Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
Friend and mentor, Dave Hillis, president of Leadership Foundations, tells the story from his days as a camp counselor when he was asked to lead a seminar for urban youth. A young lady walked in just as it was about to start and asked Dave what the topic would be. When he told her it was about how to survive in the city, she immediately replied with attitude, “Oh, that’s easy! You only need three things–a gun, a condom and a Bible.”
The woman was expressing what Ben Beltran calls the “symbolic universe”–the narrative structure of the soul that holds us together and makes meaning of life. In fact, the Latin word symbolum literally means, “to hold together.” If we can resist judgment and listen, the young woman is saying something profound. She lives in a world where guns, condoms and bibles are equally valid tools of survival depending on the situation. We need a gospel that can speak into this reality and transform it.
As we enter the first week of Lent, Satan meets Jesus in the desert to discuss the symbolic universe of Israel. Satan chooses the elemental symbols of life–bread, crown and temple. If we step back to see the bigger picture, it becomes clear these symbols represent the economic, political and religious systems by which society functions. When seen this way, the temptations are about the narrative structure of life itself.
Bread: From Scarcity to Abundance
Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread. Jesus resists and insists that God’s economy is one of abundance not scarcity. Even though he is alone in a desert filled with nothing but sand and rocks, he does not react in fear; Jesus knows there is more than enough bread for all if we could only see it. In fact, later in the Gospels Jesus feeds five thousand to prove the point, and ultimately he is revealed as the bread of life that we celebrate at communion–a table open to all. There is more than enough. That is God’s economy.
Crown: From Domination to Doxology
Satan offers Jesus a crown, if he will “worship” Satan, but the crown that he offers is really a crown of thorns. Satan’s politics of domination and coercion, of might-makes-right and bigger is better, always ends with someone being sacrificed. Jesus exposes Satan’s twisted view of power and insists on a new kind of power–one that is perfected in weakness and is given away. That is God’s power worthy of “worship,” which is an important verb in this temptation. In Greek, the word is “doxa,” from which we get the word doxology (i.e. Praise God from whom all blessings flow…). The point here is that God’s power flows out, not in, and down, not up. Those are God’s politics.
Temple: From Sacrifice to Mercy
Jesus is taken to the temple, which is the sacred center of Israel. The devil tempts Jesus to throw himself into a religious system built on the sacrifice of innocents. Jesus resists, and in doing so, reimagines the entire premise of religion itself. In fact, he tears down the temple system and builds a new temple (himself) that is founded on mercy, not sacrifice. “I desire mercy not sacrifice” (Hosea 6:6). That is God’s religion.
The Lenten season is a reminder that we are desperate for a faith that reimagines our world through a lens of abundance, of blessing, and of mercy–a world that reflects God’s very heart. That is the promise which awaits Jesus, and us, on our way to Easter.
Adapted from Chapter 7, Symbolic Universe, in Geography of Grace – Doing Theology from Below.