The space and time – the world – in which we find ourselves is a fallen one. It is in need of redemption. All too often, our stories of rescue and triumph are outside jobs. Find this or that political “outsider,” we imagine, and he/she will sweep in and solve our problems. Basically, we all want Superman to come in and save us. Possessed of super-powers but wholly honest, entirely dedicated to the good, able to use the super-powers to defeat evil. The Crash Test Dummies were not wrong to pen the refrain, “And sometimes I despair the world will never see another man like him.”
There is, of course, no Superman. And the Lenten readings are a striking depiction of how such a fantasy misunderstands both our fundamental problem and the real solution. In the familiar gospel story of Jesus’ temptations, notice how the tempter pushes for super-power-like displays – and in effect suggests that he himself has super-powers in being able to deliver all the kingdoms of the earth to this man. Consider how this temptation, to hold the levers of worldly power, may be the one that do-gooders of all ages and stripes are most likely to succumb to. That kind of political power may be the closest thing to a “super-power” anyone will ever get. To get it – even in the name of doing good – is a deal with the devil plenty of people make.
But no super-power, not even political power, will save us. Indeed, one way to read the Genesis story today is that our primeval temptation is exactly that: to be Superman, rather than human. It is a constantly amusing story. The tempter first engages in the ever-powerful act of framing: instead of asking whether God has stopped them from eating from one tree, he asks if God has prevented them from eating from any tree. Subtly, God’s generosity and goodness is put into question. Later, God is made to appear jealous, and then Eve’s own desire questions God’s wisdom. It’s all for the good, we say to ourselves, and so we unmistakably make the choice to prefer our own (meagre, often laughable) judgment to God’s own judgment.
As St. Paul reminds us, the gift is not like the transgression. Thus, the gift is not a Superman brought in to reverse everything, but a man who resists the temptations to be Superman. Oliver O’Donovan, in his marvelous treatment of the temptation narrative, notes that Jesus already has his mission, and the temptation is about “the manner in which it is to be fulfilled.” What marks our resistance to that temptation, O’Donovan notes, is a willingness to wait on God’s time, a willingness ultimately of patient endurance in the name of the genuine promise. He writes, “the supreme temptation… is to seek the fulfillment of God’s purposes without having to endure God’s time.” (Finding and Seeking, p. 169)
The way of fulfillment turns out to be something other than magic: it is the excruciating patient path of love that Jesus lives out to the end. Even on the Cross itself, we know, Jesus resist the taunts that he prove himself a Superman, instead never conceding an inch to his oppressors, while not raising a hand against them, in order to prompt the real gift needed to truly reverse the fall: forgiveness. Rowan Williams strikingly notes that Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances (not to mention the speeches of his disciples) never seek vengeance on those complicit in his death, but always preach repentance and forgiveness. Jesus returns, Williams says, not as a vengeful victim, but as the victim who calls us to the side of the victims. Such a return is first “an invitation to recognize one’s victim as one’s hope,” and second, the possibility of “transcend[ing] the world of oppressor-oppressed relations to create a new humanity, capable of other kinds of relation….” (Resurrection, p. 15)
Truly, the gift is not like the transgression – the redemption is not simply a reversal, where the good guys triumph. We like those stories (we are always the good guys, of course) – but they are not the story of the Gospel. The Gospel takes aim not at one side of human rivalry, but at the whole idea of human rivalry, in the name of the genuine “non-rival” God, who is not out to subordinate us or our enemies or anyone.
All this should help us see two things clearly. First, of course, Jesus is not Superman. The tendency to create a somehow super-human Jesus is fundamentally contrary to the genuine Christology of the tradition. We cannot truly follow that Jesus – or “follow” can only mean somehow muddle along behind. No doubt we continue to muddle, and give thanks for God’s patience!
Yet Lent is always a time to hear anew the possibility of a genuinely new way of living, a human way, that we humans (not gods, not superheroes) can truly live out. And thus, secondly, we are called to recognize that if Jesus is truly human, then we misguidedly fall short of what that image of God must mean. Far from Supermen, we are anything but. And that’s true of all of us. So maybe our fantasies (especially our political fantasies?) that some hero will come along with magical powers and save us all and change everything – maybe THAT’S what we should give up once and for all this Lent.
Instead, imitate Jesus. And give it time, just like God does.
Readings: Gn 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Ps 51; Rm 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11