I hate it when my thoughts are given voice by the villains in stories. It’s just the worst.
Every time I read this passage about Mary’s extravagant and symbolic display of affection and devotion, I get uncomfortable. It makes me feel like I’ve awkwardly stumbled into a very romantic and intimate moment between Mary and Jesus. Just imagine, you’ve been invited to a dinner at Lazarus’ house, which is already kind of strange because Lazarus died. But now, Lazarus is alive again somehow and willing to host a meal at his home with his sisters Martha and Mary. Lazarus is listed as the host of the party, but Martha serves all the food. Then Mary pulls out some incredibly expensive perfume and rubs three-quarters of a pound of it into Jesus’ feet, lets down her hair, and rubs his feet again with her hair. This is so intimate.
Feet are intimate. Hair being let down is intimate. This is all very intimate. I can only imagine how awkward it would have been to be present for such a moment. Because of that, I know I would have had a million thoughts in my head about how inappropriate it was. The easiest to justify is that the use of three-quarters of a pound of pure nard was wasteful. If you’re going to make the dinner party uncomfortable, at least be thrifty. At least make an attempt at maintaining some holiness and decency.
Then Judas voices my discomfort and I feel a wave of shame wash over me.
The parenthetical verses explaining that Judas was the disciple who betrayed Jesus (12:4) and that his concern for the poor was a lie (12:6) don’t help either. Judas’ concern about the inappropriate use of perfume had nothing to do with any real care for the poor. He was concerned only about his comfort in a weird and intimate moment. Judas was concerned about his own desires for material wealth and the comfort that his position afforded him. Seeing a real and tangible display of affection for Jesus disrupted that sense of comfort and demonstrated a threat to Judas’ way of life.
I don’t really want to be too hard on Judas here. I think Judas represents more of us than we would like to admit. He’s a part of a new movement of religious hopefuls that are eager to overthrow the roman occupation and rebuild the Kingdom of God with power and wealth that had last been seen by Solomon. The only model for a new kingdom that any of have ever known is built with wealth and power, not with submission and love. His motivation is very human.
But, it isn’t the way of Jesus.
And that is the tension we stand in.
On this fifth Sunday in Lent, we are on the edge of the most dramatic and overwhelming weeks of our year. We are about to worship through the very real tension between our expectations of a new King that will overthrow an oppressive empire and the let down at watching him be crucified by his own religious community in the very same week before the drama of resurrection on Easter Sunday. This story about Mary’s intimate love for Jesus and Judas’ discomfort with her wastefulness is a perfect reminder of this tension. Mary is able to worship Jesus sacrificially and wholeheartedly as the Lord of life who can transcend death. And Judas is stuck wanting some benefit for himself.
So, this Sunday, I think it is important to do the important work of just sitting with this tension. For me, I do still kind of wish Jesus would use the power of God to just fix everything. I am disappointed that Jesus’ ministry was cut short after just a few years. I wonder what would have happened if he were willing to play by the rules of society. I imagine our world would look very different.
But, then again, it probably wouldn’t. As it turns out, humanity is already too good at using power and wealth to get more power and wealth. That is a cycle that seems to perpetuate itself. Mary demonstrates a drastically different way of pursuing life. She just loves extravagantly. Jesus shows a new way of life. He becomes a servant to the world in order to disrupt the cycle.
Preaching this scripture is weird. It’s a little too intimate and if you read it wrong, it can sound like Jesus doesn’t care about the poor. But I think that is a good reason to wrestle with this passage. It is a perfect reminder for all of us to reconsider the motives of our faith. Thank God for that.
The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber currently serves as the pastor to North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur Georgia, and as an associate to the Greater Decatur Cooperative Parrish. He and his wife Susannah Bales live with their dogs in Decatur, where they enjoy the wonderful food, fabulous walking trails, and creative spirit of the community.
Economics has long been called “the dismal science,” and, for me, the Parable of the Prodigal Son conjures memories of economics class in college. I am not what one would call, “a math person,” but rather someone much more interested in the roots of suffering than the root of an integer. In a nutshell, I’m bad at math, and I’d rather not do it to any great extent.
Imagine my horror on my first day of economics class. Numbers and equations, graphs and charts all spelled “doom” as I calculated that I needed four full semesters of this stuff to graduate college. Yet, somehow, from all these numbers I gleaned that there exists a “supply” of goods to be sold and a “demand” for them to be bought, and a good’s price depends on where this supply and demand meet.
Generally, as the demand for something increases, all other things being equal, its price increases. More people want something, so it becomes more expensive. As supply increases, the price of an object decreases. Because there is more to sell, and the same amount of demand, the object becomes cheaper. For example, if there are a ton of apples rotting in a warehouse, they are likely to be sold at a lower price than if apples were rare, juicy, and in demand. Or something like that.
Early on in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer rails against what he calls cheap grace. “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjack’s wares,” he writes. For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace is the disease by which the Christian comes to rest on their laurels. With cheap grace, a Christian is led to believe “the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.” Cheap grace produces no change of life, no discipleship, but rather becomes a throwaway commodity, an abundance of rotten apples.
After despairing at the abundance of cheap grace, Bonhoeffer establishes the concept of costly grace. He does this by metaphorically limiting its supply, saying, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will gladly go and sell all that he has.” The pastor writes that, because God’s sacrifice on the cross cost much, therefore grace itself costs the Christian much, even their life. Now, Bonhoeffer is rightly calling for Christians to display some sort of counter-cultural living and oppose the Nazi regime. His argument calls others to live like grace changes something. Costly grace is precious and rare. Costly grace is eight juicy granny smith apples when everyone wants to bake a pie.
Even the great Bonhoeffer cannot escape the laws of supply and demand, and Jesus paints a picture of extremely cheap grace. The supply is literally unlimited, driving its price down to zero. In this week’s parable, the youngest son wastes everything he has, spending himself into poverty. The father lavishes love, forgiveness, and—yes—money on his returned son by throwing an extravagant party. Only the older brother, who lived a life of moderation, wound up angry and corrected. I can hear the older brother yelling, “Cheap grace!” as he argues with his father.
This week, in the midst of our Lenten discipline, I will relish the opportunity to celebrate grace that is prodigal. Prodigal grace is neither cheap nor costly but rather hyper-abundant. From the Magnificat to the breaking of bread in Emmaus, Luke announces that Jesus brings the world into God’s economy. This economy is not bound by the earthly laws of supply and demand, for one could argue that the demand of sin is eternally high. God foolishly and enthusiastically showers us with grace upon grace, believing like the parable’s father that our life is worth celebrating. Yet, in God’s world, that which is abundant remains extremely valuable; a precious gift.
While many may wish for grace to be cheap, many others still prefer it remain too expensive for most to afford. The weekly churchgoer, faithful though they may be, may likely see themselves as the prodigal son, the forgiven one. However, their actions may be more like the older brother, preferring that the price of God’s love remain out of the reach of “those people.” Some may even quote Bonhoeffer down their noses, demanding to see signs of costly grace. This parable, however, reminds us that even (especially) the spendthrift, the disrespectful, the prodigal remain loved and celebrated and welcomed. Perhaps the change that Bonhoeffer wishes grace to cause is the movement from self-righteous brother to extravagant father.
I may not know economics, but I have an understanding of prodigal grace. Prodigal grace changes lives, however freely given it is. Prodigal grace provides homes for those who can’t seem to pay their bills on time. Prodigal grace welcomes refugees even though they overstayed a tourist visa. Prodigal grace prays with a prisoner after their guilty verdict. Prodigal grace puts one’s life on the line for those persecuted in Nazi Germany. Prodigal grace is priceless, lavished on those who can’t afford it. Prodigal grace offends the pious. Prodigal grace even forgives the bad joke at the end of an essay. How do you like dem apples?
The Rev. Joseph Graumann, Jr., is the pastor of Saint Stephen Lutheran Church in Marlborough, Massachusetts. He is a native of the Jersey Shore, and he thinks sand in his car is the mark of a summer well spent. Joe is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” This is how Jesus speaks of the city that plans to kill him, the city to which he has set his face, to which he is on his way — but not there yet. “And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
For whatever reason, this passage from Luke stirs in me Jesus’ tenderness. Like Zechariah says upon first seeing Jesus, in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us. Here we hear Jesus tenderly talking of the city of his people, even in the midst of his own personal trials and tribulations, which aren’t even coming to a head yet. He’s not yet to the cross, but he knows where he is going.
The lectionary plays somewhat fast and loose with the passages from Luke this Lent, starting in Luke 4, fast forwarding us to the middle of Luke 13, and then having us at the beginning of Luke 13 before going to Luke 15. As the depths of Lent increase, so too must the preparations for baptism — the culmination of Lent at the Great Vigil of Easter. Rather than asking “What does this text have to do with repentance?” we must ask “What does this text have to do with baptismal formation?” of which repentance is necessarily a part.
As far back as Luke 9 (vss. 51-56), Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, a passage that does not appear in the Sunday RCL Lenten lectionary. Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem in a town that does not welcome him in Luke 9. This is a Samaritan village that does not receive him. The disciples, who have professed him as Messiah and heard him predict his own death, want to destroy the village with fire and brimstone rained down from heaven. Jesus suggests that they simply try another town.
In today’s passage, Jesus has been going through villages that do welcome him. He’s preached turn or burn sermons, healed a crippled woman, told a story about the necessity of preparing plants for harvest before giving up on them, made a joke about the Kingdom of Heaven being a weed that is somehow much larger than ever earthly possible, said that God’s reign is moving through creation like a little bit of yeast through flour, and directed the difficulty of following him.
Now in our passage, a Pharisee—teachers of the law who are not Jesus greatest allies—warns him to stay away! “Herod is trying to kill you!” Jesus is unfazed by this warning and command. He’s predicted his own death and made up his mind to go to Jerusalem. He responds not with safety and a plan to leave. He doesn’t do what the disciples tried to do at the Samaritan village, plan destruction in order to avoid difficulty. He answers with bravado and compassion — the tender compassion of our God as the dawn from on high breaks upon creation.
“You tell that fox” Jesus says, “I’ve got people to take care of. I’ll deal with him soon enough.” Then he shows God’s compassion my declaring again his ongoing mission during his earthly ministry: Casting out demons and performing cures. He’ll finish his work on the Third Day.
The foreshadowing in these three verses is so thick you can almost taste it. Jesus’ work will be accomplished on the Third Day, alluding to the Resurrection, while also again predicting his death: “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” Those who warn him will not see him again until his triumphal entry, the beginning of the end of his life, as they call out “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”
Even as Jesus predicts his death, he weeps for this city, this city where God has sent prophets and sages, monarchs and judges, to bring them back to God’s direction to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with their God. Time and again they have turned away from God by killing those who proclaim repentance and good news. Yet still Jesus’ response isn’t to destroy the city. It’s a listless sigh of the city’s name — and the desire to give it a hug.
This passage from Luke gives us one of the most tender images of God, and one of the most clearly feminine images of God in Greek Second Testament scripture: that of a mother hen gathering her brood unto herself. This is like the prayer from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer describing Jesus as having “stretched[ed] out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace.” (BCP, 101)
Julian of Norwich says this
Christ came in our poor flesh
to share a mother’s care.
Our mothers bear us for pain and for death;
our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.
Christ carried us within him in love and travail,
until the full time of his passion.
And when all was completed and he had carried us so for joy,
still all this could not satisfy the power of his wonderful love.
What then is a preacher to make of baptism from these five verses that are not about repentance, or even about water? In baptism, we are joined to Christ our mother, who carried us within him in love and travail until the full time of his Passion. We are joined to his death and resurrection through the waters of the font, the womb of the Church by which we are born of water and the Spirit.
God’s love, known through Jesus’ words, is not unlike the sighs earthly mothers make for their children who they know can do better but haven’t seen how or chosen how yet. Still, God continues to send prophets, sages, and preachers to call them to do better. In baptism, Christians are gathered under God’s wing, and when renewing their baptismal promises try to do better. Again. The passage from Luke 13 appointed for the Second Sunday of Lent in RCL Year C invites Christians to look deeper into God’s love for them while living the reality of their faults. While not about repentance, this passage is deeply about baptismal formation, preparation, and daily living.
The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews currently lives in Seattle with his husband Brandon and their cats Stanton and Maggie. In his spare time — of which he currently has too much — Joseph plans and cooks food for the week, sews liturgical vestments, goes to the gym and is working on a pattern for a romper. His cats, food, progress photos, and sewing are all on his Instagram, @josephpmathews.
When I was in seminary, I was required to do CPE—Clinical Pastoral Education. My CPE placement was at a hospice outside of Atlanta that had an in-patient unit for severe cases, or for families who had home care but need a break or additional medical treatment for a short stay.
As a freshly minted seminary graduate, but not yet an ordained minister, I began my summer as a hospice chaplain. In many ways, I loved working at the hospice. The nurses were caring in a way that I had not seen in other medical settings. You have to have a certain mindset to care for patients who you know will not survive their illness. I walked with grieving family members and held the hands of those who faced death with varying reaction: stoicism, quiet contemplation, relaxed joy, and assurance. And, unlike other medical situations, I always knew what I was getting when I walked into a room: someone was dying.
Yet I found that hospice chaplaincy—and much of ministry in mainstream America—is infused with a pernicious lie: that God Has A Plan.
I loathe the “God Has A Plan” sentiment. It’s theologically bereft, shallow, and only sounds good to her person saying it (and I’ve said it).
God Has A Plan theology shows up in times of crisis, times of unexpected misfortune, or distress. God Has A Plan helps us to feel like there is something in control of all this awfulness, and that my suffering—my heartache—means something.
God Has A Plan when my high school best friend lost her dad to cancer right before her 19th birthday.
God Has A Plan when my colleague labors to deliver her baby girl, only to find that the baby died in the delivery process.
God Has A Plan when a freak car accident takes a student’s life.
God Has A Plan theology is a lie.
The reading for this Sunday in Luke 13:1-9, shows Jesus summarily dismissing God Has A Plan theology. He addresses the crowds and asks first, whether or not the Galileans who were butchered by Pilate so inhumanely that their blood was mixed with their sacrifice, were worse sinners than the Israelites in the crowd.
What Jesus is asking in a larger sense is: are people who die because of human sin/folly/evil actions sinners who deserve to die? Did their sin cause and/or justified their deaths? This is a theology linked to God Has A Plan, which is that Sin Causes All My Suffering. Sin Causes All My Suffering theology jumps over human freedom and places all actions as a result of God’s will.
The second example Jesus gives is of eighteen people who were killed when the Tower at Siloam fell. He asks the crowd if those eighteen were worse sinners because of that horrible accident. Here too, Jesus is pointing to God Has A Plan theology—that God planned their deaths for some inexplicable reason: punishment for sin, for some greater glory, because God does whatever an omnipotent, omniscient, immortal being wants.
To both of these problematic theologies Jesus says, “No, I tell you.”
Their deaths expose the fragility of life—and the urgency that we each should have in repentance. We can’t know when our lives will end, whether by human folly or freak accident. So, we need to repent now.
Jesus wants us to Take Life Seriously. Take Life Seriously theology means recognizing how precious—and precarious—life is and living differently because of it.
His parable of the fig tree that follows (Luke 13: 6-9) shows that judgement and mercy are interwoven. The fig tree isn’t producing and a farmer *sought* to rip it up and plant a new tree that can produce fruit. But, the gardener advocates for one more year. While it’s tempting to read this as a straight allegory, I think it’s better as a metaphor. Life is precious. Each year is valuable, and judgment is inevitable. Take Life Seriously. Repent, live differently, and get to the good work of building God’s kingdom.
So this Lent, check that bad theology at the door! Get rid of your God Has A Plan and your Sin Causes All My Suffering. Take Life Seriously and revel in its preciousness. Don’t wait to make the changes you’ve been considering—start today! And know that in the midst of the worst distress, we have a Savior who journeys with us.
The Rev. Laura Brekke is the Benfield-Vick endowed chaplain at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia. She is an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She enjoys the hills and hollers of Appalachia, even if her nearest Target is an hour away.
The irony of this passage is that it tempts the preacher to write about ALL OF THE THINGS![i] There is SO much packed into this short segment that it provides rich fodder for the preaching and pastoral imagination, and it could be explored any number of ways. The challenge, then, is to pick one direction – what is the one thing that you most want your people to hear in this story?
The trial of a well-known text, for me, is finding the refreshing new angle; the new thing to say about it that hasn’t already been heard, preached, or commented on umpteen times. And yet, as I read once again this familiar story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, I heard something I had never heard before in the many times I have heard it proclaimed and preached and meditated on: “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.” Forty days (Bible speak for a really long time) of tempting and testing and trial and tribulation precede the three traditional temptations that we focus on. The thing I never noticed before is that Jesus only gets these three major temptations when he’s already at the end of his rope. (Not to mention not eating anything all that time! If Jesus was anything like me without food, he was probably hangry, too.) If he’s gone through test after test after test, he’s likely bone-tired, creativity drained, energy exhausted; mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally spent.
Haven’t we all been there? At some point or other, it all catches up to us. Perhaps our forty days have been the last few months, or a year, or maybe even longer. Everything that could go wrong, it seems, has. Bills pile up. Job satisfaction is low. The country, maybe even the world, appears happily headed to hell in a handbasket. Our communities are in chaos, the drama is never-ending. Maybe we’ve been through abnormally painful personal ordeals: friendships and marriages fail, toxic family relationships demand more than we have to give, an unexpected medical or spiritual illness zaps our strength, we lose out on that dream job.
It’s then – when we’re bone-tired, creativity drained, mental, spiritual, physical, emotional energy exhausted – at that moment when we’re starving for refreshment, that the devil pops into our head with a juicy temptation. Why not just cut off that toxic family member? Why not just tell that friend to go to hell? Why not throw that difficult coworker under the bus and take the promotion yourself? Why not just call it quits entirely, walk away and don’t look back?
But here’s the thing… we only reach those moments of total burnout, and the temptation to give in and give it all up, when, like Jesus, we have been tested for a really long time during which we have eaten nothing at all. I wonder if this story introduces us not to the divine Jesus, but to the fundamentally human Jesus? This is a Jesus I can relate to: hangry, tired, fed up, and really, trulytempted to take advantage of the options the Devil offers.
The first temptation is to put the gifts I’ve been given to the wrong use, where my own self-interest becomes my fundamental priority. This is why I love my tradition’s definition of sin: the seeking of my own will instead of the will of God, thus distorting my relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. We live in a culture that tells us our happiness is dependent on “making it” to that place where we feel fulfilled, happy, stable. And, of course, tells us that the way to do that is to accumulate. Fill our lives with things that will give us that sense of happiness and stability. But if my “happiness” and “stability” is dependent on physical fulfillment – whether having that perfect closet of clothes and accessories to support the “got it all together” image I want to project, or having enough money in the bank to not have to worry about buying groceries or paying rent – I have given in to the temptation to self-reliance and independence from God. I think a lot of people think “I’ll give my gifts when I’m stable enough to give.” I think a lot of us humans convince ourselves that once we’ve “made it” we’ll be in a better position to help the other people God calls our attention to. When my hunger is met, of course I’ll my power to turn stones into bread to help feed other people. Jesus himself could have put that power to good use and become a very popular guy with all those actual hungry people he was trying to minister to. But the problem is, we never “make it.” Life happens. There will always be some other problem, some other bill to pay, some other item I have to have to fill the void. And when my behavior reinforces putting myself first every time, by the time there’s enough or more than enough to meet my own needs, I tend not to give or to give as much as I could because, well, there’s that vacation I really want to take, or that next item to purchase that will convince me I have all I need. The energetic and spiritual deprivation that comes with accumulation, ironically, results in deeper hunger to have more. One only needs to listen to Lily Allen’s song, The Fear, to understand the toll this culture of consumption takes on our spiritual well-being.
Jesus’s response to the temptation to put himself first was to remind himself that “one does not live by bread alone.” Those who live in poverty, who actually struggle every day to meet their physical needs, are often those who trust most in God’s provision and care. They have to. Those with resources tend to rely on themselves; those without know they are dependent on others and on God and have the humility to admit it. Even those of us with resources are only one major illness or accident away from finding ourselves in the place of depending on God and others to get us through. We get it backwards – our cultural ideals of “happiness” and “stability” are fleeting. Physical satisfaction alone cannot satiate spiritual hunger, and self-care is different from self-absorption. Only our deep relationship with the Divine, the source of the things that truly matter in life, and connection with compassionate communities of care provide us the spiritual nourishment necessary to bring us through the wildernesses we journey through.
The second temptation is to take the easy way out, to trade what God calls me to do for power and prestige. To do what’s convenient instead of what’s right or just. We need look no further than the halls of power in our own country to see how prevalent and rampant this particular human temptation is, and the impact that thirst for power has on the whole. Or perhaps our own churches. Or our own families. The human craving for power is as ancient and insidious as the human desire to be like God that tempted the first humans in the garden. And power plays play out in all kinds of ways. Promoting my own agenda instead of what’s best for the group. Withholding affection, or resources, or support in order to get my own way. Allowing my own perception of reality to sway my participation towards what I’m most comfortable with over what requires me to change. Our lives are not lived in black and white; usually we find ourselves in gray areas where right and wrong aren’t terribly clear. More often, our choice is between bad and worse, or good and better. Subtle, seemingly small and insignificant choices in how I live, how I progress through the journey of life, whether I accept the reward for conforming to the status quo and upholding misused power and control – these are the moments that can greatly affect the state of my soul, my relationship with God, and with my neighbor. The temptation to “get ahead” might lead me to base my worth, my value, on success rather than faithfulness. Or to use my power to exercise control over people instead of advocating for justice and mutuality. Or to allow the riches of the world to distract and captivate my attention instead of doing the work God has given me to do. Or to compromise where God might want me to take a stand. When we trade on our integrity for comfort and convenience, the rewards may be great indeed… but what does it profit me to gain the world and lose my soul?
Jesus responds to this second temptation by remembering and recognizing the Ultimate source of his power and authority. All he has been given is to be used to accomplish God’s purpose, which is also Jesus’s purpose: reconciling humanity with God and God incarnate in humanity. Jesus will exercise power. He will forgive sins, cast out demons, heal disease and infirmity. I suppose that Jesus could have decided to set up shop, could have made a lucrative career out of being a healer and miracle-worker, could have taken the easy way out and the easy power the Devil offered. But he didn’t. He kept his focus on God, trusted in God’s call and God’s will, and refused to be distracted from the mission God gave him. And through him, God’s love reigned supreme, love which overturns and transforms human power and greed.
The final temptation I once heard described at a leadership conference as the temptation to perform to the expectations of the crowd. The problem with basing your self-worth on the approval of the crowd is that you’ll have to throw yourself off higher and higher heights to continue to impress. Jumped off the Temple, you say? Saw that one last week. We’ll really be impressed when you jump off that cliff! That’s a great interpretation, but the deeper challenge here is whether or not we’ll really submit, really surrender to God’s will and God’s call regardless of where God might lead us. God’s call, while always good, is rarely easy. Death is certainly involved, even if only dying to self-will, but to truly follow God’s call often comes with a cost to give up more than we might want to. And so this temptation usually comes at the most opportune moment – in that moment when I’ve given all I think I have to give, when I’m at the end of my rope, when I’m tired or discouraged or frustrated and there’s nothing but me and the choice I must make to trust the call that I’ve heard. Those moments when I’ve been tempted to throw it all in and get out while I can, those are the moments I’m tempted by escape, rescue from the burden of following God where I really don’t want to go. Maybe it’s escape from my vocation, or from the particular ministry I’m involved in, maybe from having to give up my possessions and move halfway around the globe to be a missionary to unknown people in an unknown land. Maybe it’s to do the hard work of confronting broken relationship. Maybe it’s being present in and with the extreme suffering of another person. Maybe it’s having to excise those parts of my ego and psyche that continually resist God’s commands.
In this challenge, the Devil presents Jesus with the temptation to be rescued from sure and certain death. This is the mother of all temptations. Go ahead, put God’s promises to the test. What I’ve discovered is that this temptation to escape usually comes precisely at the moment I’m actually most in concert with the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. When I actually am doing God’s will. When I am following, however imperfectly, though I may know nothing about it. If the forces of evil really want to work a number on us, this is the way to do it. Get her to give up when she’s just getting going. Make it seem like nothing he’s doing is accomplishing anything. Kick them out of sync with what God’s about to do, derail the plan. But Jesus’s response is to submit to God’s command. To drink the cup though he did not want to. Jesus fulfills God’s purpose, and his purpose, not by escaping but by accepting his call. Trusting. Choosing to do what he knew God wanted of him, even though it meant suffering and death, even though he would have chosen otherwise if left to his own devices. And in following God’s call, Jesus utterly vanquished the powers of evil and death.
Jesus knew temptation, a universally human experience. For me, the power in this story, “the wonder is not that Jesus was incapable of sinning, but that he was able to avoid sinning although he was tempted.”[ii] What gave Jesus the strength, over and over again? Because these refusals weren’t the end: “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” For us humans, the opportune time are those moments when we’re bone-tired, creativity drained, mental, spiritual, physical, emotional energy exhausted. If that’s where you’re at, you definitely haven’t been eating enough!
We could do worse than to adopt Jesus’s rule of life: “One does not live by bread alone”: go do something that fills you with joy! Connect with a friend. Do something creative. Get out of your office and take a walk. Whatever it is that gives you joy, joy is one of the sure signs that God’s kingdom is present and active.
“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him”: Fill your mind, heart, and soul with scripture – know it and use it as Jesus did. Choose to trust in God’s promises. God’s brought you to this moment, right now, and hasn’t done that just to drop you on your face. Believe that you are beloved, you are called, and you are enough.
“Do not put the Lord your God to the test”: Faithfully resist the temptation to do less or other than what God has called YOU to do. God has given you everything you need to fulfill the purpose for which you are chosen. Pray regularly for God to guide and direct your paths. All of us have to “work it out” as St. Paul says; “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure.”[iii]
The more that I learn about the spiritual life, this strange calling to walk in the Way of Jesus, the more I fall in love with this beloved prayer penned by Thomas Merton – may it be comfort and grace to you, too.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
[i] For an excellent explanation of ALL OF THE THINGS contained in this text, including some of the thoughts that influenced this essay, see Alan Culpepper’s commentary on this passage in the New Interpreter’s Bible.
The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts. Chana, her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, live in Wilmington.
I don’t know about you, but when I read the Ash Wednesday lectionary scripture this year, I immediately thought of George Michael.
First, let me apologize in case Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go is now stuck in your head. Second, let me explain. Despite his international celebrity status as one half of the duo Wham! and as a successful pop star in his own right, it was only after his untimely death in 2016 that another side of his life became public: he had anonymously donated millions to charities, secretly bankrolled ordinary people’s dreams, and volunteered regularly at homeless shelters where he asked that his participation be kept quiet.
George Michael’s under-the-radar generosity stood out in part because it ran so contrary to the more common mold of celebrity giving: many lend their faces to high profile events that highlight their pet causes, yes, but also conveniently give the stars a PR boost.
Ironically, hupokrités—Jesus’ term for such public do-gooders—also brings to mind celebrities, especially the Hollywood kind: originally referring to stage players who wore a mask when performing roles different from their real-life personas, it later morphed into a figurative term for those who put on an act in public different from their private motivations for doing so.
Jesus uses a formula to condemn this two-faced behavior: when you give alms/pray/fast, don’t be like the hypocrites who announce their behavior publicly; they’ve already received their reward. Instead, give alms/pray/fast privately, and God, who sees you in secret, will reward you in a different way.
What exactly are the rewards the hypocrites receive? Jesus names the dividends for publicizing our piety as praise (v. 2), visibility (v. 5), and recognition (v. 16) – in other words, having our status and worth confirmed by others.
For those of us who like to think we have developed some measure of self-awareness, it can be easy to dismiss this external validation as superficial nonsense we know better than to chase after. But you don’t have to be standing on a street corner broadcasting your charitable works to get hooked by this kind of reward.
Have you ever re-worked a sermon with a particularly vocal parishioner’s potential reaction in mind? Or casually shared how many pastoral visits you’ve made this week so your congregation will know just how busy—and therefore valuable—you are? Or said “yes” to officiating a non-member funeral or presiding over the town prayer breakfast because you know it will raise your profile—or your church’s? Heck, I even publicize it to my spouse whenever I take out the compost, just to ensure my contributions to our domestic happiness are properly appreciated.
Our egos are always happy to justify such behavior. After all, what we’re doing is good, and we are often doing it for intrinsically worthy reasons mixed in amidst the external ones. And having our worth reinforced by others is, indeed, a powerful reward, one we’ve been trained to seek out since the time we were children looking for our parents’ approval.
Many of us crave being told we are good and worthy because, deep down, we aren’t consistently certain it’s true; and no wonder, since the very people and places where we find validation can just as easily reject us, as any pastor who’s made an unpopular decision can tell you.
It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus calls us to examine our motivations not once but three times; he is working to break through years of human conditioning. And three times he follows his admonition with a reminder of where our true worth lives: in God, who rewards us in “secret”–kruptos, meaning in a hidden or inward way.
What is this inward reward? Though the NRSV uses the same word to describe them both, in Greek public piety is rewarded with misthos—literally pay, wages, or salary; while the way God rewards private piety is apodidómi: to give back, return, restore. One seeks to motivate us with “more,” while the other seeks to reconnect us to the “enough” that we already are.
As Jesus’ repeated use of “Father” reminds us, we are inherently worthy and deeply beloved children of a parent God—one who created us not for approval but for relationship, and one who longs for the restoration of that relationship, as the Hebrew Bible lectionary reading for today reminds us:
“Yet even now, says the Lord,
return to me with all your heart.” (Joel 2:12)
The more we put our stock in that relationship this Lent and the more we trust in eternal validation rather than external ones, the more we’ll find our hearts at home, in the very place where God resides:
“Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:20-21)
The Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron is currently on maternity leave as the pastor of Park Avenue Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Arlington, Massachusetts. A self-proclaimed thriftvangelist, her ideal day involves a run; some good thrift shopping; and a dance party with her two kids and her husband, Chris.
I’ve never been a big fan of this passage, so when I got this passage to write on, I wasn’t thrilled. However, as a preacher, that’s part of the game; that’s what we sign up for. The lectionary serves up these stories to us, whether we like them or not. And so, preachers are forced to take them up and wrestle with them, even if we would rather not. And this is a good thing, as it forces us out of your comfort zone and makes us work through that which we would not do so otherwise. Personally, I’ve never understood the story of the Transfiguration. Some people get a lot of richness and depth out of it, but I never have.
One of the things I dislike is that this passage encourages theologians to wax philosophical. This is especially prominent when you read ancient Christian commentaries. For example, Gregory Palamas (1296–1357) finds in this passage a metaphysical rumination about God’s “essence” versus God’s “energies.” I’ve never particularly liked philosophy and when I hear this breed of interpretation, my eyes just glaze over. Plus, I can only imagine that philosophical exactitude was really only a preoccupation of social elites. I can’t imagine that the average ancient manual laborer was sitting around trying to figure out what the difference is between essences and energies (or even what they are in the first place). Maybe that’s why I’ve never been wild about this passage.
When we focus on the philosophical level of the story while skipping the literary level, we miss something important. After all, the literary level is how most of the listeners through the ages would have understood the story. When we look at this particular story through a literary lens, we see that it is chock-full of all sorts of allusions, cross-references, and symbolism to sink our teeth into.
For example, take two of the most evocative symbols in the story: mountains and clouds. First of all, mountains evoked a sense of connection to the divine throughout almost all of the ancient world. In a universe where the prevailing thought was that the Divine was located in the heavens above, a mountain was an axis mundi that bridged heaven and earth: in ascending the mountain, we get closer to God, both physically and spiritually. That’s why in the Bible, we see important revelations happen on mountains. The most notable example is Moses receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. Through its many details, that story connects altitude with nearness to God. Or take another example: Elijah. When he was being hunted and panicking that he would be executed, he took refuge upon that very same Mount Sinai. While there, he communed with God, who renewed him and sent him back on a mission. And if that’s not enough, Elijah also makes two additional appearances earlier in today’s gospel: (1) the disciples discuss him amongst themselves, and (2) the crowds suspect that John the Baptist is Elijah come back to life.
Note, too, that these two figures—Moses and Elijah—are the very same figures who also appear at the Transfiguration. Interpreters have offered myriad interpretations of this fact, some more compelling than others. Moses and Elijah might represent the Law and the Prophets, the two components of the Hebrew Scriptures. Or, both Moses and Elijah had become eschatological figures and were believed to be coming back at the Day of the Lord, when God dramatically steps into history and sets things right. Or, since Moses and Elijah are the most important characters in the Hebrew Scriptures, this places Jesus among esteemed company.
When Jesus stands alongside these two giants of the faith, it evokes a number of important theological themes. Jesus is worthy of being included among the holiest of past figures. Jesus isn’t breaking from the religious tradition of the past; rather, he stands squarely within it. Jesus is an eschatological figure concerned with setting the world right. These two figures have a lot of symbolism wrapped up just in their being present at the event.
The second evocative symbol, the cloud, appears toward the end of the story, where it completely engulfs the disciples. If in the ancient mind, mountains are the bridge between the heavens and the earth, the clouds surely are Heaven itself. In the Hebrew Bible, clouds stand in for God’s immediate presence and power. While the Israelites were in the wilderness, when a cloud rested on the tabernacle, they knew God was there. Then when that same cloud left the camp, they followed that cloud to a new location. Hundreds of years later, the cloud of God’s presence streamed into the Temple at its dedication—comically making it so that the priests couldn’t do their jobs! Thus, when the disciples in our story find themselves surrounded by a cloud, they understand themselves to be encountering God in an intimate and all-encompassing fashion.
Along with these two symbols, the Transfiguration story weaves in strands from other parts of the gospel narrative. It both echoes the (narrative) past and foreshadows the future. First, it clearly hearkens back to Jesus’ baptism, which kicked off his ministry. In fact, Jesus’ baptism and the Transfiguration are the only two times in the gospel that God (the narrative character) speaks. On both occasions, God affirms Jesus’ mission and his identity as God’s son who is specially set apart. But whereas the baptism proclamation ends with the affirmation “in you, I find happiness,” the transfiguration ends instead with a directive reinforcing Jesus’ authority over the disciples: “Listen to him!”
The story of the Transfiguration also calls forth the impending story of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. In both narratives, Jesus retreats from the public scene at a crucial inflection point in the narrative. He takes the same three disciples with him to pray—Peter, James, and John. And in both stories, the disciples can hardly stay awake while Jesus is busy talking with God. They are partially privy to the private yet momentous events taking place between Jesus and God.
* * *
I still do not fully understand why people love this passage so much. Maybe for some, this passage not only holds together the gospel narrative but also integrates the various parts of the Bible, weaving them into an integrated whole. Maybe it’s because it clearly confirms Christ’s divinity. I don’t know. In the end, it’s still not my favorite story. Maybe I’m still just bugged by the fact that I don’t get it. So I think I’m going to stick with my cop-out answer: this passage is a mystery and we can never know what all it means.
 An axis mundi is a feature common in many world belief systems that there are geographical “centers” around which the cosmos spin, and which feature vertical features, such as trees or mountains, that allow for travel between the earth and the higher and lower worlds.
 Mount Horeb, as it is called in the Elijah story, is an alternative name used by some ancient authors for Mount Sinai.
Colin Cushman is a pastor in the United Methodist Church serving two small churches in the Seattle area. He lives north of Seattle with his wife, his newborn daughter, and his dog. He loves reading, mountain biking, playing music, and bird photography.