Painting above is entitled "Jesus in the Wilderness" and it depicts Jesus -- sitting on a rock in the foreground surrounded by many expansive rock formations in the background -- looking haggard with head bowed and shoulders drooping. Behind him is a beautiful fiery sunset and dust storm.
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
March 10, 2019
Deuteronomy 6:12-16 & 8:1-18; Luke 4:1-13
Luke’s Gospel has a pattern of telling the whole gospel story over and over again in miniature. The thee temptations – to make bread of stones, to command the power of empire, and the temptation, of God’s will – stand in opposition to the ways in which Jesus lived out his baptismal calling. Nothing proposed in this story by τὸν σατανᾶν (the satan) – that is the adversary, the accuser, or the slanderer as we heard in the translation today –would have caused Jesus to do anything inherently harmful or evil, and in each case, some good could conceivably come. It’s merely benevolent self-interest. In fact, later in the Gospel, Jesus is described, not as turning stones into bread, but as feeding a multitude in the wilderness when it appears there is no food. He is said to possess a “kingdom” and to be able to confer it upon others. And by going to the cross, Jesus trusts, not in his own power to save himself, but in God alone.
Furthermore, “Jesus’ responses to the tests, all drawn from the account in Deuteronomy of Israel’s tests in the wilderness, remind us that Luke saw those tests as relating not just to the activity of the leader but also to the whole people’s relationship with God,”[i] a relationship of call and response in which all are called to be a light to the nations through righteousness – defined as right relationship with each other and with God.
Luke’s opening chapters are filled with the Spirit. In Luke’s three-part introduction to Jesus as an adult, each episode is framed by references to the Holy Spirit and affirmations that Jesus is duly anointed by the same Spirit, as would be a prophet, priest, or king. In the first of the three parts, Jesus’ character of humility is firmly established as he submits himself to the same humble baptism as the common people, by a prophet – John – who has dismissed himself from privilege in the halls of power.
In the second part, today’s text, Jesus makes clear what kind of messiah he is not going to be. In the third part, he provides the mandate for the kind of messiah he is going to be. His mission statement is a response to his forty-day wilderness trial. In roughly quoting Isaiah, if we take him at his word, Jesus does not say that he will make the poor rich – but that he will bring them good news – God favors the poor. He doesn’t say that he’ll release the captives or cure blindness – but he announces freedom and vision and the right time to release those bound by systems of injustice and privilege. In other words, he will not be a hero in the way that the world knows the hero – one who does serve and sacrifice for the common good, but one who does so through violence, destruction, hierarchy, and privilege – by any means necessary.
Today, there is a body of theory called Family Systems that strives to understand human function and dysfunction as occurring in relationships rather than individuals. For instance, it proposes that there are not narcissistic individuals, but anxiety in family systems that exhibits through individuals as narcissistic behavior. Relationships naturally form themselves into the most stable configuration possible – a triangle. Anxiety – neither a good or bad thing – is an inherent aspect of life – it is the fuel of the relationship engine. Triangles form to control or contain that anxiety. The goal of the triangle is homeostasis, permitting the individuals in a triangle to resist change. If one member of the triangle leaves or is removed, the remaining members – consciously or unconsciously – will seek a new third member, and will induce that member to take up the same role as the previous member. In dysfunctional systems, the triangle will often be composed of a Victim, a Persecutor, and a Rescuer.
“Victims see life as happening to them and feel powerless to change their circumstances. Victims place the blame for their status on a Persecutor, who can be a person or a situation. Being powerless, Victims seek Rescuers to solve the problem for them. This dynamic is cyclical and repeats as one problem replaces another, creating a roller-coaster effect of tension and relief in a person's life.”[ii] All three roles contribute to the dysfunction of the system – even though we typically tend to laud the rescuer. You can imagine how quickly the Rescuer can become the new Persecutor, the former Persecutor the new Victim, and the former Victim forced to either become the new Rescuer or to become an even more helpless Victim. I see a clear connection to the Gospel narrative and message, and particularly in Jesus’ refusal to be disoriented from his baptismal calling and mission statement into disorientation.
Let’s take another look at the three temptations or disorientations from Jesus’ true calling. The first is the problem of hunger, and by extension any kind of poverty or disadvantage, individual or systemic. If we take Luke’s narrative at face value, Jesus seems to have taken off from his baptism immediately, without much in the way of provisions. The disorienter – remember, Luke names it σατανᾶν – says, “Since you are the son of God, you can rescue yourself from hunger.” Not a bad thing certainly, but Jesus says… “No. That’s not my mission.”
It’s important to say that this does not let us off the hook regarding human need. In fact, it may be part of the reason Jesus must say “no” – because we are called and gifted to respond. Again and again, Jesus defers to the innate resources of those wanting to change circumstances. Jesus is saying “no,” not because it is wrong or unimportant, but because rescuing is a distraction from his mission of restoring righteousness – justice and shalom – systems in which hunger and disadvantage are not perpetuated. Jesus says, “I will not participate in an unhealthy role in a dysfunctional system. I will not be a rescuer.”
Then there is the lure of imperial power. If only Jesus would worship the disorienter – if he would validate the one who pretends to grant absolute worldly power, if he would buy into the system of privilege, domination, control, and manipulation – he could instantly set the world aright. Not a bad thing – especially if it’s Jesus doing it. We would trust him, wouldn’t we? But to accept that kind of power would make him a different Jesus.
It would make him a persecutor, one who removes or overcomes our agency as beings created in the image of God – powerful, imaginative, and creative. So Jesus says…
“No. That is not my mission. It’s a disorientation from the business of revealing an alternate world, an empire built of a different kind of power – the power of forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice. I will not participate in an unhealthy role in a dysfunctional system. I will not be a persecutor.”
Third, says the disorienter, I know how you can get the world’s attention. I can arrange for a spectacle that will guarantee you a following. Make yourself the victim – that will get attention. Use the agency – the personal power that has been granted to you – to demonstrate your importance in God’s plan. Become the victim in the most public place in the land. Throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple, and God will send messengers to intervene. How could that be wrong?
But Jesus says…
“No. That is not my mission. It is a disorientation from empowering agency, ability, voice, vision, and release from the circumstances and systems that hold us back from receiving the grace and accepting the call to fulfill God’s desires for creation. I will not participate in an unhealthy role in a dysfunctional system. I will not be a victim.”
In the wilderness of our everyday lives – in the tests and trials we face as individuals or as participants in systems – we are not usually tempted to perform miracles, wield global power, or attempt public self-destruction in order to illicit mercy or attention. But we are all part of many triangles of relationship that attempt to manage anxiety through means of control as rescuers, persecutors, and victims. Jesus showed us another way, a way that does not entail removing ourselves from triangles. He, after all, is a member of the most significant triangle according to our Christian world-view. But he modeled through his ministry of healing, heart, and humility, a wholistic way, truer to our good nature, full of abundant life.
There is a mirror image of the drama triangle, called the empowerment dynamic. “In the empowerment dynamic, the Victim shifts into the role of Creator. The Persecutor is instead the Challenger, and the Rescuer assumes the role of Coach.
A Creator is someone who stops to think about what they want – what their long-term goal or vision is. Creators are process-oriented as opposed to problem-oriented. Problems will always occur, but instead of acting as a Persecutor, the problem now takes on the form of Challenger. A Challenger is a person or situation that forces us to clarify our goal. Challengers encourage us to get clearer about what it is we do want, and then focus our efforts toward moving closer to that goal.
The third role of the empowerment triangle is that of Coach. Instead of rescuing someone, a Coach asks questions that are intended to help make informed choices. A Rescuer, by definition, solves a Victim's problems, which keeps the Victim powerless and dependent upon the aid of others. The key differentiation between a Rescuer and a Coach is that the Coach sees the individual as capable of making choices and of solving their own problems. A Coach asks questions that enable the individual to see the possibilities for positive action, to focus on what they do want instead of what they don't want. Coaches see victims as Creators in their own right and meet them as equals. This process interrupts the drama cycle and puts the former Victim in the powerful position of Creator where they make informed choices and focus on [process] instead of problems.”[iii]
As we look to Jesus, we are often tempted to see him as rescuer, victor, and victim. There are times in our lives when each of us would adapt to one of these roles, and think we are following the way of Jesus. But in the wilderness encounter with the slanderer, Jesus denies each of those roles, and for our salvation. Instead, Jesus refuses to be disoriented from his mission to empower us.
Instead of the Divine Victim, he is the Creator, identifying the goal of creation – the shalom of God.
Instead of the Persecutor or Victor, he is the Challenger, forcing us to clarify the goal, encouraging us to get clear about what God does want, and then focusing our efforts toward moving closer to that goal.
Instead of the Rescuer, he is the Coach, enabling us with vision for positive action.
Jesus sees those who think of themselves and who the world thinks of as victims, instead as creators in their own right – also filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, as observed and celebrated in baptism.
In Jesus, we have known a Creator, Challenger, and Coach. We have heard a call to follow in his way of forgiveness, generosity, hospitality, inclusion, and justice. What disorients us away from that call? Which dysfunctions entrap us in habits that prevent our response? What roles do we play that perpetuate temptations from our mission as agents of God’s shalom? These are the questions of Lent – the questions that will guide us on our journey into the heart of God – the journey to salvation.
Salvation means to benefit – to keep in good health, as in the well-being of community, family, or individual.
It means to protect, as a salve protects a wound, allowing the inherent power of the body to heal.
It means to keep, as in keeping a fire going.
It means to preserve the inner being of one’s humanity.
It means to free from destructive systems that lame and blame, that blind and bind, that get us stuck in dead end roles and habits.
It means sin and death are not the end of the story.
It means the freedom of the new life in Christ.
Travel light on your journey. Leave your baggage behind. Amen.
[i] Sharon H. Ringe, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1995), 60.