People today have lost the ability to think in broadly metaphorical terms. So, our difficulty interpreting the Bible today is “not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they took them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.” That line from John Dominic Crossan surely applies to how we must understand holy words. It reminds me of another apt phrase: that all the Bible is true and some of it actually happened. Our two stories today about the “Fall” in the Garden of Eden and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness have that character: they are true and non-factual. We must be smart enough to take them symbolically. Human wholeness depends on it.
We ourselves are, after all, “living stories” for others to read for good or ill. And our lives are lived in and guided by stories. But we don’t take time usually to engage the stories deeply. Daily news comes in snippets. The capitalization of time itself forces us to look more at headlines and first paragraphs rather than the detail. We are hurried and impatient, more responsive to images than to words. If we do follow a story, it is more like binge-watching Netflix with something soothing and liquid in our hands. Thus we’re probably not as attentive as we think we are. Media manipulators of course prefer that we all be ADD addled. More clicks mean more income for the streamers and more power for the propagandists. So, if we have accommodated to the wiles of mass communication, we tend to gloss and skip over details, thereby misinterpreting for the sheer lack of context and arc whatever story has met our gaze. Even the word “read” has been emptied of meaning. So I concluded when I unfollowed a spiritual direction authority after he tweeted that he had read 40 books already only 3 days into his New Year resolution.
Skipping and assuming stuff is a problem with the familiar story we have from Genesis today. Note that it is abridged. Otherwise it’s “too long” for worship services that someone said should never exceed one hour (!). And, the editing down unintentionally reinforces a hateful misinterpretation of the story. Let’s be clear about the basics. The earth was not created in six 24 hour periods and talking snakes never existed. This story is not factual. But it speaks truly about humankind’s reliance more on our preference to go our own ways rather than trust in God. Having been much edited, we miss that the story also earlier makes very clear that the creation of man and woman was about God gracing us with authentic companionship. It was not about sexual expression and not about an imputed normative “complementarian” model of male and female relationship.
Most literally, the Hebrew for ‘man’ and ‘woman’ simply mean “Human” and “Of Human,” thus emphasizing mutuality and comm-union over any other classification. The long-held spin that woman was responsible for sin and that therefore all women are inferior is not true to the words. Mutuality and communion are the key terms of understanding and the point of created relationship in the story. To correlate this with a much later paraphrased Pauline conclusion, “there is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, Person of Color nor Colorless, Straight nor Gay nor Trans, short nor tall, Californian nor Texan, neither even Republican nor Democrat, but we are all one in Christ Jesus.” Our story instead is about holy mutuality and communion.
How did that that communion get restored? Christ’s triumph over temptation changed the stacked game that had prevailed since humankind first distrusted. It is still a deadly game. The powers and principalities against God and human wholeness are as against us as ever. The enemy stalks in our private wildernesses as much as ever. But God in Christ has changed the algorithm back toward a meaningful life, back to God and each other, away from the temptation to the shallowest material conceits, away from alienation from others and self. And thus, we turn to the true and wholly symbolic story of Jesus in the wilderness.
Remember context. Jesus was just baptized. The Spirit who descended on him at his baptism now “throws” Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus’ very identity is now to be tested. Whose identity is not so tested once they’ve gone public? Whose vows are not tested once publicly made? Every vow is followed by a revelation of integrity or hypocrisy. Jesus is in “his” wilderness of solitude for long enough to identify fully with the history and present lives of his people. Note that “the wilderness” is a symbol generally for life anywhere, and forty days was about Jesus’ whole life.
There the devil tempts Jesus with the humankind’s commonest conceits. The first test concerns the essentials of life and our attempted shortcuts to them. It speaks to shallow materialism and to the human quest for the quick fix, magical thinking. Mere materialism and stupidity gone supernatural would mean death by bread alone. Waiting with trust in God is the first rightly taken step amidst the reality of temptations and radical evils howling in his wilderness. The second test invoked privilege. Since—not if—he was the Son of God, would Jesus invoke his high station selfishly grandiosely to force his father into saving action, rather than live trustingly in the wilderness? And then the final temptation: power gained from false worship. Believe in someone or something so to get power. And when you accept the quid pro quo, the one to whom you yield can extort you at any time. You no longer belong to yourself and you fear the false threat of no longer belonging to God.
In each test, the devil deliberately misuses scriptural principles to troll Jesus. He could and would sound very “rational,” even “compelling,” as an interviewee for the opposition (you know, for “balance”) on a cable news show. But with each trial balloon, Jesus fact-checks Satan with a direct scriptural quote. Jesus says it right. He quotes Holy Words to interpret his life, but especially to bless yours and mine. He quotes against the weaponizing of scripture so oft enacted in the hands of those who live by magical-thinking and privilege and power. He quotes rightly so to give life.
Irony abounds! People, including claimants of Christian identity, insistently fill the air with materialism, magical thinking, assertions of privilege, and lust for power. Having willfully or naively not steeped themselves in the truth of the symbols, they use holy texts as weapons against humanity rather than the Spirit’s intended healing balms for life. How sad and arid are our lives when we do not live in the story of Christ and let not its terms predicate deeply our lives! How scary and infected our wildernesses are still by faithlessness with its stupidity more than a rampaging virus!
But Lent—our forty days—is a gift. It is a time to absorb God’s story into our bones, to flow through our veins and charge our synapses. The Christian life is about living the truth in all its forms, symbolic and otherwise, that speak together profoundly about the love of God for you expressed in the dedicated life of Jesus. Since Jesus is the Son of God, he has gone to every wilderness to secure not himself, but you, in the joy of love and freedom from fear. God is in your story. And since YOU are children of God, you will know blessing unbounded when you root your lives even more in God’s story. It is the holy and smart thing to do.
Duane Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church Houston, TX