It is no accident that Jesus winds up in the wilderness after his baptism.
He is not lost, and he is not being punished for something he has done wrong (assumptions that people today sometimes make about their own “wilderness experiences”). He has been led by the Holy Spirit for a purpose: to be tempted or tested (the underlying Greek means both; Matt 4:1) by the devil. His scriptural debate with Diabolos functions as an assessment (or, perhaps, a proof) of his readiness as God’s beloved Son (Matt 3:17) for the mission entrusted to him. He has the credentials and the authority for this mission, amply demonstrated in Matthew’s Gospel by the genealogy and birth narrative. Now, through this wilderness test, Jesus stands squarely in the long history of the people of God even as his encounter with the devil points ahead to a future as yet unfolding before him.
Throughout the scriptures, the wilderness represents a place of preparation, a place of waiting for God’s next move, a place of learning to trust in God’s mercy. For forty days and nights Jesus remains in the wilderness, without food, getting ready for what comes next.
Temptation, Testing and Real Life Taking advantage of Jesus’ hunger, the devil tries to entice his opponent to grasp after domestic security for its own sake (amass more than his share of food–turn stones into multiple loaves of bread), demonstrate his close association with the powerful (prove that God’s angels will keep him from injury) and secure the glory of political leadership (rule the kingdoms of the world). The temptation is not that food, power and leadership are inherently wrong, but rather that they can be used for the wrong ends, or at the wrong time.
What happens in the wilderness does not stay in the wilderness; rather, it plays again in the life and ministry of God’s beloved son (Matt 3:17). The answers are different on different occasions, but the choices are very much the same:
The wilderness tests of the Temptation account are not a one-time ordeal to get through, but they are tests of preparation for the choices Jesus makes in his earthly ministry. Indeed, readers of Matthew’s Gospel have an opportunity to see how the wilderness experience is replayed in Jesus’ encounters with persons who are sick, hungry or in need; with persons who use their connections to power (including, perhaps, the lawyers, Pharisees and Sadducees who test him in various ways; e.g., Matt 16:1; 19:3; 22:18, 35) to ascertain his loyalty; with persons who too easily worry about the world’s assessment of greatness rather than God’s (including some of his own disciples; e.g., Matt 18:1-5).
God with us
The promise of the gospel is that the one who is “with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20) has already gone ahead of his followers, even to the most forsaken places of the wilderness; he meets them in the most difficult tests of their own lives. No place is so desolate, so distant, or so challenging that Jesus has not already been there; no test or temptation is so great that Jesus has not already overcome it. Further, Jesus’ encounter with the devil represents in many ways his encounter with the cultural pressures of his day. How does one respond to very real physical and spiritual needs? What does it look like to trust God in this context? What are appropriate uses of authority and power that serve the world by serving God? For the followers of Jesus, then and now, these are important questions about how to live out their faithfulness in the realities of daily life, empowered by the One who is “Emmanuel, God with us” (Matt 1:23).
Context means everything.
If one reads Genesis 2–3 against the backdrop of Christian theology and tradition, themes such as “Original Sin” or “the Fall” emerge. Within the context of the lectionary, the idea of temptation is prominent for this first Sunday in Lent. This is appropriate, since Lent is a season of repentance and reflection. In the context of biblical scholarship, however, especially among those who seek to locate the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures in their ancient Near Eastern context, one finds narratives about the conflicted origins of knowledge or the painful progression of development toward human maturity. In this last context of interpretation, the emphasis moves toward themes of what it means to be fully human under the rule of a divine king. With a little theological imagination, all of these themes can provide good content for preaching in the season of Lent. My own reflections on Genesis 2–3 emerge from yet another context of interpretation–the internment experience of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. Since this historical event is not the most natural fit for the Garden story, my interpretive move requires a brief explanation. What does Manzanar have to do with Eden?
I was confronted with the preceding question when I was asked to preach on the first Sunday of Lent in mid-February a few years back. I am a Sansei, a third-generation Japanese American; and hence, I am one generation removed from the internment of over 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066–the legislative act that put into law this unjust imprisonment. Consequently, the Japanese American community has marked this day as an annual day of remembrance to commemorate those who lived through the camps. Whenever I am asked to preach around February 19th, I incorporate themes that emerge from the Japanese American experience of internment both to raise historical awareness and as an act of conscience. One particular year, February 19th fell near the first Sunday in Advent during a Year A cycle. Thus, my challenge was to tie in themes from the internment, such as community survival and persistence, with the Edenic narrative. I include this window into my interpretative process in order to suggest that interpretation is always an ongoing navigation between text and context, between the Bible and its readers. What emerged from this theological reflection was an insight into the biblical material itself–one that I had not formerly considered in my scholarship or teaching.
In turning to Genesis 2–3, one finds that the language of sin is absent in the text itself. The human beings certainly face consequences for their disobedience to the divine command; however, neither the narrator nor the characters use sin vocabulary to define the situation. Moreover, elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, the Eden narrative is not used to describe the sinfulness of humanity. Interpretations of this story as the Original Sin come much later in the history of Christian interpretation. An underlying assumption within these traditional readings of the Adam and Eve story is that the first couple was perfect and without sin. An ancient Israelite, however, would have assumed quite the opposite. In the ancient Near East, human beings were often portrayed as a rebellious group, seeking to assert their authority over/against the gods. More importantly, if one decides to read this story as a “Fall,” one is required to see the human couple’s acquisition of knowledge as problematic. The idiom, “good and evil,” which describes the essence of the forbidden fruit, means that the tree contains complete knowledge or knowledge from A to Z. Wouldn’t full knowledge be essential for human life?
A key for understanding the complexities of Genesis 2–3 is to remember its form. Like many stories in Genesis 1–11, the Eden tale is an etiology. That is, the story helps to explain important questions about certain realities in life–why is there pain in childbirth, why is the ground hard to work, why do snakes crawl upon the earth, etc. Genesis 2–3 suggests that knowledge, a necessity for human life, is something that is acquired painfully. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is certainly not the mark of human maturity. When humans understand what it means to be fully human–that is, when they have complete knowledge–the realities of life come into full relief in all of their complexity and difficulty. Knowledge is both enlightening and painful.
A second important theme that emerges out of Genesis 2–3–one that reflects the experience of Japanese Americans during the internment–is the theme of community persistence and survival in the face of an arbitrary decree. The Lord’s command is clear concerning the tree of knowledge, though no reason is given for it. The human couple shall not eat from the tree’s fruit, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (2:17). The Hebrew syntax is emphatic. The idiom means literally, “dying you shall surely die.” The surprising thing in this passage is not that the human beings disobey and eat. Rather, the shock comes from the fact that the humans, after eating the fruit, do not die but continue to live. The Lord threatened immediate death upon violation of the command, and yet the human beings continue to survive. In fact, after the first couple is expelled from the garden, they continue to live–even thrive–outside of the garden by being fruitful and multiplying (4:1–2). The story of Eden points to the first humans’ persistence and survival in the face of a divinely decreed death. Like the Israelites throughout their history, Adam and Eve serve as an example of how human beings continue to live even when the gods or other earthly powers have sanctioned their death. Surviving adversity is what makes Israel who they are and characterizes what humans have always done from “the beginning.”
The Lenten readings of Paul’s letter to the Romans begin with a summary.
While it may seem a bit strange to jump into this complex letter halfway through chapter 5, the text itself begins with a little phrase that is a major bridge between all that has gone before and the rest of the letter. Paul, preacher that he is, gives his hearers a cue. He essentially says, “Listen up now. I’m going to give you the basic picture of everything I’ve said so far.” Paul, however, is not able to make the sweeping generalizations required in a summary without hearing in his own mind the questions raised. For contemporary preachers to open up the main points of Paul’s joyful summary of good news is a worthy task and more than enough for a sermon.
In the first line of the passage, verse 12, Paul states what would have been clear to his hearers, all humans sin and all of them die. These points are so obvious that one might wonder, “why bother saying it, Paul?” Paul seems to have had a couple of important reasons.
First, Paul here groups a number of terms that describe the present grim realities and experiences of human life. Life for most North Americans in the twenty-first century is not as “nasty, brutish, and short” as it was in the first century and still is in many parts of the world, even among our near neighbors. Yet, sin and death shape human life.
Second, Paul connects the sin and death of all people to one man, Adam, in order to connect the justification and gift of grace to all through one man, Jesus the Messiah. He does not say how or why these connections work, but sets up a parallel between the story of Adam and the conditions that we know to the story of Jesus and the promises we trust.
Third, death is given a rich meaning. The waxing and waning of seasons, growth, and death was built into creation. The death which came through Adam was death outside the garden, a death outside of God’s good creation. Death then is about more than the end of physical life, but about life apart from God and God’s purpose. This becomes important when we get to the final triumphant claim that grace (we might simply say “God”) is for eternal life, most fully understood.
After picking up some side issues, important but not vital to the basics of what he wants to say, Paul comes back to his main summary again in verse 18. Here he begins with a phrase akin to “so then” or “so, now.” He is taking up where he had left off and moving on with slightly different vocabulary to make his full point. The balance he sets up is between the trespass of the one that led to the condemnation of all and the righteous deed of one that leads to acquittal or righteousness for all. Now the comparison of Adam and Jesus is fully stated. Paul does not try to systematize this scheme, but rather to use it illustratively in a way that can lead to hope. In fact, the statement of this amazing reconciliation (cf. 5:10-11) or setting right is so unsystematic that it lacks verbs and subjects! Paul doesn’t carve his statement in stone, but sketches it quickly, provocatively.
He continues this main thought in verse 19 where he uses language of obedience as parallel to the righteous deed of v. 18. It is the obedience of one man that counters the disobedience of the first. The same obedience that was at stake in the temptation stories of the Matthew and Luke and appears in Philippians 2: That same obedience is akin to the faithfulness of Jesus in 3:22. It is obedience to God’s driving purpose to bring salvation to the world.
Noting that the gift of Jesus’ faithfulness and the grace of God is inexpressibly greater than Adam’s original trespass, Paul finishes this unit with verse 21. It is clear that for Paul, verse 12 flows into 21 and is completed by it. Perhaps lectionary developers wanted to avoid the difficulties of verse 20 with its reference to the law. It is a difficult verse and a kind of aside for persons who might have wondered what the law was for, if not to help humans avoid trespass. Unfortunately for us, verse 20 precedes the powerful conclusion to the passage. In verse 21 Paul again takes up the use of sin and death, here personified as rulers. One might think of them as tyrants, petty despots who had been in charge of life here. But Paul corrects our impression based on experience with his assertion that it is grace that rules through that righteousness/justice for eternal life (the opposite of death as broadly understand from verse 12), because of Jesus Christ our Lord.
The whole passage ends with the full invocation of the name, title, and relationship of Jesus to us. It is the flipping over of the apparent truth of verse 12 by God’s mercy and God’s fidelity to God’s own promises and plan, enacted by Jesus. Each word reminds us of the powerful claim of this unit, that there is a Lord who is for life. This one through his righteousness, his just enactment of faithfulness to God, is our lord. The grim realities we live with do not tell the whole story of God or of our lives.