We all forget things from time to time.
I’ve spent frustrated moments looking for my car keys, my cell phone, and my wallet. Sometimes I forget where I’ve left my car in the grocery store or airport parking lot. While I’ve never forgotten my wedding anniversary or an important birthday, my heart goes out to those who have.
Of all the things I’ve forgotten, the most serious is myself. Sometimes I forget who I am. And so do we all. Remembering who we are is our chief spiritual challenge.
Now, I am not talking about amnesia in the technical sense. Neither am I talking about dementia. Instead, the forgetfulness I have in mind has nothing to do with the damage caused by trauma or the ravages of brain disease.
In fact, I’m not even thinking about our ability to retrieve information from our memory banks. Remembering who we are means to remain true to who we are in all the various settings of our life.
The key to understanding the story that we often call the Temptation of Jesus lies in reading it as a story about a challenge of identity. In the desert, Jesus wrestles with Satan over his identity.
Our shorthand for the story misleads us. We think of temptation as the allure of doing something that we know is wrong. That does not accurately characterize Satan’s encounter with Jesus.
Here’s what I mean.
Satan knows that Jesus has just been baptized by John the Baptist and that the Holy Spirit has led him into the desert for forty days of fasting, prayer, and discernment. Satan even gets the point of the desert wandering.
Prefacing the three temptations, Satan says, “If you are the Son of God…”
Knowing a little Greek can dangerous. But this is one of those times that it turns out to be helpful. That’s because in this case an alternative translation will shed significant light on what’s happening between Jesus and Satan.
Listen to this version. Satan says, “Since you are the Son of God…”
Satan does not call into question that Jesus is the Son of God. It’s not as if he’s saying, “Oh, sure you’re the Son of God. And I’m Napoleon Bonaparte. If you are who you say you are then prove it.” He’s not taunting Jesus with a double dare.
On the contrary, the question Satan poses gets right to the heart of what Jesus is doing in the wilderness in the first place. Since you are the Son of God, what are you going to do about it? What sort of Son of God are you going to be?
Jesus spends those forty days in the desert sorting out his identity. And that turns out to be memory work. Spiritual memory work. He is who he is in relationship to God.
The Son is the Son only in relationship with the Father. So his time in the desert was time getting accustomed to what it will be like to stay true to that relationship wherever he goes and whatever he confronts.
It is crucial to note that, in his verbal jousting with Satan, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy chapters six through eight. Those verses tell us how Jesus understands his identity and his desert wandering. So let’s take a short detour from the story of Jesus in the wilderness to Deuteronomy.
Moses is giving a final lesson to the Israelites before they cross over into the Promised Land.
The Israelites have wandered in the desert for forty years. The trip from Egypt to Israel would take a little over three weeks if you were taking the most efficient route.
But that wasn’t the point. God had delivered the Hebrews from the tyranny of an Empire. But he also knew that even when you take the Hebrew out the Empire, you still have some work to do to get the Empire out of the Hebrew.
God’s plan for Israel was that they would become the people through whom God would liberate the whole creation from Empire. They would be a kingdom of priests. He would bless them to be a blessing, the conduit through which his deliverance would flow to the whole world.
I’ve gotten a little ahead of myself here, so I better say a word about what I mean by “Empire.”
In the story of the exodus, Pharaoh is more than just the one guy who happened to rule Egypt at the time that God heard the cry of his people. Pharaoh represents how all the kingdoms of this world operate. The strong preserve their status and power at the expense of the weak. That’s the essence of Empire.
Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Rome each expressed the essence of Empire in their own way, but that essence is always the same. The powerful accumulate wealth, status, and power at the expense of the weak.
In the case of Egypt, Pharaoh enslaved the Hebrews. He forced them to make their own bricks to build monuments to his magnificence. Then, without lowering the brick quota, he added to their burden by requiring that they collect even the straw for their bricks. Finally, to ensure his position, he ordered the slaughter of all male Hebrew newborns.
Through Moses, God delivered the Hebrews. He led them out of Egypt, but he also sought to deliver their hearts, minds, and souls from the ways of Empire. God did not take them out of Egypt only to have them erect a new Egypt in the Promised Land.
Empires accumulate wealth, status and power by preying on the weak. The powerful assume that they are entitled to whatever they have accumulated. They then use violence and coercion to protect their stuff and their status.
God gathered Israel to be a different kind of kingdom. A kingdom that cares for widows and orphans, leaves the corners of fields for the poor to harvest, and even dictates the forgiveness of all debts on a regular basis. At the very heart of such a kingdom is the living memory that they are a delivered people. All that they have, all that they are, is a gift. A gift meant to be shared.
The more prosperous we are the more difficult this is to remember. We forget that we need deliverance when we are routinely comfortable. We are likely to think that there’s nothing we need deliverance from, that we are entitled to what we have, and that those who are less fortunate than we are have gotten what they deserve.
Foreseeing the potential effects of prosperity, Moses gives the Hebrews a talking to before they hit the Land of Milk and Honey. He knew that they could forget who they are: God’s delivered people.
And forget they did. Just one example:
Consider Solomon. His reign begins with the gift of wisdom. Set aside for a moment his accumulation of massive wealth, his scores of wives, and his idol worship. Here’s the real kicker. Solomon built the Temple. By enslaving the people. Slaves! The people who had been delivered from slavery were now pressing their own people into slavery.
You can take the Hebrew out of Empire, but it’s much harder to take the Empire out of the Hebrew! They had forgotten who they were.
In Jesus, God is liberating us from Empire once and for all. The Son of God inaugurates a new kingdom. The Kingdom of Heaven. And he does it by remembering who he is.
He embraces lepers, gives sight to the blind, makes the lame walk. Women of ill repute show up at his power lunches, children sit in his lap, tax collectors call him friend.
He feeds big crowds with no more than a sack lunch and raises the dead.
And he dies.
Well, actually, the Romans kill him. Empire kills him. The forces of violence and coercion and oppression kill him.
He takes all the humiliation and injustice and suffering and deprivation and sorrow that Empire has ever heaped upon anybody into his very own body. Into his heart. And there he undoes it once and for all. He overcomes cruelty with love, death with life.
And he could do all of this because there was no Empire in him at all. He remembered who he was. Whose he was. And his time in the desert prepared him to do that.
Satan had said, “You’ve got remarkable powers and you’re hungry. Make these stones into some nice hot ciabatta.” “Nope,” says Jesus, “as soon as I start using my abilities to satisfy myself I will forget that everything I have comes from God and that the purpose of all my powers is to serve others.”
And then Satan said, “Well if God’s going to take such good care of you, take a leap off the Temple and see if he’ll catch you.” “Nope,” says Jesus, “you’ve missed the point. I’m living my life to give my life away to God’s mission, not to get him to preserve it.”
Finally, Satan said, “Fine, I get it. You want to make the world a better place. I’ll make you Emperor of the world.” Jesus sighed. “You really don’t get it. Empire is the problem. You can’t undo coercion with coercion, violence with violence.”
Jesus is the Son of God. And what he plans to do about it is to extend the Kingdom of Heaven. In Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection God inaugurated the Kingdom. Jesus’ work continues through his followers. Through the Church. Through us.
Since we are marked as Christ’s own forever, what are we going to do about it?
We are going to feed the hungry, but also ask why so many people are hungry.
Even as we provide medical care for those who cannot afford it, we’re going to ask why medical care is out of reach for so many.
We are going to visit the prisoner, and we’re going to ask why our prisons are full to bursting.
At least, that’s what we’ll do when we remember who we are.