God Abstracted

Matthew 4:1-11

Lent begins with Jesus fresh from the waters of his baptism, being led by the Spirit into the wilderness.  At baptism, Jesus is reminded that he is called as God’s anointed, the Messiah.  But what kind of messiah is he going to be?  It is in the wilderness, where everything is stripped away, in prayer and fasting that Jesus seeks to clarify who he is and what he is going to do.

Satan, the Great Deceiver, shows up to steer Jesus away from God’s call upon him and uses three of the greatest temptations for those who want to change this world: economics/money – turning stones to bread; religion – spectacular religion which will make the crowds want to follow you anywhere; and politics – to get the power to make things turn out the way you want.

Jesus resists each temptation.  It is not that Jesus is opposed to economics, politics, or religion.  In fact, in his ministry, Jesus does talk – often – about economics, the dangers of wealth, and the particular care God has for the poor.  And, the Jesus Movement is religious but instead of a Broadway production Jesus took a towel and a wash basin and washed feet.  And no doubt, Jesus is political; but it is not the politics of Satan, Republicans, Democrats, or the Tea Party.  It is the politics of Jesus, a different kind of politics.

Jesus makes a distinction between actions which seem, at first, almost identical with some of the things Jesus does later.  But there is a big difference. God is the difference.  Satan specifically tempts Jesus to do these things without God.  Without God, economics, religion, and politics can be twisted into something that is the opposite of God’s intentions.

Part of the method of temptation is that Satan quotes the Bible to Jesus.  Throughout the narrative all kinds of Bible quoting is going on.  Satan quotes Scripture to Jesus and Jesus turns around and quotes it back to him.  But here is the question:  If the Bible is the Word of God and it is always the Word of God, why doesn’t Jesus do what it says?

Yet Jesus resists and does not do what the Bible says.  Why?  Well, because Satan is quoting the Bible.  The Evil One is taking the Bible and twisting it, abusing it for his own ends, therefore, Jesus was correct in resisting it.  How and who uses the Bible makes a difference in how it is heard.  In one case it might be God’s Word and in another it might not.  Whether the Bible is God’s Word or not depends on who the speaker is and who the hearer is.  It depends on context, purpose, motivation, and so on.

Satan takes the Bible and seeks to decontextualize it.  He is saying that the Bible is good in and of itself.  It has authority and power whether God is connected to it or not.  The Evil One is perfectly happy for us to have the Bible and use the Bible, just as long as we leave God out of it.  In this sense, we might say that Satan is a good modernist.  As modernists ourselves, we love to remove things from their history, their context, their cultural baggage, and then try to examine them as “pristine, pure, and objective.”  When anyone brings into an argument history or culture or someone’s personal or religious view, we immediately dismiss it as irrelevant, “Well, that’s just your opinion,” we say.  We seek the unvarnished truth. Objective truth.  As Joe Friday used to say on Dragnet, “Just the facts, Ma’am.”

Yet what happens is that when we decontextualize, when we make abstractions, we can then give the abstraction any meaning we want.  Literary critic Stanley Fish, in his book The Trouble With Principle, talks about this using the example from several years ago of the Rodney King trial in Los Angeles.  Remember Rodney King was beaten by five or six Los Angeles police officers and it was all caught on an amateur photographer’s video.  When the verdict was announced, many folks around the country were shocked at the acquittal of the officers. We could all see what had happened with our own eyes!

Fish says that the defense lawyers explained that they did two things: 1) They slowed the film down so that each frame was isolated and stood by itself. 2) They then asked questions that treated each frozen frame as if everything in the case hung on it and it alone.  Is this blow an instance of excessive force?  Is this blow intended to kill or maim?  In this way, the event as a whole disappeared and was replaced by a series of discontinuous moments.  Looking only at the individual frames cut off from the context that gave them meaning, the jury could not say of any of them that this particular blow did grievous harm to Rodney King (p. 309).

Remove it from its context.  Ignore the big picture.  Push aside history and then we can twist it to mean whatever we want.  And that is what Satan did with the Bible.  Take a verse out of context, remove it from who said it and why it was said and to whom it was said and you can make it suit your own needs.  Satan did the same thing with the temptations.  We can be involved in economics, religion, and politics, just make sure God is left out.  As far as the Evil One is concerned, you can quote the Bible, do social action, and even put the Ten Commandments in the courthouse and the schoolhouse, just keep the God we know in Jesus Christ out.

2 Responses to “God Abstracted”

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  1. Mike Broadway says:

    Just because we can quote the words does not mean we know how to read them.

    For further interesting reflection on the temptation narratives, look at Willie Jennings's book, The Christian Imagination.

    Mike

  2. Rev Angie Wright says:

    This is a great piece. Telling the defense strategy of Rodney King as an example of decontextualing is brilliant. Beautifully crafted. Made my week.

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