Thursday, February 11, 2016

Vigil with the Word, Year C, First Sunday in Lent

The texts for the first Sunday in Lent are as follows:

Deuteronomy 26:1-11
Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Romans 10:8b-13
Luke 4:1-13

I have chosen to focus my commentary on the Gospel text from Luke and the epistle text from Romans.

Luke 4:1-13
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. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’
 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you”, 
“On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’ 
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Romans 10:8b-13

But what does it say?
‘The word is near you,
on your lips and in your heart’
(that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

I find these two texts put into conversation with one another to be particularly interesting. In the Gospel text, Jesus is in the wilderness.  He is being tempted by what the text calls the devil.  I do not believe in the personification of evil, but that is a discussion for another time.  The important takeaway for me from this text is that Jesus is repeatedly tempted by a force outside himself to do something to better his immediate circumstances of suffering (40 days in the wilderness). Jesus’ final comment to his adversary is, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

I find myself frequently wanting to put God to the test.  To say, “I need you to do something to save this patient or alleviate this child’s suffering or show up and do a miracle so that I can believe in you.”  And I am not the only one who does this. Many of my patients suffer crises of faith as they pray fervently for healing and healing does not come. I have done nearly all the theological gymnastics that I can stomach about this issue.  I have tried to be okay with things such as “healing doesn’t come in this life sometimes” or “We are just not seeing the bigger picture and God’s plan” or so on. And I have yet to be satisfied.  What I have settled on is that I just do not know.  I do not have an answer, because sometimes there are not answers.  I am not Jesus, and neither are any of my patients—to the best of my knowledge—so I probably would not be able to resist the temptation of doing something to alleviate suffering in my immediate circumstances.

This Gospel text warns against putting God to the test, but the text from Romans says, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” So how are my patients who cry out for salvation from their pain and suffering supposed to reconcile these texts? 

I don’t have an answer.  But as I told one of my patients the other day, the only thing that I am 100% sure about is that God knows what it is to suffer because of the cross, and because of that, they are never alone when they suffer. Is it okay to “put God to the test” to alleviate suffering or intractable pain?  Is it acceptable to pray for very specific things (safety in surgery, a brain bleed to be healed, and so on) or is that putting God to the test? Furthermore, what does it mean to be saved?  Is it merely an existential, far off, sort of idea? Like you shall be saved from this life…eventually. But there is a lot of pain you have to endure first. Or is salvation more immediate? Saying that you will be saved and have eternal life is absolutely ridiculous to someone who is enduring the excruciating pain of cancer or trauma from a hospital bed.

I am not willing to settle on any quick and easy answers nor am I willing to preach them to others.  It is not as simple as advising “Do not put the Lord your God to the test” or offering the platitude “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Maybe the only comfort is that God knows what it is to suffer and even Jesus called out to God from the cross.  In dying, suffering, and pain, we are not alone.

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