Tell Me What You Want

The First Sunday of Lent

The readings for the first Sunday of Lent are Luke 4:1-10 and “Freedom From Life and Death” from The Whole World is a Single Flower.

Luke 4:1-10 (Revised English Bible)

Full of the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan, and for forty days he wandered in the wilderness, led by the Spirit and tempted by the devil. During that time he ate nothing, and at the end of it he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread. ’ Jesus answered, ‘Scripture says, “One is not to live on bread alone.” ’

Next the devil led him to a height and showed him in a flash all the kingdoms of the world. ‘All this dominion will I give to you,’ he said, ‘and the glory that goes with it; for it has been put in my hands and I can give it to anyone I choose. You have only to do homage to me and it will all be yours. ’ Jesus answered him, ‘Scripture says, “You shall do homage to the Lord your God and worship him alone.” ’

The devil took him to Jerusalem and set him on the parapet of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down from here; for scripture says, “He will put his angels in charge of you,” and again, “They will support you in their arms for fear you should strike your foot against a stone.” ’ Jesus answered him, ‘It has been said, “You are not to put the Lord your God to the test.” ’
So, having come to the end of all these temptations, the devil departed, biding his time.

“Freedom From Life and Death” from The Whole World Is A Single Flower

Under the sea, a running cow eats the moon.
In front of the rock, the stone tiger sleeps, holding a baby in his arms.
The steel snake drills into the eye of a diamond.
Mount Kun-Lun rides on the back of an elephant pulled by a little bird.

1. Which of these sentences is freedom from life and death ?

COMMENTARY: If you want something then you lose everything. If you don’t want anything then you already have everything. But you must hear the stone lion roaring. Then the whole world is in your hand. You can be free and can do anything.

This week we encounter Jesus while he is tempted by the devil in the wilderness. I imagine most readers have their own picture of what Jesus looked like, and it’s a safe bet most of us envision a human male. Likewise, most readers will have at least a rough idea of what the wilderness in Palestine/Israel looks like – perhaps fueled by Hollywood Bible epics. But how do we picture the devil in this story? Is Jesus arguing with a man with horns and a tail and dressed in a red suit? Was Jesus talking to a six-inch figure who stood on his shoulder and smoked a cigar like George Burns? Between its reference to an incarnate devil, and its lack of description of Jesus’s struggle in the wilderness, the story usually comes across to me as a facile way to show that Jesus is pure of heart. Frankly, it’s a story I often gloss over. So I challenge myself to see what else might lurk beneath the surface of this story of temptation.

This week I begin not with the simple fact that Jesus was tempted, but rather the objects of his temptation. Jesus experiences temptation for food, wealth and mighty displays of power. These seem like normal things to desire, but would have special meaning to Jesus. He grew up in an area ruled by the Roman Empire, living under the domination of the Caesar and henchmen like Pontius Pilate. As a subject of Roman power he knew poverty and violence intimately. If he believed himself God’s son and felt the power of his encounter with God coursing through his veins, why not use God’s power for good? With that power he could feed his hungry village and even possibly regain the rule of Israel for his people. Of course being the smart guy he was, Jesus figured he should probably do a few tests at first, just to be sure. The desert was a perfect place to take his new powers out for a test drive.

The problem with power, as history tells us, is that it goes to the head. Certainly the “son of God” would have amazing power. Later in the Gospels we see Jesus performing stunning miracles like feeding thousands of people, walking on water, and even bringing dead people back to life. I imagine that as he wandered in the wilderness, considering his baptism experience, he might have also noticed some ego seeping in. As Jesus wandered in the wilderness was he tempted by the devil, or was he tempted by Jesus? This year I read this story as an allegory about Jesus wrestling with his own desire, with finding the appropriate use of his new-found abilities and identity. Why not feed everyone he loves? Why not become ruler of all the world and take revenge on Rome? Why not show off in Jerusalem at the temple, for fun if nothing else? Because these “miracles,” ultimately, would not be about God’s kingdom but be about his ego.

Jesus proves to be wiser than this. In the end he does not indulge his desire. Teachings from scripture come to his mind which show him the correct way. He begins to understand that, as Zen Master Seung Sahn says in the commentary on today’s Zen poem, “If you want something then you lose everything. If you don’t want anything then you already have everything.” Jesus sees that fulfilling his desires with any hint of ego is not the way of God. After his baptism Jesus was fully open to God’s love, but was soon tempted with what he could accomplish on his own with God’s power. In the wilderness Jesus came to understand that God’s love was enough for him, that he did not need to prove himself to himself or to others. Paradoxically it is this love that empowers him to change the world, to perform miracles for others (feeding the five thousand) which he denied for himself (refusing to turn stones into bread) in the desert.

Perhaps Jesus was wrestling with a man in a red suit with a tail and horns. I think he was looking deeply at his own desires. During Lent we often put ourselves to the test. Perhaps giving up chocolate is not the same as fasting for forty days, but the idea is the same. During Lent we are invited to see the temptations which hold sway over us. What temptations hold sway over you? How might you turn these temptations into gifts for others, as Jesus did with his own gifts?

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