#faithseeking: lent & the job centre

so we’re into the third week of Lent and it’s high time i got round to sharing some thoughts that have shaped my seasonal reflections thus far.

Lent is the time of year that Christians use to prepare themselves for Easter, the most important festival of the Christian calendar. it lasts for forty days, and traditionally people choose to abstain from various things for that period.

you’d be amazed how many Christians there are for whom the above sentences are about the extent to which their understanding of Lent stretches. i’ve spent the last eighteen Wednesday evenings tutoring an evening class largely comprised of people training to be priests and readers in the Church of England. chatting with several of them last night, it was apparent that few of them had ever really reflected on the purpose of Lent beyond a general understanding of it as a period of preparation and prohibition.

on the one hand, this understanding is both orthodox and meaningful in its own right. Lent, like Advent, is a time of fasting and reflection that preceeds a time of feasting and celebration. but what to reflect on during Lent? Easter? well, that’s what Easter is for. on Good Friday we reflect on Christ’s execution, on Easter Saturday his descent into hades and on Easter Sunday his resurrection to new life. given that these facets of Easter each have a day set aside for their contemplation and that they also play quite an important part in Christian worship the whole year round (at least Christ’s death and resurrection do), then it seems somewhat strange for the whole of Lent to require focus on them as well.

given that Advent prepares Christians to celebrate the hope, love and radical potential that collide at Christmas, by reflecting on judgement – a probing juxtaposition – it seems like there should be more to Lent than just a warm up period in which you think about Easter and don’t yet eat chocolate eggs. and i think there is.

the forty day duration of Lent is derived from the period that, according to the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke), Jesus spent in the wilderness thinking and praying before beginning his work of teaching and healing. during this time, Jesus is visited and tested. while Matthew and Luke refer to this ‘tester’ as “the devil” (Mark, widely accepted as the earliest of the three accounts) calls him Satan.
 
Mark’s nomenclature is more helpful (and probably more accurate) given that it attests to the fact that the origin of the being that Christian tradition calls ‘The Devil’, lies in ‘the satan’ – a traditional character in Hebrew mythology who, rather than a wicked fallen angel, is a member of the heavenly court (one of the ‘sons of God’) and fulfils the function of an accuser (i.e. the person that presents the charges in a court). the satan is someone who tests a person, who strips away their facade and exposes them for what they truly are.

in the prologue to the Book of Job, the satan petitions YHWH to test Job’s apparently extensive faith, and in so doing lays the narrative foundations for Job’s critique of the Wisdom tradition. in Zechariah 3 – a text that clearly inspires Matthew’s temptation account – we find the satan standing at the right hand of the angel of YHWH as an accuser of Joshua (NB. in Hebrew and Greek Joshua and Jesus are the same name). the influence of this text on Matthew probably also explains the shift from the satan in Mark to the devil in Matthew, given that in the Greek version of Zechariah (which Matthew seems to have used) the original Hebrew ha šātān is rendered by the Greek diabolos.

so, if the tempter of Jesus in the wilderness is a derivation of the traditional, legal figure of the satan, what does that suggest? well, to me it implies that interpretations of the temptation (and possibly wider accounts of the life & ministry of Christ) that emphasise his purity and sinlessness are perhaps slightly missing the point. if the satan is not a malign being, tempting Jesus into sin and corruption, but a morally neutral ‘tester’, whose purpose is to probe and challenge Jesus and discern his true colours, then that seems to put a rather different spin on the encounter from the usual interpretation.

if the emphasis is not on Jesus’ purity, then what is the purpose of the story? well, perhaps, i’d like to suggest, it is more about the nature of his vocation. for me, the temptation stories represent an attempt by the early communities to grasp (in the light of his death) the meaning of the distinctiveness of Jesus’ ministry and the origins of his focus. rather than a garden of illicit delights, i interpret the psycho-social space of the wilderness, under the narrative direction of the satan, as a kind of primitive job centre (plus).

in all three Synoptic accounts, the temptation is directly preceded by the baptism of Jesus by John, and thus by the declaration from heaven that: “This is my well loved son with whom I am pleased”. Jesus was by no means the first person to perceive a messianic calling within the Hebrew tradition. great community leaders like Moses, Joshua and Samuel, great prophets like Elijah and Ezekiel and great kings like David and Solomon all stand in some way as messianic figures, as sons of God. what is more, the several reflections on the coming messiah throughout the Hebrew Bible present him in various ways: a king, a warrior, a seer, a priest. as such, there were many ways that Jesus might choose to express his calling, many patterns he could have followed.

what i think the satan offers Jesus are three ways in which he might not only begin his ministry, but also shape its objectives and outcomes. as the gospel stories of the feeding of the crowds show, a person who can provide for the needs of the people will gain a huge following. and yet, when the satan suggests that Jesus satisfy his own hungers first by turning stones to bread, more is implied than just a ministry of provision. as Christ seems to understand, not only do people need more than bread to survive, but also truly great community organisers must also be self-sacrificial servants of the people, and not the sort to put their own interests ahead of those of the many.

when the satan suggests that Jesus throw himself from the temple tower and have angels catch him, he seems to be invoking the image of a radical overthrowing of the religious order. those convicted of blasphemy during this period were taken to the top of the temple and thrown from there over the walls of the city.

to throw himself and be saved, would be, in a single act, to dismantle the religious structures of Israel and undermine the temple. despite his healings, during his ministry Jesus makes several withering references to those who desire to witness spectacular signs – least of all his famous comment to Thomas after the resurrection: “Have you believed because you have seen? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” even if he could have done it, performing such a public stunt and thus announcing himself as a messiah would surely have brought a rather different context and tone to Jesus’ ministry than the one he decides to plump for.

in Psalm 2 (“whoo hooo, when I feel heavy metal”) – a passage that clearly provides the pattern for the gospel writers’ image of the heavenly voice blessing Jesus at his baptism – it is the messianic king, newly installed on the holy hill of Zion, who is told “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession”, but also warned “Now therefore, O Kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way”.

in the third of his ‘tests’, it seems the satan is offering the exact same deal to Jesus. become a great king, and you get to possess the whole earth. as a member of the heavenly court (and perhaps, as in Job, some sort of overseer of the earth) the satan seems to have the authority to grant great power, but he also demands allegiance. the seemingly obvious interpretation here fits with the notion of the satan as a diabolic being, seeking to tempt Jesus into idolatry and corrupt him with power. however, i think we miss something if we pass over the extent to which Jesus’ rejection of the satan’s offer is a rejection of centralised wealth and power per se, not just that gained from idolatrous worship.

Jesus seems to emerge from his wilderness based psychological experiment/careers interview with a clear sense of what it might mean for him to be a son of God. his ministry will prove to be inspired most, not by the tradition of the wealthy, divine king, the powerful magician, or the revolutionary warrior, but by the vision laid out by Isaiah of the Suffering Servant – one who sets aside all that they have, gives themselves up, and through radical, selfless suffering demonstrates the limits of power, inspires hope and enables a new kind of future.

therefore, leavings my reflections on Easter until Eastertide, i’m using these forty days of discipline and self-denial to focus on the notion of vocation. that means not only trying to discern my own skills, aptitudes and abilities, plotting a path that is meaningful, and reflecting on what examples i definitely don’t want to follow as well as those that i do, but also, more fundamentally, the nature of purpose in general – not just my own, but that of the whole of reality.

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  • Comments (3)
    • Drew
    • March 22nd, 2011

    For a wholly different reflection on lent, I also enjoyed this one from Richard Beck;

    http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.com/2011/03/growing-up-catholic-lenten-meditation.html

    Not as much as I enjoyed yours though.

    • Lindy Su
    • March 22nd, 2011

    Jon you should write more of this stuff it’s really fantastic.

    I enjoy your writing about music and games and things. but there is nowhere I can read accessibly about theology or christianity. I don’t have the specialism or the inclination to read about it academically, but I do want to engage intellectually with this stuff. So it needs to be well written and accessible.

    I know there is stuff already out there – my dear mum is constantly sending me links to some contemporary hipster emerging person or other but it all seems so self conscious. I prefer yours.

    Rosie x

  1. Thanks you two. Thankwoo.

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