9 Mar 2014 – Dr. Irene Lawrence:
On this first Sunday in Lent, the Gospels tell us of Jesus’ temptation. The way the story is told, it happened right after his baptism, but I don’t think we are to suppose that this was the only time he was tempted, or, perhaps more in line with contemporary English, the only time he was put to the test. When I read it this time, the third test struck me—the one about getting all power and wealth if only Jesus would worship a false god. Jesus, who knows his scripture pretty well, answers with a quote, as he did for the first two tests; this quote is from Deuteronomy (6:13): “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
I think I, at least, have been passing over this a bit too glibly. Why would someone be tempted to worship Satan, anyway? We already know he’s a liar. And besides, however ignorant they may have been back in Jesus’s time, we now know no other God exists. Actually, even atheists believe that only one God’s existence needs to be denied.
We have become used to thinking that the uniqueness of our God is in God’s existence. There’s logic in that, and I’m not saying it’s wrong. But “existence” is a particular philosophical category, and it’s not the only way to think about God’s uniqueness. It’s probably not even a common New Testament way to think about God’s uniqueness.
Let’s forget “existence” for a moment and look at a more functional way of describing God’s uniqueness. In his first letter to the Corinthians, right after saying “There is no God but one,” Paul adds, “Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven and on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, …and one Lord, Jesus Christ.”
“There are many gods and lords”—no, I don’t think Paul meant us to take that completely literally, but he had a point in saying it that I think we miss. Let’s forget for a moment all the silly and superstitious stories about the Greek and Roman gods (which can almost be matched, by the way, by the silly and superstitious stories about Jesus’s childhood or about some of the saints). Let’s try to imagine what it was really like in a polytheistic world. As polytheists, we would name as gods those things, or qualities, or values, or aspirations that were most important to us, those things which, although they might change from time to time, gave our lives meaning. To use some of the ancient names (mostly Greek & Roman, because that’s what I know best): power (Zeus/Jupiter), love and sex (Aphrodite/Venus), fertility (Astarte, or with a slightly different slant Ceres/Persephone), money (Mammon), wisdom (Athene/Minerva), war (Ares/Mars), cats (Bastet), home and family (Hera/Juno), the good life (Dionysius/Bacchus), technology (Hephaestus/Vulcan), the state (Caesar).
Although these gods were certainly personified, they were not always taken literally, or even supernaturally. For example, no sensible Roman thought any Caesar was a god in any literal or supernatural sense, but if we offered sacrifice to Caesar, as a god, we showed that the Roman state was something that we valued and accepted. To Roman eyes, it was like a pledge, or maybe even oath, of allegiance. Since we’re not limiting ourselves to one god, we can give the establishment Caesar when they insist, and still have room for Hera and Bastet, or Zeus and Mammon, or whatever works for us, to give our lives meaning.
But the trouble, of course, is that these things don’t ultimately give our lives meaning, at least not when push comes to shove. We get power, and find ourselves using our power corruptly. Our lover betrays us. Our crops are destroyed by drought or locusts. Our children disappoint us; our parents fail us. Our home or family breaks up. Our money vanishes, or doesn’t buy us the happiness we expect. Our country does evil to its citizens or to other nations. Our church hurts us. Even our cats die, disappear, or desert us for another home. And then, as the cynic says, we die.
I think the temptation to worship false gods is very much with us still. We just don’t name them gods any more.
There’s another ramification of the loss of “god” as a functional term: it sets up a sometimes false dichotomy between Christians and atheists. An atheist might say, “I don’t believe in a god who causes children to die.” The only Christian response to that is, “I don’t believe in that god, either. Early Christians were actually called atheists, because they disbelieved in more gods than anyone else. Today, it’s easy to set up “straw gods,” some more plausible than others, and identify them with the God and Father of Jesus, because after all, there’s only one God, isn’t there? A very common “straw god” is the one who loves good people and hates evil people. An infinite number of straw gods fit this framework, one for every definition of good vs. evil that the human mind can devise. In some of the variants, the god sends evildoers to hell reluctantly; in others the god seems to take pleasure in being a bully, pouncing on you when you misunderstand the complex and random instructions for being good. In a set of particularly vicious versions, good things in life mean that the god is pleased with you, whereas if bad things happen, you have done something wrong and are being punished. If there were any such gods, it would be our life’s work to oppose them tooth and nail. But we Christians are atheists with respect to all those gods.
Who, then, is God “for us” as Paul puts it? The God of Jesus, the God who is also Jesus. That God is indeed God for us, and God with us, our Emmanuel. The incarnation is not an abstract theological game; it is the realest thing there is. God doesn’t sit unmoved up in heaven and watch us like we might watch ants in an ant farm. God knows our joys and sorrows, our pain, our defeats, the unfairness of it all, because God suffered it in Jesus and suffers it with us now. Someone once said about Jesus that in him, “God was man enough to take his own medicine.” Our God is not a fair-weather God, available only in good times; our God is not a straw God, available only to the good, whoever they are; our God is not a lesser god, available only when we have access to some particular want. Certainly our God is with us in good times, but, human as we are, we take that for granted. It’s in difficult times that we need to remember that God in Christ lives with us, aches with us, grieves with us, weeps with us, and, when necessary, dies with us.
Back in today’s first scripture reading, we heard the old story of the garden, and Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Before they ate, the story says, they didn’t know the difference. And since we were told earlier that everything God made was good, that means that before they ate, they knew only good; after, they knew both good and evil.
I wonder how the story would have gone on if they hadn’t eaten that fruit, and continued to know only good. If I were continuing the story, I would write that they lived full lives, full of happiness and grief, success and failure, joy and sorrow, pleasure and pain, even death, but they knew it all as good, because God was with them in the garden.
However, as the story is actually written, Adam and Eve, now knowing evil as well as good, were expelled from the garden as an act of mercy, to prevent them from eating from the other special tree there, the tree of life. Thus they were, according to the story, deprived of true life; they were merely living. But Jesus, according to Paul in today’s epistle, has restored for us the true life that Adam and Eve lost for us—and more than restored, has brought us a new kind of life, ζωή αἰώνιος, real life, life of the age, eternal life, post-resurrection life. It’s a life in which God is always with us, in joy and in sorrow, and nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God.