Cliff Notes on Being Human
Some stories never happened but are always happening. Like the Matthew and Luke stories of the 40 day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. If everything in Christian scripture should become lost, except for the narratives of the wilderness temptation, we would still have the story that succinctly describes what it means, and does not mean, to be human.
The narratives of Jesus in the wilderness are a kind of Cliff Notes on the ways mortal life gets twisted. They condense the challenges of all of us. The Devil (Diabolos) is a Trickster, the Liar, twisting the good out of shape. We live with the diabolical.
Is it about power? Or is it about splendor?
As many times as I have read and preached about them, the word “splendor” seemed incidental to the temptation of power. Or so I thought until this life in 2020 drew my attention to splendor.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if . . . .”Gospel according to Matthew 4:8-9 NRSV
The genius of scripture is that it brings fresh things to light that speak to new socio-reliigious-political circumstances. Perhaps it is the dark and darkening skies of 2020 that drew my eye to the “splendor” of the kingdoms (nations). The Greek word is δόξαν (appearance, glory, splendor) is the same as the church’s song of praise, the Doxology: “Praise God from Whom all blessing flow; Praise God all creatures here below….”
Power is not an end, but a means to the end: self-glorification. The Gospel writers knew what the privileged often remember only after it has vanished into nothing. “Glory is like a circle in the water/ which never ceaseth to enlarge itself/ till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.” — William Shakespeare, Henry VI.
The Lure of Splendor
The lure of power is reserved for the privileged. No such illusion is found among the separated mothers, fathers, and children sweltering in crammed detention camps at our southern border. They are reminded hour by hour of their powerlessness. Nor is it a temptation among the suffering and dying patients or the doctors, RNs, LPNs, and orderlies in senior health care centers, homeless shelters, and hospitals overwhelmed by the new covid virus pandemic. Nor among the suddenly unemployed waiting in the miles-long food distribution center lines, holding fast to whatever shreds of hope and dignity remain while those with power and control, absorbed in themselves. discount their reality,
It is no accident that ‘splendor’ caught my attention last winter when powerful privileged man addicted to splendor trampled on the public trust with daily updates from the White House. I was watching the Third Temptation unfold with an altogether different ending than the one Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives described.
“All these [kingdoms] I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on himGospel of Matthew 4:9-11 NRSV
Prayer for Public Officials
Walter Rauschenbusch’s “Prayer for Public Officials” is preserved by Prayers of the Social Awakening, published in 1909.
We give the thanks that by the free institutions our country the tyrannous instincts of the strong may be curbed to the patient service to the commonwealth.
Strengthen the sense of duty in our political life. Grant that the servants of the state will feel ever more deeply that any diversion of their public powers for private ends is a betrayal of their country. Purge our cities and states and nation of the deep causes of corruption which have so often made sin profitable and uprightness hard. Bring to an end the stale days of party cunning.”Walter Rauschenbusch, “For Public Officers,” Prayers of the Social Awakening, 1909.
– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, First Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2020.