Lent's scripture themes expose, taunt 'imperial darkness'
For those who follow the lectionary, Lent in 2007 will be a journey through the stormy seas of Luke. This journey will take us through Jerusalem tears, the call to repentance, prodigal forgiveness, anointing and betrayal and the triumphal entry, culminating in ultimate victory over the death-dealing powers and principalities of first-century Palestine.
The first Sunday in Lent (Feb. 25) finds Jesus face-to-face with temptation (Luke 4:1-13), forced to choose between demonic, earthly alliances and his allegiance to the God of justice and Torah-based righteousness. While in the end victory is assured, the gift of Easter begins in the uncertainty of wilderness. Like his ancient ancestors, Jesus will spend 40 days fasting before the demon-sponsored seductions of empire.
The first challenge to the famished "Son of God" is to turn stone into bread. The title "Son of God" provides some context. In first-century Palestine there was only one "son of god," namely Caesar. When the gospels rename Jesus as such, it is not simply a theological claim, but a direct challenge to the sovereignty of the Roman Empire. The devil does the bidding for Rome, seeking to separate Jesus from his allegiance to the God of Israel. The true "Son of God" could do such bread-making magic, but Jesus cites scripture instead (Deut. 8:1-3), insisting that God will define his mission and use of power.
Although he fails to tempt by bread, the devil ups the ante. The kingdoms of the world are now on the table. These kingdoms and their power are in possession of the demonic one (vs. 6). The offer is now made concrete: "If you will worship me, it will all be yours." The proposal made here is not one of generic power, but of worldly power - the social, economic, political, and religious power which permeates everyday life in every age, perhaps historically and most powerfully embodied by Rome. The term used here for "kingdoms" is the Greek basileias. When Herod is introduced in the first chapter, the same noun for king (basileus) is used. Thus, according to Luke, Herod is an ally and agent of Satan. His kingship, derived from the devil and allied with Rome, contrasts with Jesus who is king by God's calling. Again citing his God revealed in the "second law," Jesus affirms his steadfast fidelity to the "Lord your God" (Deut. 6:13; Luke 4:8).
The third leg of the trinitarian temptation comes in the form of the Jerusalem Temple. Jerusalem, the center of first-century secular and religious power, is the locale which permeates the gospels in particular and Jewish life in general. Here, the devil - perhaps in frustration - mimics Jesus by quoting scripture, attempting to show that the command to "throw yourself down" is all under God's control (Ps 11a, 12). Pulling out the Torah for a third time (Deut. 6:16), Jesus declares that he will not demand any display from God, but will trust and act at God's direction only. Although the scene ends with yet another demonic challenge successfully met, Luke promises - with the shadow of Jerusalem looming - that the devil will be back at "an opportune time."
Lent is a season of confession, repentance and spiritual cleansing; indeed, an opportune time for personal renewal. Yet, in our historical moment, as in Jesus' moment, many of our individual temptations and failings are directly related to the impersonal powers and principalities under which we live. The Gospel of Luke challenges the faithful to recognize and confront the ubiquitous power of empire and its social, economic, religious and military manifestations.
May this Lenten season be one in which we are all strengthened to confront the seductions of the imperial darkness that surrounds us. As it was two centuries ago, we are called today to follow the true Son of God, living out our lives in deep conversation with the Lord of life.
The Rev. Thomas I. Warren is pastor of Pleasant Hill Community UCC in Tennessee. His bible study series will appear in each issue on the spirituality page.
What are the "seductions of empire" which confront the church and its ministry today?
In what ways are our holy Scriptures used to legitimize worldly temptations and the agendas of the powerful?
What are the gifts of the wilderness - for Israel, Jesus and us?