words, private virtue is a corporate act, and thus Lent is not meant to be carried on alone or in private. The Sundays in Lent and the extraordinary midweek occasions of devotion, study, and fellowship, are splendid opportunities for Christians to support and encourage one another in their Lenten work. Sharing one's ambitions and achievements, one's fears, failures, and frustrations ought not to be restricted to Alcoholics Anonymous and twelve-step programs. Such Lenten sharing, structured by the church as part of its Lenten program, ought to be seen as a part of the Lenten catechumenate designed to upbuild both the faithful and the community.

Three other points worth commenting upon in this account of our Lord's temptation are that (1) we should consider the nature of the wilderness, (2) we should take seriously the reasonable nature of the temptations, the suavity of Satan, if you will, and (3) we should consider how Jesus uses Scripture. Any one of these would make a splendid theme for Lenten preaching or a midweek study course: all of them help us appropriate to the uses of our own Lenten agenda this account of Jesus' first great conflict.

For many, the wilderness is merely an alternative, and for some, an undesirable one, to the settled places of life. Wilderness may mean to some unspoilt mountain ranges, deep forests, and the places that L. L. Bean equips them to explore. For others, it may mean any place other than where they are. For still others, the wilderness is the very place from which they might wish to escape. We must not let our urban or suburban bias overwhelm us here.

For our purposes, let us at least initially think of wilderness as a place apart, any place other than where we usually are. Therefore a wilderness is not meant to be a miniature version of where we are, a camp with all of the comforts of home. For many of us, wilderness implies the disruption of the routine and the imposition, however temporary, of a new order, usually a simpler one. Lent gives permission for many people to go "into the wilderness," to simplify and clarify. In an undisciplined and overly demanded life, where most of us expect too much of ourselves and of others, permission to reorder and even to reduce some of those expectations, making more of less, may indeed come as a welcome opportunity. The church should help people to figure out how to do it. Corporate law firms hold "retreats," and industry encourages "focus groups": surely the community of Jesus, most especially in Lent, can rediscover the efficacy of the wilderness?

The suavity of Satan must never be underestimated. Their temptations are all "reasonable." That is the ingenuity of them. Like all good temptations they tempt us to do the right thing for the wrong reason, or the wrong thing for the right reason. All of us wish to be good and to do good: that is our glory and our curse. And because we want to do the right thing we will be easily tempted to do anything. It is not our vices that will get us, but our virtues, and Satan is smart enough to know this. There is an aphorism, source unknown and hence available at will to everybody, which says that a surplus of virtue is more dangerous than a surplus of vice, because a surplus a virtue is not subject to the constraints of conscience. In the zeal for goodness, or the achievement of a good end, many on the way will be tempted to many wicked things. That is the stuff of drama and politics, and of human nature. It is the wide way down which Satan invites Jesus to travel, and it is an efficient and cost-effective way. Bread for stones is good economics, a demonstration of the effective power of God would save much preaching, and the delivery of the kingdoms of this world to Christ would spare us the need for evangelism. Few modern-day preachers would be able to resist all of that.

How did Jesus? He used Scripture. From this we learn that Jesus knew Scripture. He had read and studied his Bible. Even more to the point, we learn that Jesus knew that his situation was not unique. The devil had been at work before: these blandishments were not novel, not unique. They exist anywhere and everywhere the heirs of Adam try to make sense of their knowledge of good and evil on their own and by themselves. The Bible is a record of such encounters, and it provides counsel on how to cope with these matters. Jesus knew this and made appropriate use of what he knew. 

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