Sunday, February 26, 2017

Matthew 4.1-11: Tempted

The first Sunday in Lent finds Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11, Lent 1A). He has been baptized and is "led up" by the Spirit. There follows forty days of testing for Jesus. He is offered the things of the world that signify success. He is encouraged to get for himself the things that would satisfy. He is taunted into proving that God loves him. And in all these things, Jesus resists. Resists satisfying human urges. Resists idolizing success in this world. Resists the need to test God.

Often artists paint the pinnacle of the Temple, the top of the mountain. Often the Devil is portrayed in demonic and threatening ways (which would seem to be easier to resist than temptation that is beautiful, easy and just-one-step-away). Which is why Briton Riviere's version of Christ in the Wilderness is so appealing.
Briton Riviere. Christ in the Wilderness. 1898, London: Guildhall Art Gallery.
There is no architecture, no glory, no demonic presence. Just Christ alone in a barren landscape. Just Christ seated on a wave of rocky landscape. Just Christ seated with the weight of his shoulders resting on his hands and his head hanging low.

There is a story in Hebrew scripture that became a prefiguring of Christ in the wilderness. That story is David and Goliath. There are two combatants in the story. Both involve a time of forty days. David would not wear armor, Jesus wears no armor either. David's weapons are seemingly ineffective stones. Jesus' weapons are "mere" words. And yet. The giant falls. The temptations are resisted.

Have the temptations happened in Riviere's painting? Are they still to come? From where have they come? Did Jesus find the temptations in the wilderness? Or did they accompany him there? For Riviere it's just Christ and the wilderness.

Perhaps Jesus has been successful in this painting. Perhaps he is resting after his exertions. Jesus has won. And yet if you look along the horizon there is a glowing red line. So even if the battle is done here, there is something else ahead. Red sky at morning, sailor take warning. Yesterday's battles are done, but the sun is rising on a new day.

Check this pulpit in relation to the readings from Lent 1A. Click on this link to Facebook.

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