Sunday, March 13, 2011

Dumb Credulity or Engaged Reflection?

Today's gospel from the RCL is Matthew's account of the temptation of Jesus (Mt. 4.1-11). Christians normally focus on this as proof of two things: a)Jesus was tempted to sin and b)Jesus did not sin. What they fail to consider, more than in passing, is that the entire temptation narrative is in the form of a debate over scripture.
Satan first challenges Jesus to prove that he is God's son by demonstraing that God will feed him in the wilderness as he did Moses, Elijah and the whole Hebrew people at the Exodus: “If you are God's son, order these stones to become loaves of bread.”
Jesus responds with a quote from Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”(Dt. 8.3)
So begins the rabbinical debate. The devil has a proof-text of his own: “If you are God's son, throw yourself down [from the top of the temple], for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a rock.’” (Psalm 91.11,12) to which Jesus retorts, again from Deuteronomy:
“‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,(Dt. 6.16)’” but he is also alluding to Psalm 95.8,9: “Do not harden your hearts as in the Rebellion, during the day of testing in the desert, where your fathers tempted me;" which, in turn, alludes to the story of water coming from a rock in Exodus 17.
Finally, when urged to seek an empire of his own, Jesus reverts to Deuteronomy: “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” (Dt. 6.13)
When we see this not as a record of an historical conversation over public displays of power and Satan worship, but rather as an example of the right and wrong ways to approach the sacred texts we see that the wrong way is to cherry-pick isolated proof-texts to suit the occasion. The correct, rabbinical approach is to challenge the text that does not agree with ones own good judgment and put it in a larger context. (God may have promised not to allow his faithful to stump their toes on a rock, but he also used a story about a rock to warn against demanding miraculous solutions to human problems) The Qur'an makes a similar point in Sura 3.7--some scriptures are to be taken at face value--others are metaphors. Only God knows which is which. The only way we can discern the mind of God is to force our own minds to grapple with the text.