John Bennison Words and Ways | Stones for Bread, or How to Eat Your Words

Stones for Bread, or How to Eat Your Words

A Commentary for Lent I, Year A

Dateline: March 15, 2011

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Stones for Bread, or, How to Eat Your Words

 

Below: Temptation of Christ on the Mount – Duccio, di Buoninsegna, d. 1319

Subsequent to his baptism by John, Jesus was guided by an inner impulse to a desolate place, there to be tested by an opposing force. He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and therefore at the end was famished. The force that would try him spoke to his inner self and said, “To make clear that you are the Son of God, instruct these stones here to turn into loaves of bread.” But he remembered the words that were written [in Torah]: “One does not live only by eating bread alone, but by taking in every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Then Jesus had a daydream wherein the opposing force had taken him to the holy city and had somehow taken him to the very top of the temple, saying to him, “To prove that you are the Son of God, go ahead and jump. Remember it is written [in the psalms], “God will order His angels to take care of you; [if you jump] they will catch you so neither of your feet will be broken.” Jesus answered that temptation from memory, saying [to himself]: “It’s written in Torah that no one should test God.” Next Jesus had a vision of all the empires of the known world as if from a mountain peak and thought, “If I just give in to the force that opposes me in my way and bow down to him, I’ll own all that I can see.” To which [inner] temptation Jesus said, “Perish the thought! Get away from me, you opposing force! It is written [in Torah] that one is to bow down to none but Yahweh and praise only Him.” Whereupon, the opposing force retreated, and Jesus’ better angels gathered round to support him. [Matthew 4:1-11]

 Translation & paraphrase credit: Harry T. Cook

 

 “One does not live only by eating bread alone, but by taking in every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

The other day, I turned on the television to catch the latest news.

The raw video depicting a devastating quake and tsunami in Japan provided some idea what an apocalyptic end to the world as we know it just might look like.

Interspersed with those images, news crews from our own local television stations were providing live coverage from remote locations along our own beaches and marinas; in order to report how utter devastation on the other side of the globe might affect us.  If subsequent radioactive dust clouds from damaged nuclear reactors are released, we’ll inevitably be asking ourselves how far they might spread.

“We’ll be right back with more late breaking developments,” the news anchor recited.

I watch the commercials.  They tell me as much about what we think is important nowadays as those news snippets interspersed between the advertisers, attempting to lure us with everything from how I can keep the romance in my life with a cleaner shave; to how tempting it would be to drive a gas-guzzling luxury automobile in a cloud of dust on what looks like the Bonneville salt flats; or buy my beloved a bobble at a local jewelry store (Why, what’s the occasion? Just because it’s Thursday is the answer.).  Then the news broadcast resumes.

Pro-Gaddafi forces were retaking major oil refineries in Libya, and seem to have the rebels on the run.  If the international community doesn’t do something more drastic than “strongly insist” that a brutal megalomaniac have a change of heart and give up his “unacceptable” behavior, basic human rights and democratic principles that haven’t existed in that country for decades could remain a pipedream. But that’s not the worst of it.

Our local news team picks up the story. They’re standing beside someone who could be my neighbor, who’s filling up their tank at a corner gas station. The American consumer is shaking their head in disbelief, watching the dial spin on the pump, as the station owner changes the numbers posted on his sign.

Interruption in the flow of Middle East oil jeopardizes the fragile economic recovery in the U.S.  And all because I can’t continue buying my premium unleaded on the cheap from a guy who – well, go ahead, put a pitchfork in his hand and horns on his head, don’t you agree? – looks like the devil himself.

The news program isn’t even over and I’m already feeling a little conflicted; wondering to myself how things stack up in my little world, and who I should be most worried about.  I’m wondering to myself, who’s better off, or worse off, than little ‘ol me?  I don’t have long to wait for some comparisons.

Charlie Sheen is suing his employer for $100 mil.  His beef?  He thinks the nearly-$2 mil per episode for his TV sitcom isn’t sufficient.  But his Twittered rants portray a guy who’s clearly down-and out in the mental health department.  Charlie is wrestling with some serious demons – despite his self-professed addiction recovery “cure” that broke all land speed records — and the media is all over it.

Meanwhile, some celebrity named Lindsay Lohan, is apparently racking up more criminal charges and probation violations than movie hits.  That sparkling $2,500 necklace she accidentally walked off with from a Beverly Hills jewelry shop?  Why would she have been tempted to shoplift it, a legal pundit argues?  It’s chump change for the starlet.

Finally, the wrap-up of the day’s news ends with a little filler.  It’s the President’s press conference.  He’s prepared to do the Washington two-step with the usual questions and answers to the hot-button issues of the day: the budget battle in Congress, the latest economic numbers, a carefully crafted response to revolution and continued upheaval in the Middle East, the drug cartel violence along our own border, and the military conflicts that have emptied our coffers and are almost forgotten.

But before all that, Obama is asked his opinion on the bitter NFL labor dispute between the team’s owners and players.  He declines to weigh in on the stalemate, suggesting, the two parties “should be able to work it out without the president of the United States intervening,” and that he, “had other stuff to do.” However, he did add,  “For an industry that’s making $9 billion a year in revenue, they can figure out how to divide it up in a sensible way.”

Hope so.  Otherwise, what in the world are millions of football fans going to do with their TV remotes when the season kicks off next fall?  We all know, the devil finds work for idle hands.

“Is it just me,” I ask Germaine, “or do more things seem to be coming at us faster, and more furiously than ever before?  Every day there seems to be one more thing to juggle, to keep everything in play.  Sometimes, don’t you just want to get away from it all? …

“Is it just me,” I ask Germaine, “or do more things seem to be coming at us faster, and more furiously than ever before?  …  Sometimes, don’t you just want to get away from it all? …

The three synoptic gospels in the New Testament canon (Mark, Matthew and Luke) all give an account of Jesus fleeing or retreating to the Judean wilderness.  The timeline is set following his own baptism by John, and John’s own radical message that foretold an imminent event that was to turn the status quo on end; and before the commencement of what will be Jesus’ own relatively brief public ministry of preaching and healing.

Those to whom Jesus would minister would consist primarily of a peasant class of 1st-century Jews, living under the repressive rule of a local tyrant and the dominant authority of imperial Rome.  Life was bleak, and the future didn’t promise to be any brighter.  Who wouldn’t want to get away from it all; particularly if one was as smart, as charismatic and gifted as the rabbi spirit-sage the gospels portray Jesus to be?

But if he was so smart, given the choice, why wilderness?

In the Biblical story tradition, mountaintops may be the place of revelatory encounters with the divine.  But wilderness is the place where things can get cleared up.  It’s out of the wilderness that crooked ways become straight, and where the difference between mere chaos can be delineated from the deeper mystery of all things.

But wilderness is also the place of emptiness, void of all those outside forces that we so easily attribute both credit and blame for the way things are; particularly the way we are, the way we think and act.  It is in the wilderness that there is nothing and no one but yourself with which to contend.

But wilderness is also the place of emptiness, void of all those outside forces that we so easily attribute both credit and blame for the way things are.  It is in the wilderness that there is nothing and no one but yourself with which to contend.

Think about the times and places of wilderness in your own life; the times and places you would not necessarily have chosen to go, given the choice.  What possible good, you may have asked yourself, could come out of it?

It’s a dangerous place, a disarming place, revealing every weakness and vulnerability.

It’s a risky place.  It’s a place where one can be afflicted with such homesickness one might wish they could just go back to the miserable way things were before.

But instead, it is also a place of un-familiarity, with an uncertain promise to change and transform you; so that nothing is ever quite the same as before.

It is into just such a place of wilderness that Jesus, the Galilean spirit-person, sage, preacher and healer retreats from the world around him, to wrestle with the demons within.  Try doing that for forty days and nights, without any outside sustenance, and you could work up a hunger for just about anything.

The traditional take of the temptation of Christ in the wilderness has typically been told to portray the protagonist’s superhuman (and therefore presumably divine) ability to withstand all the irresistible desires with which the devilish forces of this world would attempt to seduce him.  The commentator, Harry T. Cook, deciphers the way the story is being told like this:

“The New Testament Greek word diaballō, means to “throw across.” Diaballō becomes diabolos, which, strictly, means “slanderer, accuser” or in our common parlance, “devil.” It is related to a Hebrew root transliterated stn, whence “satan.” The idea is that diabolos or stn is an opposing force — opposing or blocking a path along which one has chosen or has been instructed to go.”

Cook illustrates the use of the word diabolos with the example of the superior offensive football player, who learns to take the block without being stopped or brought to his knees. He learns to throw off the blocker and keep on going.

It may be a helpful image; but only as long as one remembers that in the wilderness there is no one to trip you up (the word temptation literally means stumbling block) but yourself. And — while anthropomorphic images of devils and angels may provide dramatic effect with which to tell the story — few people nowadays could really believe there is literally a little demon sitting on one shoulder, and an angel on the other, both whispering in your ear all the good and bad things you know you’re perfectly capable of doing without any help or prodding.

I trust few people nowadays could really believe there is literally a little demon sitting on one shoulder, and an angel on the other, both whispering in your ear all the good and bad things you know you’re perfectly capable of doing without any help or prodding.

So it is that Jesus experiences and endures his own time of self-testing; that is, as best the early Church tradition can conjecture, in retrospect (since no one was there with their remote camera crews to record and report back).  It is a wrestling match with himself, and a struggle to see his way clear to a calling and a way of life that starts from within; so that everything this world can throw at him – all the glitter and glory, all the agony and the ecstasy – does not compel any kind of conformity, resulting in his own self-betrayal. Here’s what occurs to me:

The first temptation not only portrays Jesus’ full humanity, but provides the set-up line for all the further tests.  He’s listening to his growling stomach, and his most basic human need.  With the divine powers subsequently attributed to him by the early believers hearing this gospel, he may have thought he could have changed stones to bread.  But he reminds himself of the scripture tradition he has learned and trusts above all else: “One does not live only by eating bread alone, but by taking in every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

He discriminates and selects that which he will internalize, and become part of him.  Then he recommits himself to that which will continue to shape and define who he is.  For, we all know bread alone can sustain the body, and the spirit can still languish.  Bread alone – in any form, no matter how fancy and desirable, formidable and dominating — can even make a heart of stone.

Those other forms of bread – from sheer survival to extravagant opulence – are enumerated in the next alluring possibilities.  First up is leaping off the tallest tower of the tallest building in a death-defying act of one’s own miraculous feat to save oneself.  If that’s not enough, then what about all the power and might of all the kingdoms of the world combined, and handed to you on a silver platter?

It’s been suggested, charisma alone could have led Jesus to entertain the fleeting notion he might have been able to mobilize sufficient “opposing forces” to combat and conquer at least one corner of the great empire for himself.  A wilderness experience might have led to such a hallucination.

But juxtaposed to that is a different calling, with an alternate message about a different kind of kingdom.  It is a kingdom Jesus will go on to describe in the parables he tells and the acts of healing and restoration he performs, are of a very different sort.  Thus, the heart of the message to be drawn from this story is to be found in the clarity that comes as a result of this desert experience.  The story of Jesus’ wrestling with himself in the wilderness is the prologue to the story about to unfold.

If we peel back the early layers of tradition, back beyond the messianic identity and spectacular claims of identity that become attributed to Jesus, I am persuaded we can still find what is at the heart of this Galilean sage and companion to the paths we still tread.  He continues to point the way that leads us out of our own chaos, through wilderness, to a very different place than the one that bombards from without, and lures us from within.

I am persuaded we can still find what is at the heart of this Galilean sage and companion to the paths we still tread.  He continues to point the way that leads us out of our own chaos, through wilderness, to a very different place than the one that bombards from without, and lures us from within.

It is about a crooked path made straight; with a destination yet unknown to us; but a place we would nonetheless surely recognize at once, and call home.

But to begin to do so, to begin such a journey, we must first acknowledge it is the forces within us that shape us. Following the lead of the spirit-sage, it is an act of self-examination, and self-knowledge. It is more than self-introspection, however.  It is only a prelude to the act of finding oneself by choosing to whom, or what, we would give our selves away.

Jesus gives us a different way to respond to all the forces of this world that would at-tempt  to define us and direct our lives.  We choose which path to follow.

In Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy, The Merchant of Venice, the character Bassanio is desperately in love with fair Portia, a wealthy heiress.  But he is penniless, and conventional wisdom has convinced him he cannot hope to successfully woo her without the appearance of wealth and riches. So he asks a rich friend, Antonio, for a loan.

Antonio is willing to help his friend, but explains he does not have sufficient liquidity.  His funds are tied up in ships that are expected soon, laden with profits.  So instead he leverages his property as collateral in order to fund his friend’s romantic endeavors.  Apparently, credit default swaps had not yet been devised.

Meanwhile, although Portia considers Bassanio a worthy young gentleman, she’d promised her late father that she would only marry the man who chooses the correct of three caskets.  One is made of gold, one of silver, and one lead. The correct casket contains a portrait of Portia.  Would-be suitors from around the world arrive at Belmont to win the hand of the beautiful temptress.

When the dark-skinned prince of Morocco arrives to try his luck, Portia expresses her disdain, and hopes he will choose poorly.  Not to worry, he is lured into picking the golden casket, glittering in all its irresistible deception.  Alas, inside there is no portrait, only a scroll with a hard lesson to be learned:

O hell! What have we here?
A carrion Death, within whose empty eye
There is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing:
“All that glitters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.

Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgment old,
Your answer had not been inscroll’d:
Fare you well; your suit is cold.”

All that glitters is not gold.  And even gold, one might recall, is nothing more than stone. And, “One does not live only by eating bread alone, but by taking in every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Jesus wrestles with himself in his own wilderness, and chooses his own path.  It turns out to be the way of passive resistance over brute force, the way of compassion and charity over enmity and strife, a way of unmerited grace and forgiveness as a different path to the forces at play in those daily news reports and all the demons that wage war from within and without.  It is a path where one can discover another truth, and experiences of grace.

In the end – because we know both the beginning and the end to his journey and this path — he will refuse to engage the world on its own terms.  He will not allow it to define him, what he is called to do, or who he is meant to be.  This “son of God” gives us an example of how to avoid mistaking stone for bread; but live instead by that which “comes from the mouth of God.”

 

© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.  All rights reserved.

This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

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