Thursday, April 4, 2019

Lent (Sunday 1): temptations in desert and hospitality


First Sunday of Lent: March 10, 2019

The Gospel at Mass today is wonderful. It’s the story about Jesus being tempted in the desert – the devil urging him to change stones to bread, or jump off a cliff and let the angels catch him, or rule the world. He says no to each.

I am convinced that hospitality is as significant in the Gospel as truth and salvation and sacrifice. It’s not a decorative side issue; it’s fundamental. And I think it’s worthwhile looking at this Gospel with an eye on hospitality. This reading is multi-faceted, but one facet is about hospitality.

The prototype of hospitality – the First Feast in Scripture – is Abraham at Mamre. That story includes welcoming strangers, bowing to them, offering shade and rest, washing their feet, providing a meal, serving them, and talking about fascinating things after dinner. At the Last Supper, Jesus follows the pattern set by Abraham: welcoming his disciples regardless of whether they were friends or enemies, bowing, reclining, washing their feet, providing a meal, serving, and talking about fascinating things after dinner.

The temptation in the desert includes three key details from Mamre, distorted: it’s about food, feet, and bowing.

The devil suggests turning stones to bread. Jesus isn’t interested, and in retrospect it’s easy to see why. He’s got his eye on the Eucharist: he is planning to turn bread into himself, and planning to turn stony hearts into hearts of flesh instead. Why turn a plastic ring into brass, when you’re planning to turn a mountain into gold?

The devil suggests that he protect his feet miraculously. Jesus isn’t interested, and in retrospect it’s easy to see why. He’s got his eye on the Eucharist, and he’s planning to embrace and cherish bruised and dirty feet. Dirty feet are natural; bruises are the common fate of humanity. He embraces this, and plunges into the dirt and bruises. How else can we understand what he’s doing (sort of) when he asks us to cherish each other, in all our dirt and sin and bruises and weariness?

The devil suggests that he set up a power structure, with himself near the top. Jesus isn’t interested, and in retrospect it’s easy to see why. He’s got his eye on the Eucharist, and he’s planning to upend the whole power structure. The priest and the victim are one; the host is the servant of all; the One at the top of the power structure chooses to go to the bottom; the Alpha is the Omega. A king who plans to be a slave really isn’t tempted by a guaranteed slot as viceroy.

The Gospel today is about many things, hospitality among them. The devil has no understanding of hospitality, and can only offer a foolish caricature.

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