Of third thingsCommon time
August 28, 2016
For Beloved Community
Vernon K. Rempel, 2016
Matthew 4:1-11 (NRSV with vkr paraphrasing)
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the [Chosen] of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ But he answered, ‘It is written,
“One does not live by bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” ’
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the [Chosen] of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,
“[God] will command his angels concerning you”,
and “On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus said to him, ‘Again it is written, “Do not put the [Holy One] your God to the test.” ’
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the [Holy One] your God,
and serve only God.” ’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
One of the curses of human existence,
and certainly of heightened political seasons,
is the conceit that we are faced with an either/or choice.
One path bad, the other good.
Choose the good, which is always me,
which is my way.
I’m from your part of the Internet,
so choose me, I’m in your electronic tribe,
your well of mutual agreement.
I love how one bumper sticker
subverts this drive to be in the right:
“Come to the dark side; we have cookies!”
Or more profoundly,
the slogan from the Unitarian immigration reform initiative:
“Standing on the side of love for the immigrant.”
Not on the right side, but on the love side.
Not either/or but love.
One way to think about the temptations of Christ,
is to think that Jesus is given an either/or choice:
either follow God or follow Satan.
It’s like the comedian says,
why do people go to church each week?
Every time, the preacher says “God good; Satan bad.”
Don’t they remember? Do they walk out of the church
going: Now wait a minute, was it God good….?
God versus Satan. The primal faith story.
But another way to imagine these encounters
is that Satan is offering an either/or choice,
and in each case, Jesus refuses the either/or
to respond with a 3rd way.
In this way, the dichotomies are marked as Satanic.
And moving out of the either/or of dichotomies
is divine – finding a third way.
In other words, it’s not God versus Satan.
It’s God versus the human inclination to
make things into a simple either/or choice,
the human impulse toward having an in-group.
Parker Palmer, the Quaker-inspired writer,
speaks of the importance of holding the tension
as a way of moving beyond the either-or.
Instead of immediately attempting to resolve a question,
we are invited to “go to wonder,” letting
our hearts and minds explore the question.
In this way we hold the tension,
until something finer emerges,
rather than “either/or.”
(Hidden Wholeness, p174: “…to be in the world nonviolently means learning to hold the tension of opposites, trusting that the tension itself will pull our hearts and minds open to a third way of thinking and acting.”)
Like the Rainer Marie Rilke poem:
Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart
and try to love the question themselves,
as if they were locked rooms or books
written in a very foreign language.
Don’t search for the answers,
which could not be given to you now,
because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is to live everything.
Live the questions now.
some day far in the future,
you will gradually,
without even noticing it,
live your way into the answer.
(Letters to a young poet)
Richard Rohr talks about this as the:
“tertium quid, a third [some]thing, what the inner wisdom traditions sometimes call “Third Force.” It is the process of overcoming seeming opposites by uncovering a reconciling third that is bigger than both of the parts and doesn’t exclude either of them.”
(Adapted from Richard Rohr, Holding the Tension (an unpublished talk in Houston, Texas: 2007); and A New Way of Seeing . . . A New Way of Being: Jesus and Paul (CAC: 2007), disc 2 (CD, MP3 download).
Rosemary Radford Ruether takes it a step further, I think,
by saying simply: dichotomy is original sin.
(Sexism and God-Talk)
She notes that women have historically always ended up
on the wrong side of the male-constructed dichotomy.
So the church fathers decide to emphasize that
sin came into the world with Eve,
because she is weak.
Woman causes man to sin, to divert from the path,
using her wiles to pull men to lowlier impulses
than good abstract theology.
The Biblical theologian Phyllis Trible joyfully takes this on.
(God and the rhetoric of sexuality)
She points out that Eve in the story is active
while Adam is passive.
He’s the guy on the couch,
while she’s organizing the neighborhood.
She notes that when the snake talks to Eve,
she responds in full flow:
“The response of the woman to the serpent reveals her as intelligent, informed, and perceptive. Theologian, ethicist, hermeneut, rabbi, she speaks with clarity and authority.” (p110)
Meanwhile, Adam, not so much:
“…throughout this scene the man has remained silence; he does not speak for obedience. His presence is passive and bland. The contrast that he offers to the woman is not strength or resolve but weakness…. He does not theologian; he does not contemplate;…. Instead, his one act is belly-oriented, and it is an act of acquiescence, not of initiative.” (p113)
It’s deconstructive rhetoric, cutting through the
male-dominant structures to make room for female.
It’s kind of like Sojourner Truth telling the group
of male preachers who didn’t want her to preach:
“Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”
Put that in your rhetorical pipe and smoke it.
(From a speech at the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Ohio. Collected in The Narrative of Sojourner Truth, pp 133-135))
The purpose of Trible and Sojourner Truth is not to put down men.
It’s to stop men putting down women.
So that we can get on with our shared humanity.
That’s the third thing. That actually what we all are is human.
That we inhabit a shared humanity,
we inhabit simply a company of difference,
which in so many ways is simply difference,
not better or worse, not an occasion for
putting one ahead of another.
As the Greek Orthodox theology David Bentley Hart says:
Those differences are separated not by a distance of alienation
but by a distance of beauty.
(Beauty and the Infinite, p18)
Whatever we are in our genuine differences –
not our distortions but our genuine differences –
is for the sake of beauty, and beauty alone.
The temptations of Jesus
Well all right. So that’s the falseness of either/or thinking,
and the oppressive power of dichotomy.
Now back to Jesus in the wilderness with Satan.
Here, Satan offers dichotomies,
and we see Jesus’ wonderful spirituality
as he rejects the either/or in favor of third things,
the tertium quid.
Satan begins with bread.
The dichotomy is either bread or no bread.
Surely you wouldn’t keep people from having bread.
Jesus answers with what in political circles is called a “pivot.”
“Humans don’t just live by bread.”
A good politician or community organizer being interviewed
You know, I’d like to talk about bread.
But let’s talk first about people
and the power of people when we all work together.
Which is essentially what Jesus did at the
feeding of the 5,000, I think.
He got people to open up and get that food organized.
There’s food. Let’s let it be among us.
No hoarding in your backpacks.
Satan then moves on to mighty works.
You know, Jesus, you’re well connected.
You can make things happen.
Jump off a tower and angels will show up.
Satan’s dichotomy is either put on a show of power or don’t
and, by implication, be weak.
Jesus basically says, you don’t show off divine power.
In fact, there’s nothing to show.
If you think divine power is about spectacles
that impress people
then you don’t know God.
And so, while Jesus then does do a lot of healing,
it is out of compassion.
And when people are impressed,
he tries to get them to not talk about it too much.
They do anyway, and his fame spreads.
But he doesn’t want fame.
He wants communities of love.
Like with the men and women who walk around with him.
It’s about love. Not about getting a lever on history,
or on the populace.
He just wants to teach Jerusalem the ways of peace.
It’s a hard sell. Folks – we – tend to stay dazzled by the works.
And lose track of the peace.
Satan offers a third and final dichotomy:
Rule all the nations and make everything better
or don’t rule and miss your chance with history.
And once again, Jesus jumps out of the way of the either/or:
This isn’t about ruling or not ruling.
“Serve only God.”
Which is not in Satan’s continuum of power.
Because serving God will bring the joyful and loving Jesus
to the cross, to the lost place, and to shame.
And then, of course, and most wonderfully, the mystery.
Because with the cross, there is the great dichotomy:
Either live or die.
You survive or you fail to survive.
But now it is the deep, divine action of the universe
that comes and flows around Christ.
Because it turns out the it’s not a dichotomy:
by dying you may live.
And if you try to save your life, you will lose it.
Or, to put it another way, by loving,
whether you live or die, you will live.
As John 1 puts it:
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
So Jesus moves to something bigger than the dichotomies of Satan,
to the divine tertium quid, the third thing of the Spirit,
which is always more, always beautiful,
always making and loving
and in which we may rejoice.