Temptation to Self-Salvation
Genesis 2:15-17 & 3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
The Rev. Rachel Hackenberg
Sometimes in the morning at Starbucks, I cross paths with a group of regulars I’ve gotten to know over the years. Occasionally I sit and chat, although inevitably if I do, the group shifts their conversation to the topic of religion. The most pressing questions, asked in various ways, are:
In all the conversations I’ve been part of in that Starbucks group, the existence of evil is never debated. The question of human fallacy is never raised. The problem of suffering is never argued. The group inherently accepts those things to be true. Call them sins or trespasses, evil or the devil, a serpent or temptation, human depravity or mob mentality—we have little doubt that there is harm in the world.
But “Is there God?” and “Does human behavior point to a God that is good?” These questions evoke a deep existential worry.
There are a variety of answers to those questions. Across our lifetimes we cling to different answers in order to make sense of the world and to find our peace within it. The scripture readings today offer one possible answer, namely, “It’s not God’s fault.” To that deep longing “Does human behavior reveal a God that is good,” today’s texts reply, “Look, let’s not pin human behavior on God.” Like children on a school playground trying to explain to the teacher how the kickball ended up in a tree, Genesis says, “It’s Eve’s fault.” Romans says, “It’s Adam’s fault.” Matthew says, “It’s the devil’s fault.” And the psalm says, “Look, God only wants to take responsibility for scoring a homerun.”
What do we make of human fallacy, of our capacity for violence, of our willful ignorance, of our hoarding of grace? What does it all say about God? Especially during Lent, this season in which we might choose to practice spiritual disciplines that focus on our shortcomings, what is our expectation for how God’s goodness will be revealed?
Because people are looking for God’s goodness. People are wondering whether there is such a thing. Folks are far less worried about who is to blame for evil and far more anxious about whether goodness can overcome it—goodness not for just one person, but for all of us. Where is the goodness that can save all creation from “the rush of mighty waters” (32:6)? Where is the goodness of fruit that can feed all people in these days of greed? Where are the angels to catch all people being thrown down, evicted due to poverty, displaced due to violence?
What is the purpose if God’s good mercy covers your sins and only your sins like a single fig leaf, but leaves others naked and cold?
The devil tells Jesus to prioritize himself:
“If you are hungry,” the devil says to Jesus, “then make food for yourself from these stones.”
“And if you are worthy,” the devil tempts, “let the angels rush to your rescue.”
“And if you deserve everything,” the devil cajoles, “then claim it all as your own.”
The devil sounds like a marketing campaign: You deserve it. You’re worth it. Just do it. Just get yours. Just get them all. Get the best. Get it now, get it fast. Get happiness. Open happiness. Open your dream. Live your dream. Protect your dream. Watch out for anyone who has a dream of their own. Don’t let them take your dream. Don’t share your dream. Don’t share your well-being.
Don’t worry about God’s goodness for others, the devil suggests. Save yourself. Get yours first. Get your bread so you won’t be hungry; get your rescue so you won’t be injured; claim your space so you won’t be crowded or overshadowed.”
To which Jesus replies, “No one can worship their own needs and worship God. Do not even test God to put God’s well-being over the well-being of creation. For no one lives by bread alone, but by the wisdom of God.” No one lives by bread alone—which is perfectly fine with me, because I love bread but I love a lot of other food too.
But perhaps Jesus isn’t saying, “No one can live only on bread.” Perhaps he’s saying, “No one can live on bread all by themselves. No one can live on bread all by their lonesome. We aren’t just sustained by bread; we are sustained by relationship—with God, with one another, with all the world, with all creation. Through those relationships, God’s wisdom is understood.”
No one has life alone—whether they’re eating bread or any other food. The life of one impacts the well-being of all. Likewise the death of one impacts the breath of all. The sin of one ripples across the livelihood of all. Whether that’s Adam or you or me or Jesus. No one lives alone; every life impacts and is impacted by another life.
No one can eat alone. No one can be rescued alone. No one can claim space and say, “This is my own.”
Not even our Lenten disciplines are meant only for our own good. What you discern in prayer impacts me. Whether or not I give up caffeine for Lent impacts you.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
We are interrelated, even in our very personal Lenten disciplines. We cannot live by bread all by ourselves. We cannot mature in the wisdom of God all by ourselves. We cannot be saved all by ourselves.
In the Garden of Eden, the serpent cajoles, “The fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden won’t kill you. It will give you the wisdom to recognize good and evil.” We should realize, of course, that Eve and Adam could already recognize good—the goodness of fruit to eat, the goodness of animals to name, the goodness of growth in the garden. The serpent entices them with the promise that they’ll also be able to recognize evil once they eat the fruit.
And now we can’t unsee it. Like Adam and Eve, we continue to seek out fig leaves in order to hide from one another, to avoid being seen, to avoid being vulnerable, to pretend that evil is someone else’s fault. We don fig leaves. We try to eat our bread alone. We hope to secure our own salvation.
But in so doing, we haven’t limited evil—we haven’t reduced the evil that’s being done or reduced how much evil we notice. In hiding from one another behind fig leaves, in avoiding one another by eating bread alone, we’ve only reduced how much goodness we notice and how much goodness we create and share when we’re together.
“Happy are those”--plural, together.
“Steadfast love surrounds those”--plural, together.
People are look for God’s goodness. If we stick together, we just might find it.