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Are we up for the challenge?

In this week's readings, Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley shows how temptation drives us away from God. But who can face turning back to God this Lent?

Bishop Helen-Ann Hartley   |  07 Mar 2017

Sunday 5 March 2017 – Lent 1

Theme

Lead us not into temptation

Collect

God of the desert,

you lead us by day and by night.

Be with us when we are tested;

may it be your bread we eat,

your world we serve,

and you alone we worship;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you,

in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Readings

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Psalm 32

Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11

Commentary

Gen 2:15-17; 3:1-7

We all know the story of Genesis (or we think we do). Man is told ‘don’t eat’, the woman comes along and says ‘let’s eat’, and the rest is history. 

This is a problematic passage for feminist theologians, and indeed for many women and men in general, and has affected gender relationships throughout the ages. 

But there is an opportunity here to look more closely at the passage and perhaps reframe it. 

Up to this point, the creation narrative has been motoring along, and the vista that unfurls before us is quite splendid. 

I think of the times I have stood on a tiny island in the Pacific ocean: clear blue water, sand and endless sunshine. Life is good, and creation is very good indeed!  However, all is not as it seems. 

In Genesis, arguably the most important element is the tree of knowledge, and the divine command to refrain from eating its attractive fruit. Eating would result in death. Seems clear enough. But curiosity is a powerful thing. What was this knowledge that God wanted to withhold from the man? 

Not surprisingly, commentators have speculated about the answer: omniscience, sexual awareness, and moral awareness have all been suggested. But perhaps the answer is simply this: eating the fruit would make us able to make moral decisions without reference to God. 

‘Thanks for putting us here God but we are quite fine now thank you very much, away you go!’ Later on in the Biblical narrative, in Psalm 19, the tree of knowledge is identified with the law (this is the ‘tent for the sun’ of verse 4b). So we might add, that to eat from the tree of knowledge means also that we live with no reference to the law. 

In other words, God is firmly and intentionally out of the picture. We think we know better.

Then the snake appears, not just crafty but unclean, the very antithesis of God. 

Note how the snake calls God ‘God’ and not ‘the LORD God.’ The snake seeks to distance itself from the Creator, and seduces by its questions. It does not incite, it draws the woman in to its deceit. 

And the result? Their eyes are opened, their self-awareness of nakedness is revealed, and the first clothing line is manufactured.

Overall, this is less a ‘fall’ than a fracture; less descent from divinity, more removal from it. We should do well to know that neither the word ‘fall’ or ‘sin’ are contained in this passage. Try and set aside centuries of interpretation, and approach this passage freshly in your own context.

Psalm 32

While not addressing the hot topic of temptation directly, this Psalm does add to our understanding about what the fracture with God means for human beings. 

A simple translation of the Hebrew (chat ā ) as ‘sin’ ironically misses the mark. Why? The Hebrew word actually translates as ‘to miss’ or ‘to forget.’ 

Similarly, reading this Psalm in English misses the important word-play between the words used for ‘forgiveness’ and ‘hiding’; they come from the same root. 

The result of temptation is a forgetting of God’s presence; the need for forgiveness invites us out of shame and embarrassment, like Eve and Adam in the garden of the first reading. 

Romans 5:12-19

Rather like the Hebrew, the Greek word for sin (hamartia ) means ‘missing the mark.’ 

Of their own volition, human beings often miss the mark of what God expects. 

Paul in this passage compares the first human, ‘Adam’ and Christ. 

Adam, who fell far short of the mark (and remember here that Adam stands for all humanity since gender difference only began with the creation of woman), bringing about a fracture with God; and Jesus, who through his death brought freedom and the gift of eternal life. Adam messed up; Jesus cleared up the mess. 

Matthew 4:1-11

The Spirit that descended upon Jesus at his Baptism now drives him to the wilderness to be tempted. 

One commentator (Raymond Chapman), points out in a rather challenging way how the word ‘temptation’ has been misused and debased. We often say ‘I am tempted by another slice of chocolate cake,’ for example. 

Temptation is a more serious matter, it means the testing of integrity and purpose, the sifting of the soul to see how much of the truth remains. 

It is serious, but in itself it is not something that fractures our relationship with God. 

So here we look at Jesus, experiencing that very human feeling of being tempted. 

Do we follow through with what tempts us? Can we resist? We all fall short at times, and let ourselves and others down. Human nature can be so fickle. Yet at the same time to know temptation is to be human, to know God’s love and mercy when we fail places us in the realms of divine grace, and that is a gift. 

So it is good to begin Lent with this story. There is only one response when temptation comes our way: ‘Get away, Satan!’

Like the accounts of Jesus’ Baptism, this whole narrative is influenced by the Exodus narrative. 

This is hardly surprising given that Matthew is the most ‘Jewish’ of the Gospels.

Jesus’ 40-day fast corresponds not only to the Israelite wandering in the wilderness, but also to Moses’ 40-day fast on Sinai, and to Elijah’s 40-day fast on his trip to Mt Horeb. 

In Exodus the wilderness is a place of testing and preparation. So too, Lent is a time of testing and preparation. 

It’s not about giving up chocolate or coffee, it’s about digging deep to examine the core of our relationship to God.

It’s about exposing what gets in the way, and doing something about that, which is why prayer is always an essential item in our discipleship toolkit.

In Matthew, the devil tempts Jesus after his 40-day fast, when he is at his weakest (contrast with Luke where Jesus is tempted during the fast). 

The devil begins with Jesus’ hunger, then moves to the insecurity of life, and finally to the ease with which we can succumb to idolatry. This brings us back to the earlier readings’ focus on forgetting our relationship to God, or missing the mark of where God desires us to be. 

Unlike Israel in the wilderness, Jesus overcomes his temptations. He is the very model for us to follow, if we are up for the challenge?

The Rt Rev Dr Helen-Ann Hartley is Bishop of Waikato.

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