It’s Tempting

Read: Matthew 4:1-11

The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command theses stones to become loaves of bread.” But [Jesus] answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4: 3-4, NRSV).

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Sanctified Brethren lately. They were the fictional creation of humorist Garrison Keillor, but for those of us in the midst of fracturing denominations, they seem all too real.

In his 1985 novel, Lake Wobegon Days, Keillor described the Sanctified Brethren as “a sect so tiny that nobody but us and God knew about it.” They met three times a week in Uncle Al and Aunt Flo’s living room to sing and pray and wait for the Spirit to move. Scripture played an important role for them—so important that it was emblazoned on every available flat surface. Even the wastebasket warned: “Touch not the unclean thing—2 Cor. 6:17.”

Another part of that same verse served as the sect’s motto: “Be ye separate.” Indeed, they took this motto so seriously that, “once having tasted the pleasure of being Correct and defending True Doctrine, they kept right on and broke up at every opportunity.”

Does any of this feel familiar? Like the Sanctified Brethren, many Christian denominations are demonstrating a pernicious proclivity for getting smaller. But the fractures aren’t just at the denominational levels. Congregations and families are feeling their effects as well. “I can’t go to my home church anymore,” a woman told me. “Nobody there considers me a Christian.”

At the heart of many of these divisions is the interpretation of Scripture. We lob Bible verses at each other as if they were grenades and then act surprised when people get hurt. Or maybe we’re not surprised. Maybe we meant for that to happen.

Lord, have mercy.

There is something to be learned, I think, from the story of Jesus’ discussion with “the tempter” in Matthew 4. The old adage about how “even the devil quotes Scripture” is immediately obvious. When Jesus deflects the devil’s “stones into bread” temptation with a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3, the devil lobs back a passage from Psalm 91:11-12. Undeterred, Jesus counters with a quote from Deuteronomy 6:16. We can almost hear the devil cursing under his breath, especially when Jesus deflects the Satan’s last temptation with a well-placed quote from Deuteronomy 6:13.

It would be easy to swagger away from this passage, confident that it confirms our proclivity for weaponizing the Bible. But somewhere in our defense of True Doctrine, we would do well to look more closely at the temptations Jesus avoids in this story.

Turning stones into bread—even with the considerable incentive of having fasted for forty days and nights—is, among other things, a warning about the dangers of instant gratification. (It may feel good to quote that verse out of context, but maybe it would be better to do a little more research before we beat somebody up with it.) Refusing to put God to the test—even though Jesus knew that God could easily save him from being dashed to pieces—is a caution against to trying to manipulate God. (Before we indulge in the “pleasure of being Correct,” we might consider the possibility that we could be wrong.) Opting to worship the true God rather than a smooth-talking imposter is a stern reminder to examine our motives. (Are our arguments more about winning than they are about understanding?)

I am under no illusion that this little Bible study will turn the tide of our tendency to beat one another up with the Bible. I’m still less confident that it will put even a small dent in our proclivity to break up at every opportunity. But I for one am tired of this nonsense, and I don’t know what to do about it. It’s tempting to give up, but I think I’ll settle for saying, “Lord, have mercy.”

Ponder: Even the Bible can be bullied into bearing false witness.

Pray: Teach us to handle both your word and your people with respect, O God.