Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“One does not live by bread alone.” (Mt. 4)
This past Wednesday—Ash Wednesday—several of us were down at the corner of 4th and Montaño offering “ashes to go” to passers-by. At one point, a group of four guys came along, and they stopped to look quizzically at our sign.
“Is today Ash Wednesday?” one of them asked.
“Yes, it is,” we replied.
“Does that mean it’s Lent?”
“Yes, it does.”
“Oh, shit, that means I can’t eat meat!”
I suppose you could reduce Lent to such a simple idea—a time of do’s and don’ts—but I wonder if that is actually getting it rather backwards.
Perhaps Lent is instead a time when we are asked to confront the true complexity of our lives.
In today’s gospel, we encounter Jesus in the wilderness, making his own forty-day fast in preparation for the beginning of his public ministry. In this vulnerable state, the devil comes to tempt him, asking him first to turn stones into bread; then to test his own sense of security by throwing himself off a high place; and then to make a power grab by vowing allegiance to Satan himself.
The struggle that Jesus has to make in the desert is to come to terms with the complexity ambiguity of his own identity: who am I, he must of thought, this person who senses deep within himself a call to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God? How will I confront the injustices of Roman occupied Palestine? How will I bring hope to an occupied and despairing people?
The temptation he faces is to reduce those complicated questions to the simplicity of a single thing—material wealth, personal security, or political power. The temptation, in other words, is to refuse to take responsibility for the authentic complexity and consequences of what he is uniquely called to be and to do, substituting instead a superficial and naive projection of the self.
And that list (wealth, security, and power) should sound pretty familiar, because it’s not unlike the list of issues that are being debated in our national politics right now. What truly makes us great? What makes us secure? What is the right use of power? How interesting that Jesus emerged from his own confrontation with those kinds of questions to preach the Sermon on the Mount, offering the full complexity of the Beatitudes’ challenge to be peacemakers, merciful, lovers of righteousness.
But I want to take us a step further, and reflect on why engaging the true complexity and ambiguity of our lives is spiritually so important.
In his book, The Lonely Man of Faith, the twentieth-century rabbi and philosopher Joseph Soloveitchik talks about the difference between the two accounts of creation in the book of Genesis, and specifically Adam’s role in each. (And yes, there are two very distinct creation accounts in Genesis, that tell two very different stories about God’s act of creation. In fact, you might make it a Lenten meditation to explore those differences for yourself.)
In the first account, Adam masters and subdues the world, transforming it into a domain for his power and sovereignty.
But in the second account, Adam is a man of relationship, who tills the garden and preserves it. This is the Adam that we encounter in today’s Old Testament lesson, and it is in this account that Eve is created out of his own flesh, and in that act of self-sacrifice, this alternative Adam establishes the essential covenantal nature of existence.
Soloveitchik argues that our personhood is to be found in the tension that lies between these two portraits of human existence. We are, as he says, both material like the first Adam and spiritual like the second; we are scientifically minded like the first Adam and mystically inclined like the second; and we are endowed with immense power like the first Adam and vulnerable and in need of companionship like the second.
To live successfully in that tension requires a rather complex appreciation of what is required of us as human beings, for we are constantly trying to navigate the conflicting demands and claims that we feel made upon ourselves—and therein lies the temptation. We human beings wish that things were simple, and rebel against complexity, wanting instead for the path of our lives to be clear, unambiguous, and straightforward. But in the pursuit of that clarity, we too often reduce the world around us, and especially the people around us, into stereotyped projections of our own desires or fears rather than making room for the challenge they make to our engrained picture of ourselves and the world.
Just think, for instance, of how easy it is to assume that our children will want to follow our own footsteps and be just like us in their choice of career, or partner, or home.
Or think of how easy it is to assume that we have a clear and complete grasp of the facts of a situation, that leaves no room for an alternative interpretation.
The danger, of course, in collapsing complexity into simplicity is that it denies the nature of reality itself, which is immensely complicated with layer upon layer of meaning, and an underlying uncertainty that betrays our self-assured attempts at control and mastery.
Denying that complexity therefore leads to distortion—which is exactly the point with which Jesus rebukes Satan in his temptations. No, we do not live by bread alone. No, security is not the primary good. And no, power is not to be desired as an end unto itself. Life is simply more complicated than that, and the decisions and commitments we make are therefore more ambiguous and uncertain.
I was visiting with someone earlier this week about a trip he had made home to visit family. His relatives, it turns out, are on the opposite end of the political spectrum from where he is, and he commented about how odd it was that they seemed to have an alternative set of mutually reinforcing facts that made it impossible to discuss any issue at hand with them. It was as though they inhabit a foreign land, or speak a foreign language. In fact, said my conversation partner, it was like a new Tower of Babel, when language has become so scrambled that no one is able to understand or even to talk with anyone else.
And that is the ultimate consequence of reducing complexity to simplicity: there is no longer room for discussion or negotiation, because there is no longer any appreciation of nuance or ambiguity that might suggest a diversity of approaches to the essential questions of our lives, both at a personal and societal level.
Lent, then, might be thought of as a time to reclaim the complexity of our lives as they are lived in the world. I say that rather ironically, because we tend to think of Lent as a time for simplifying, a time to lay aside whatever encumbers our spiritual self and blocks our deeper relationship with God. But perhaps the reverse is also true, that if we have settled into unduly naïve or simplistic ideas, then Lent is also a time to reconnect appreciatively with the tension within us between the variety of claims that are made upon our time and allegiance, and to recognize how carefully we have to weigh and gauge those claims if we are to live in community with integrity and honesty.
Substance. Complexity. Nuance. Ambiguity. Our natural craving for clarity and certainty makes us draw back from these markers of our existence. But the Adam that is within each of us, would pull us back into them, for being created in the image of an infinitely complex God, it should be no surprise that we are in the end a mystery even to ourselves. May we not be tempted to think otherwise. Amen.
© Joseph Britton, 2017