What is the good news that we can hear and proclaim in the Lukan story of the Wilderness Testing? I might perhaps put it in the words of Bryan Stephenson in Just Mercy. “Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths,” he writes, “including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done” (pages 17-18). The truth about ourselves is a source of healing and hope rather than one of humiliation and horror.
I’m not suggesting that Jesus confronts some terrible truth about himself in the Wilderness Testing. Indeed, we have seen that even the Diabolical One acknowledges the truth of what Jesus hears in his baptism – that he is the beloved Son of God, in whom God takes delight. But the Diabolical One wishes to take that truth, twist it to perverse purpose, and use it to lead Jesus onto a path that violates and invalidates that very truth.
Jesus comes to recover and redeem human beings as the bearers of God’s image and likeness, to recover and redeem the identity with which we are created. This is the connection the Lukan author makes in identifying both Adam and Jesus as Son of God. Jesus will not be deterred from the truth of this identity by false promises of easy glory and quick fixes. Nor will we be imprisoned by sin and locked away from this identity forever.
The simplest good news in the Wilderness Testing is that Jesus wins. But Jesus will not use the tools of the Diabolical One in that victory. He will not use magic tricks or political violence or publicity stunts to try to accomplish what only self-giving Love can do. This is consistent with the commands in the Sermon on the Plain. There we learn that we also cannot defeat the Enemy using the Enemy’s tools. We who follow Jesus are called to a different way, the way of truthfulness.
Each of us sinners is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. No one needs to be defined by our past failings and falsehoods, our hatreds and hungers, our misdeeds and mayhem. We all have truths we wish would remain hidden and histories we have worked hard to bury. Truth-telling sounds much more like threat than freedom. But the sins of omission and the lies of not telling deform and deface us just as much as do aggressive acts of violence. It is in truth-telling that we find real liberation.
Here in the Wilderness Testing we see the One who joins together truth and love, honesty and grace. There is no healing from trauma without truth-telling, either for the victim or the perpetrator. And we have been each and both in our lifetimes.
I think about the reconsideration of the “Mark of Cain” that Robert P. Jones offers in his book, White Too Long. He describes the jars of soil one can find at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. These jars have come from places where Black men, women, and children have been lynched over the last one hundred and fifty years. One of those jars was filled just a few miles from my home here in Omaha and brings to remembrance the lynching of Will Brown in 1919.
Jones notes that each of those jars embodies God’s words to Cain after he murdered his brother, Abel, as recorded in Genesis four. God declares that Abel’s blood cries out from the ground for justice. The very soil itself bears witness to the crime. “And despite our denials, equivocations, protests, and excuses,” Jones writes, “as the biblical narrative declares, the soil itself preserves and carries a testimony of truth to God” (page 231).
Cain resists the truth and compounds his crime by lying to God. He complains to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer to that question, of course, is yes. “Here, it’s clear that Cain’s decision to lie about his hand in the murder and to deny responsibility makes his future harder, just as our denials threaten our own future,” Jones continues. “The challenge for white Americans today, and white Christians in particular, is whether and how we are going to answer these questions: ‘Where is your brother?’ and ‘What have you done?’” (page 231).
Jones makes the case that our insistence on denial and deception disfigures the souls of White Christians in America. It may be that the myth of white supremacy has twisted our Christianity almost beyond recognition and into a cruel parody of the real thing. He quotes a James Baldwin op-ed column to drive home the point. White Christians have been formed by the lie of White Supremacy in such a way that “the effect on their personalities, their lives, their grasp of reality, has been as devastating as the lava which so memorably immobilized the citizens of Pompeii. They are unable to conceive that their version of reality, which they want me to accept, is an insult to my history and a parody of theirs and an intolerable violation of myself” (page 233).
It is only through truth-telling that we can begin to heal from the trauma of perpetrating four centuries of inhumanity upon millions of other image-bearers. Truth telling is painful and terrifying. But there is no healing from trauma without testimony. As Jones suggests, if we White Christians would engage in confession and repair, reconciliation would take care of itself. And as long as we will not tell the truth and embody it in actions, reconciliation is just a word behind which to hide.
In a recent article for RNS, Jones applies his analysis to our theology. Truth-telling will of necessity make us White people uncomfortable. That is the nature of confession. If we had nothing to discomfort us, confession would not be necessary. “If we white Christians can muster the courage to walk in its company,” Jones concludes in that article, “discomfort with our racial history can be a sacred and saving gift.”
In the Wilderness Testing, we can find the resources for truth-telling if we want them. The Holy Spirit assures us in the words of Jesus that “One does not live by bread alone.” The Word of God, the word of Truth, is the source of our life. We need not live on the false nourishment of a failed perfectionism.
“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us,” we read in the First Letter of John. “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (1 John 1:8-10). Truth-telling is the path to freedom, and we can trust God to hear our truth and make us clean.
The Holy Spirit assures us that we find our humanity when we worship the Lord our God and serve only God (and not self). Jones notes that White Supremacy has been the idolatrous focus of Dominant Christianity on this continent for four hundred years. It continues to deform and deface the Christian witness to such a degree that the best statistical predictor of virulent White racism in a person is that White person’s commitment to and involvement in a Christian church. The Diabolical One must regard that perversion as a crowning achievement.
The Holy Spirit reminds us that demanding a life of comfort and security as the proof of God’s faithfulness is not faith but rather idolatry. If we demand that nothing in our faith should ever discomfort us, then we are putting God to the test.
I think about one of James Baldwin’s most powerful and memorable quotes here. “You cannot lynch me and keep me in ghettos without become something monstrous yourselves, and furthermore you give me a terrifying advantage: you never have to look at me; I had to look at you. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Nothing can be changed until it is faced. These are good and important words for the first Sunday in Lent. In telling the truth about what needs changing in us, we open ourselves to the possibility of life beyond deception and death.
The right path is rarely an easy one. The best path is rarely the comfortable one. The good news should lead us to what Robert P. Jones calls “Holy Discomfort.” That’s a good summary of the essence of the Lenten journey.
References and Resources
Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
Gregersen, Niels Henrik. “The Extended Body: The Social Body of Jesus according to Luke 1.” Dialog 51.3 (2012): 234-244.
Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Louden, Caleb T. “The Chiastic Arrangement of the Lukan Temptation Narrative.” The Journal of Inductive Biblical Studies 4.2 (2017): 4.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Pilgrim Press, 2006.
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