Prominent among the many ways that people have seen Jesus, are these three -- as an inspiring example of service to others, as a great moral teacher who exposed the hypocrisy of his times, and as a social revolutionary who fought for the poor and oppressed.
Though there is not much Biblical warrant for the third of these suggestions, over the centuries all three images of Jesus have proved attractive to very different audiences. In writing to the Corinthians, however, Paul offers us a corrective. He rightly sees that thinking of Jesus in any of these ways is theologically limited. Whether we regard him as an ethical model, a moral teacher, or a political visionary, we are looking at him from a strictly human point of view. To see him as he is, is to hail him as ‘the Christ’ - which is to say, God Incarnate. Jesus was indeed an exemplary human being, but the Cross and Resurrection show him to be far more than that – uniquely ‘At One’ with God the Creator, Redeemer and Judge Eternal. Some of the parables have a moral message, certainly, but the real force of all of them lies in this. In them, we now know, God is talking to us.
The Gospel for this week is possibly the most famous of those parables -- the story of the Prodigal Son. Interestingly, although it is a story of sin, repentance and forgiveness, it does not end with the prodigal's embrace, but with his brother’s resentment. What is the significance of this little tailpiece? Is the elder brother at fault, because he goes on thinking badly of the prodigal's behavior? That cannot be quite right. As Jesus tells the story, the father who has welcomed the prodigal son does not rebuke the resentful one. On the contrary, the elder son’s contrasting honesty and decency is powerfully affirmed when, confronted by his anger, his father tells him: ‘You are always with me, and all that is mine is yours’. Even true repentance like the Prodigal’s, it seems, cannot wipe out the past, and it does not put everything to right. His inheritance has still been squandered.
Nevertheless, this understandable reaction is made from a human point of view. Yet 'from now on', Paul has told us, 'we regard no one from a human point of view'. That is because 'if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation . . . everything has become new'. The story of the Prodigal Son shows how hard it is to move beyond regarding others from a human point of view. Yet, at the heart of the Gospel is the belief that Christ's redeeming love has the power to make the image of God evident again, in the the reprobate as well as the respectable, in the resentful as much as the penitent.
It is this parable that connects the Gospel with the other readings, which, in one way or another, all have to do with food and drink. The emphasis, though, is on true nourishment and refreshment, contrasted with the more mundane sort that we naturally incline towards. 'Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy'. Isaiah asks. 'Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price'
Without money and without price' is the key phrase. We do not need material wealth for the most precious possessions in life. To think that we do, is profoundly mistaken twice over. First these things are priceless; secondly, hey are a gift. This is a truth that is easily neglected, and that is the point of the parable of the fig tree. The people ask Jesus about the victims of brutality and disaster as though in losing life they have lost everything. But 'real' life is of a different order. It is to be found, the Psalmist tells us, in the worship of God. ‘I have gazed upon you in your holy place, that I might behold your power and your glory. For your loving-kindness is better than life itself’. The parable of the fig tree tells us that nourished in the right way, our spiritual nature can flourish, and bring us to the point where the love of God’s goodness is sufficient, however our material lives go. To neglect this spiritual life, conversely, is to lose everything that matters. As the familiar line from Isaiah says: 'Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near'.
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Jerusalem, and especially the Temple, for Jews at the time of Jesus. For Muslims, Mecca figures in something like the same way. Christians, on the other hand, have no equivalent. At the heart of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, God’s own dwelling place, a place to be entered very occasionally, only by specially appointed people, and with the utmost awe. Now it is about this exceptionally sacred place that Jesus says “Your house is left to you”, or in another translation, “There is your temple, forsaken by God”. It does not take much imagination to feel the deep outrage that such a declaration would cause among the devout and faithful.
The point is this. The religion of the Jews was founded in Abraham's great faith in God's promises recounted in this week’s reading from Genesis. But it has become ossified and dissipated in an unhappy mix of ritualism, political compromise and nationalistic fervour, further distorted by a profoundly mistaken conception of the Messiah who is expected to put it right. Renewal and redemption will come only through the death of yet another prophet in the heart of the holy City. But this time, the 'seed of Abraham' will cease to be ethnically defined, and reconceived to include all those who can put their faith in Christ.
Christian faith too, of course, is easily ossified. Like the Philippians whom Paul addresses, we tailor it to our requirements, adjust it to our convenience and smother it with familiarity. No less than the Pharisees, we need a redeeming sacrifice to renew and restore us. That is why the events of Holy Week and Easter have to happen again for us, and why it is so important to make Lent a period of preparation for their happening.
Satan is the source of these temptations, a difficulty for modern readers since talk of ‘the devil’ often seems very alien -- not only strange but unwelcome. The way the Gospel tells the story, however, is quite compatible with thinking of these temptations primarily as thoughts and visions that come unbidden to Jesus in his solitude, thoughts that it takes a very deep resolve to resist. However many days exactly, and whatever the precise form of the temptations, the Gospel writer shows great spiritual insight into the mind of someone poised for a divinely appointed mission that may well prove, not just demanding, but disastrous, at least from a human point of view.
The temptations are of three kinds – simple (easy bread when Jesus is famished), grandiose (personal power and glory as a prophet), and spiritual (dramatic and compelling proof of God’s sovereignty). In many ways it is the last that is most important. That is because from time to time all sincerely religious people face the temptation of doing God’s work in their own way rather than in God’s. Moreover the source of this temptation may itself be Scriptural. This is precisely the challenge Jesus confronts. After all, Satan is quoting Scripture (Psalm 91) when he says ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you’. But to rely on this is to test God, and that is what is absolutely forbidden. Those who want to live in the shelter of the Most High, will first say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust".
The same temptation recurs still more critically with the reality of death by crucifixion. The closing sentence of the Gospel powerfully makes this connection. “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time”. That opportune time comes on Calvary. There, though, Satan jeers with the voices of ordinary people -- ‘Let him come down from the cross, and then we shall believe him’. This last temptation Jesus also resists because of a deep mystery -- that the ‘Most High’ has chosen the Way of the Cross for our redemption.
images; Nicholas Roerig, The Temptation of Christ; Stanley Spencer, Christ in the Wilderness with Hen
It was on Mount Sinai that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. When he descends his face is shining with a brightness so unnatural that it unnerves the Israelites. And so, after subsequent visits to the Holy of Holies, he covers his face with a veil. The message, Paul tells us, is that the Israelites were unprepared or unwilling to encounter God’s glory. Now, thanks to Christ, we are enabled to do so. But our ability to do so does not arise from the Transfiguration that Peter, James and John witness. Rather, that experience prepares them to witness the Resurrection. It removes the veil that would otherwise prevent them from seeing God in a crucified criminal.
The season of Lent just approaching is an opportunity to put aside the various ‘veils’ of selfishness and sin that can hide Easter. Despite the familiarity of the phrase, very few people can expect to have ‘mountain top’ experiences. Yet something much less dramatic can serve the same end. In his hymn ‘Spirit of God, descend upon my heart’ the 19th century Irish Anglican priest George Croly (1780-1860) beautifully encapsulated this thought.
I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay
No angel visitant, no opening skies.
But take the dimness of my soul away
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