It's Been 40 Days: How to Resist the Temptation of Injustice and Intolerance (Matthew 4:1-11)
By Karyn L Wiseman
I keep seeing listicles pop up on my Facebook feed. 40 Best Movies of all Time. 40 most underrated actors. 40 best hip-hop moments in history. 40 things that make everyone smile. 40 little known facts about Friends. Listicles of the 40 most, best, or worst whatever ... it goes on and on. You click on the link and then get to click through page after page of these crazy listicles. They drive me insane and there is always another "NEXT" button to click. And why is it so often 40? I have no idea but 40 seems to be the perfect listicle number. If it's less than 40, you might not see as many ads and not spend enough time on their site. If it's more than 40, you might give up. A lot of listicles seem to be based on the number 40.
40 is also an important number in the Bible. According to several sources, the number 40 is used almost 150 times in the Old and New Testaments. Some examples: Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. There were 40 years of wilderness wandering for the Jewish people fleeing bondage in Egypt. Noah and his family were in the ark for 40 days and 40 nights of the flood. There were 40 days and 40 nights of fasting while Moses was on Mount Sinai. Jonah was given 40 days to convert the people of Nineveh. Saul, David, and Solomon reigned 40 years each. 40 was the limit of whip strikes one could receive in the Old Testament as punishment. 40 is also about the length of one generation.
Often, but not always, the number 40 was about testing and times of trial. 40 could mean many things and it could simply be the use of the number 40. The difficulty of determining the exact meaning of the use of the number is virtually impossible, but it was used often as a symbol of testing or tribulation. Whether you intentionally challenge yourself with the traditional Lenten practice of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving or not, I think the symbolism of 40 days connects to our current reality as Americans.
As I write this, we are just about at the 40-day mark of the Trump Administration. Whether you voted for Donald Trump or not, he is the President of the United States of America. And we are all in this together now. Some have found an ally in his administration and are happy with many of the decisions made thus far. Others have found - once again or for the first time - a strong and proud voice of resistance from within and are now actively holding the administration accountable for decisions they vehemently stand against. Still others are confused and concerned, but are unsure how to proceed or process their feelings about these 40 days and 40 nights.
There has been an explosion of feelings expressed on social media and on the streets of our nation these past 40 days. Many times, these have been peaceful and profound statements of either support or resistance made both privately and publicly. Many times, these have been small and local, but they have also been national and international gatherings of hundreds of thousands of persons. Many times, these feelings have overflowed into debates on cable news shows, over dinner tables with family, and in town hall gatherings with elected representatives.
Sometimes, the feelings erupt in angry shouts with people talking over each other, against one another, and in total opposition to the clear beliefs of another person on their newsfeed or in their lives. The temptation is to stand so strongly against another set of beliefs that you cannot even see the humanity of the "other" in the conversation. The temptation is to lash out at ideas that are contrary to those we hold so dearly in our hearts and minds. The temptation is "fight or flight" instead of "stay and engage."
In our text for this week, Jesus is in the wilderness preparing for the role he is about to undertake through his public ministry. He is alone but is visited by Satan as a three-fold test --which is a more accurate translation than what we understand as temptation. Resisting the test means he can do what he's called to do without "pulling rank." It means he can live into the Son of Man status while trusting that God will take care of his needs. And it means that he can complete his calling without taking a shortcut to power or prestige, which was not in God's plan for his mission. These are powerful "tests" of his faith and missional calling. And he passes each and every one of them.
How hard it must have been to resist those tests in the wilderness. Jesus was fasting and was hungry, but he refused to turn stones into bread. He was likely worried about his future suffering, but he did not ask for special treatment or protection from God. He was aware of the role to come but he resisted grabbing power before his time. He was subjected to human suffering, pain, and testing, but he resisted giving up or giving in. He did not react or overreact to his circumstances. He relied on his faith and on God. And he relied on the teachings of his faith and his training. He responded with scripture from the Torah. He responded with teachings from Deuteronomy 6-8. He knew how to respond to tests.
The test today is to not overreact but to be willing to act for justice and intolerance without denigrating the other. The test is to support your positions without giving into the fear. The test is to find grace in those tests when we are certain we are right and others are wrong by listening - really listening - to find moments of connection.
It does not mean making a listicle of the 40 types of people we hate or want to keep out or don't trust. It does not mean making a listicle of the phobias and fears people experience as refugees, LGBTQIA persons, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, older people, Millennials, gender-fluid persons, or some other element of faith, birth, religion, or culture that can be used to separate us.
The test today is to disagree, march, post, or resist those things that we see as injustice and inequality but not to be intolerant of those who hold those beliefs without conversation, listening, and engaging first. We can hold one another accountable and we can hold our government officials accountable, but giving in to the test of this time by hating or belittling others is not the answer.
So let's create some new listicles for this season of 40 days -
40 ways to better listen to each other
40 phone calls to your political reps to support or advocate for change
40 creative interfaith interactions for your community
40 ways to resist inequality
40 ways to support those programs you believe in
40 ways to include others in your life
40 ways to pray for those on the margins and work for their inclusion
40 advocacy actions for Lent
40 miles of marches this year
40 ways to stay and engage
What's your listicle for the next 40 days?
Bible Study Questions:
1. In what ways have you engaged in politics or advocacy over the past 40 days? Is this new for you? Why now? What prompted you?
2. How do you handle disagreements with friends and family when you talk about politics?
3. What is your plan for this Lenten season for spiritual practice and advocacy?
For Further Reading:
3. Advocacy Practice for Social Justice (Third Edition) by Richard Hoefer. Lyceum Books, 2015.
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