Our stories this week are of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11) who was tempted by the devil to follow all the worldly things we are tempted to: materialism; pushing the boundaries of rightful authority and worldly power and who successfully resisted these attractions and was true to his human subordination to God in contrast to our OT reading from Genesis (2:7-9; 3:1-7) with its account of the creation and Fall of humankind who fell from grace precisely by suborning God’s power and authority. This account is of course an allegory rather than literally true and is designed too help us ponder on the puzzling fact that the good creation of a good God has become so far from grace and goodness and no longer reflects his grace and life giving spirit. We only have to look at our TV to grasp the extent of the world’s misery and wrong-footedness, from the Libyan crisis to the murder of Christians in Pakistan and the financial crisis brought about by the recklessness of the world’s bankers which has ruined so many, not to mention the myriad small scale human acts of depravity which mar everyone’s existence, from divorce, robbery and sexual violence. All in all, it has to be said that this world does not reflect the grace and generosity of God its creator.
What then is Matthew doing in his account of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus? In his infancy narrative Matthew re-runs the story of Moses in his portrait of Jesus to tell us what is going on so that we know right from the beginning. Jesus the Son of God has become human to recapitulate the story of the bringing into being of the Jewish people and through them of us, the new Israel. His account of the life and meaning of Jesus will focus on the recreation of the Christian community in his image and likeness; giving us not simply a new role model though that is there; but someone far more powerful, someone wholly of the world – yet without the sin that has so estranged us from God and wholly of God and therefore fitted to perform for ruined humanity an offering of self completely acceptable to God thus reconstituting us, remoulding us after his and the Father’s own image and worthy of divine life and union with God.
This is an image that St Paul will address in his Letter to the Romans (5:12-19). Paul wanted to explore the depth and extent of human misery which would have been so amply illustrated by life in the city of Rome and which he knew could only be rectified by Christ: the cramped living conditions which were the lot of the majority of its 1 million inhabitants with the noise, dirt, smells of sewage and decay, the vices and depravities which flourished there in the form of neighbourly strife, theft and violence both sexual and physical. He like any visitor would have known of the state sponsored violence in the games, theatres and amphitheatres and been fully aware that the very rich at the top of the tree considered the poor as Cicero had said ‘the filth and offal of the world’. Both Jews and Christians lived in this city and were as much its prey and its perpetrators as anyone else. The Jew then could not claim special pleading through the Jewish law for Paul saw that it was wholly incapable of bringing real redemption and the changed status that was required. No, Jew and former pagan converts to Christianity were both in the same boat, hopelessly cut adrift from God but for the redeeming grace of the willing sacrifice of Christ. It is his insistent message that we all live in a hopeless state, separated from God and without redress except through the intervention of God incarnate but his intervention does not simply re-establish some lost status-quo, it gives us a future and glory as a great saint once said ‘higher than that at creation:
If it is certain that death reigned over everyone as the consequence of one man’s fall, it is even more certain that one man, Jesus Christ, will cause everyone to reign in life who receives the free gift that he does not deserve, of being made righteous.
For Paul such ‘righteousness’ had nothing to do with self-righteousness which is a sin, it is entirely about our status in relation to God and in this process of our remaking after the pattern of Christ we are now fitted for God’s company! I can’t begin to express what this message must have meant to those commonly called the ‘filth and offal’ of the world who were now given a place in God’s company, ranked among the very best and treated with the grace and courtesy which only God can accord.
Lent is for us an opportunity for re-education and opening ourselves to the grace of God. Personally, I don’t think it’s actually about giving up chocolate or gin for 6 weeks but it is about a de-tox of the soul undertaken not so much as an act of will as an entering into grace through giving oneself to God at this time. It might be by setting aside time for bible reading and meditation of the scriptures or some other means – whatever it is it surely must lead to an opening of the self to God and a willingness to go on the journey which in the end He will map out for each one of us.