Luke 4:1-13


Jesus’ Temptations

Luke 4:1-13

This reading about Jesus’ temptations and how he responded to them makes it sound easy.  Are you facing a tough decision?  Just turn to the Bible and let it tell you what to do or what to say.   That sounds good, until we consider that certain Islamic clerics turn to Scripture, too, and it guides them to raise up suicide bombers.  Closer to home, Christian clergy turn to Scripture and it guides them to condemn homosexuality or ordaining women.  For centuries Christians turned to Scripture and it guided them to oppress Jews.  Is there a proper way to use the Bible for guidance?

Let me frame that question with a story.  This happened to Rachel Naomi Remen, a pediatric oncologist at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, California.  A 12-year-old girl came to Dr. Remen with Hodgkin’s disease, a cancer of the lymph nodes.  The girl, her mother, and her father, who was an Orthodox rabbi, had come all the way from New York for radiation treatment at the linear accelerator.

The treatment’s effectiveness depended on a series of treatments, timed a precise number of days apart.  According to the girl’s treatment schedule, the eighth treatment would fall on Yom Kippur.  The father came to Dr. Remen to explain that Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year.  His faith strictly forbids handling money on this day, riding in cars, or using electricity.  In short, his daughter could not come to her treatment on that day.

Told that the timing of the treatments was critical to his daughter’s recovery, the father replied angrily that God’s laws superseded any human law.  He reminded Dr. Remen of the story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac.  She insisted, and the father said he would consult his own rabbi in New York, the man who headed his sect of Orthodox Judaism.

On the morning of Yom Kippur, Dr. Remen found the girl in her waiting room.  Looking questioningly at the father, the doctor learned that the Great Teacher, himself, had telephoned the father immediately upon receiving his letter.  The Great Teacher told the father to order a taxi for the girl on Yom Kippur, and not only that, but he, the father, was to ride with her.  The father protested:  No, I cannot break the Law!  The Great Teacher was adamant.  The father needed to show his daughter that even a truly holy man could ride in a car on the holiest of days in order to preserve life.  The Great Teacher said something else.  He told the father how important it was that his daughter not feel separated from God by breaking the Law; because that feeling could undermine her healing.

This story makes clear: it is not a straightforward  matter to use Scripture for guidance.  How did Jesus succeed so well?  A partial answer to that question came to me recently when I read a book by Richard Rohr, called Falling Upward.  Rohr is a Roman Catholic monk in his early 70’s with at least 50 years of spiritual exploration and teaching behind him.

Rohr distinguishes two stages in human life: first, building a container, and second, providing it with contents.  We build the container through such things as learning to control our impulses, obeying parents and other authorities, respecting the laws of church and state.  At this first stage we need our religion to make absolute truth claims; we need certitude, order, constancy, control, safety, insurance policies.

If we are successful at building the “container” we will go into the second stage, the content stage, with a strong identity and a principled ethical sense — a solid foundation.  We could call the first stage law and the second stage freedom.  Both are necessary for spiritual growth.  The test of true spiritual maturity is this: can we transcend the container stage and at the same time include it?  Jesus understood this, for he said,  “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the law].  For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”

I have sympathy for those who are still focused on building the container.  They need to take the Bible literally and live under its authority.  They want to be able to stand on God’s promises, as given in Scripture.  And they wonder:  if not everything written in Scripture is to be taken at face value, then what can we take?  What can we trust?  They are living under a false sense of all or nothing.  How do we get beyond that — learn to trust without clinging to the false security of literalism?

I think of Brother Roger, the founder of the Taizé Community.  He was one of the spiritual giants of the Christian church in the last century.  Stuart and I spent a week at Taizé in 2003 and I remember vividly how he said with the utmost certainty and authority, “God can only love.”  Where did he get that bedrock conviction?  Given all the contradictory pictures of God in the Bible, how did he boil it down to that one conclusion?

He must have started out, as any of us must, building a container — that is, letting the words of Scripture form him and inform him.  Then World War II came along with all the ambiguities that entails.  He found he had to shift — shift from experiencing the presence of God solely in the words of the Bible to experiencing the presence of God also behind the words.

Let me give you an illustration.  My brother has a ranch high in the Rocky Mountains where a pure spring bubbles up in the midst of a boggy meadow.  We had to search for a long time through thickets of willow bushes, through a maze of muddy trickles, through the hoof prints of cows and their droppings to find it.  Then there it was: the source, the clearest, sweetest tasting water you can imagine.  To follow Brother Roger, it’s as if we have to search through the words of the Bible, which have been colored  and distorted by human handling, to find the source — the Presence behind it all.

My original question was this.  Is there a proper way to use the Bible for guidance?  To sum up what I’ve said, we never outgrow the need to read the Bible, but as we read we listen for the silence behind the words; for silence has been called God’s lap.  Think of a deep, interior silence as God’s lap.

Perhaps the Gospel account of Jesus’ temptations indulges in some shorthand.  It reads as if he snapped back his answers to Satan.  I think he waited in silence for who knows how long?  Then the verses that offered true guidance came to him.  But still, being spiritually mature, transcending and including the words of Scripture, he had to give up certainty and control.  He had to be willing to dwell in the mystery of God with all of the ambiguity that entails.  He had to embrace an unknown future.  The thing is, Jesus had been to the source, and this he learned and could count on: God can only love.


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