Year A, Lent 1
“Temptation” is the word of the week for our texts. We hear the story in Genesis about the “first” temptation of the “first” man and woman. We experience viscerally the scene of the serpent tempting the woman with knowledge. Or was he just offering helpful information? That is the tricky thing about being tempted, about being tested. There is always a grain of truth in the temptation offered us. We are tricked when we see it as the whole truth instead of half a truth.
The Genesis and Matthew texts are great stories for telling on their own, either verbatim from scripture or in your own words. Both stories have vivid imagery with which to work. Imagine the lushness of the garden in Genesis, its colors, and sounds – bright flowers, ripe fruit, songs of birds, flowing water. Imagine its smells and tastes – flower perfume, rich soil, the sweetness and tartness of fruit, the silvery taste of fresh water. Imagine the beauty of the serpent. I think he could have been emerald green and friendly looking, rather innocuous, instead of sinister. Why would the woman even listen if he were sinister and threatening? Imagine the sound of the serpent’s voice, the woman’s voice, God’s voice. Think of the woman’s feeling of being flattered into the desire for wisdom and knowledge, legitimate desires, but obtained by disobeying God. When have you been flattered in such a way? Imagine the taste of the special fruit and the surprise of discovering nakedness.
In great contrast to the lush garden we enter a dry, wild, desert wilderness in the Matthew text. What are the colors of the rocks and soil? If there are trees for any shade are they short and squat or long and stringy?
Though not directly in the text, you could picture an oasis, reminiscent of the garden, at the very end where Jesus is ministered to by the angels. Discovering an oasis with fresh water and fruit after 40 days of fast would seem like discovering heaven and angels. What is the sound of Jesus’ voice? What is the sound of the devil’s voice? What does this tempter look like? Is “he” embodied or a more of a haunting presence? What do the stones that could be bread actually look like, feel like in your hand? What is the specific view from the pinnacle of the temple? Is the wind blowing up there? How many kingdoms can be seen from the mountaintop? Can you delineate them or are they simply a patchwork of beautiful land, rolling hills, fields? Can Jesus see in this vision all of God’s diversity of people throughout the kingdoms?
I invite you to work closely with these two stories as stories and not just theological or moral texts. Perhaps a sermon is created from the contrast of telling them one after another so that the congregation hears the echoes, the themes and imagery of God’s big picture salvation story. Psalm 32 and Romans 5 could provide poetic and theological commentary to weave the stories together. Let your imagination lead your exegetical mind. Invite the Spirit to inspire you to something new and completely different as you begin Lent.
I have three other stories to offer you in illumination of our theme of “temptation.” The first is inspired by Psalm 32:9 which I am sure is written in all seriousness but always gives me a chuckle. “Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle, else it will not stay near you.” There are so many folktales, anecdotes and jokes about stubborn mules. Some of them quite humorous. Simply google the phrase adding, “folktales” and you will find a wealth. Perhaps you already know some. Psalm 32:9 also reminds me of the story of Balaam and his ass/donkey, stubborn and mule-like, in Numbers 22. Balaam is on a confusing mission for God. There are many points where it seems he is in disobedience to God, yet God keeps giving him a second chance. God places an angel of the Lord in the way of Balaam to help him understand his mission, yet he does not see it. In a twist on the stubborn mule motif, it is his donkey that sees the angel and keeps balking so that Balaam can receive the message from God. It is quite a humorous tale and could be a children’s time message on temptation and distractions from following God.
“Temptations” is a Danish folktale about a boy named John whose kindness and honesty wins out consistently over many temptations for self-gain and power. At the end of the tale everyone lives happily ever after. John is granted a good life with a good wife and happy family. It may seem a bit simplistic in that synopsis, however there are many twists and turns to the plot in which John is severely tested by his master who seeks intentionally to trip him up with temptation. After he fails the last temptation, the only one he fails, he still is honest with his master and so ultimately wins esteem. The story is too long to use in total but could be easily cut down. There are many trials he undergoes that are repetitive which is the nature of folktale structure. I would invite you to pick three significant tests and fashion a shorter story around them.
There is another folktale motif that echoes our texts, the motif of the demon or the devil who torments good people. You can find many tales in many traditions where the devil tricks and tempts a protagonist who must discover how to out trick the devil to be rid of him. Sometimes the devil is old Lucifer himself and sometimes it is one of his demon minions. One such story is “The Demon Cat”, a tale from Ireland. A large, malevolent black cat terrorizes a fisherman’s cottage eating up the fish before it can be fed to the family. Finally the mistress of the house retrieves a bottle of holy water from the priest and that is end of the cat. “How St. Anthony Brought Fire to the World” is another story about tricking the devil and in Hell itself. It comes from the traditions surrounding St. Anthony of Egypt, a 3rd century desert father who helped found monasticism. St. Anthony takes his pet pig to Hell to retrieve fire for the people of the earth. After causing quite a ruckus with his pig, he is invited OUT of Hell by Lucifer. But little does the devil and his demons know that as he leaves he carries a coal of fire within his staff. When he is safely on earth he sets the coal free with this blessing,
“ Oh, spirit of fire,
Arise now and go
Round the earth entire
Through rain, through snow.
From that time on, there was fire in every hearth, and people sit around merrily telling stories on winter nights. Saint Anthony took his pig and returned to his simple life in the desert.”
Blessings on your Lenten story journey,
©Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. Commentary and photos may be reprinted by permission only. Please find and tell the stories!