Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Gospel According to Milton

My first semester of graduate school, nine years before I began attending church, I took a Milton course for which I wrote a paper on Paradise Regained. This is Milton's version of Christ's temptation in the desert. I really enjoyed writing the paper, and my conclusion was that Christ refuses the devil's temptations not just to back the right party, but because a world in which all problems are solved by miracle leaves room neither for human agency nor for salvation. If all stones became bread, there would be no need for people to feed their hungry neighbors; if everyone agreed on the same priorities, there would be no need for people to work towards the Kingdom of God; if angels stepped in to save Jesus in every peril, neither the crucifixion nor Easter would ever have happened. Shortcuts short-circuit God's work, which unfolds in God's own time.

As someone who didn't yet consider herself a Christian, I didn't use those exact words, but that was the gist of it. The professor, a deeply humane and devout Jew, wrote, "This is a great sermon, but only a so-so essay." I didn't get a very good grade on the paper.

At the time, I was devastated. I thought the professor was sneering at me. Now I realize that the essay was indeed essentially shaped like a homily, and that the professor's comment was a matter-of-fact observation about genre (and a prescient one, since I began preaching ten years later). As a religious man, he wasn't putting down sermons; they simply weren't appropriate for a graduate seminar.

Today's Gospel, Luke 4:1-13, is the passage on which Milton wrote his four-book exegesis:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'"

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'"

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus answered him, "It is said, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
I woke up this morning, late, to snow and cranky sinuses, and seriously considered staying home from church. I decided to go partly because I wanted to hear what the homilist would say about the Gospel.

We had a family service today: kids present for the entire time, rather than coming in from Sunday school just in time for communion. That means a children's homily, which are notoriously difficult to do. (I've never done one, because I wasn't very in sync with kids even when I was one myself.) I was very curious to hear how our preacher, a seminarian specializing in youth ministry, would handle it.

She gave a nice children's homily, but it wasn't on the temptation. It was on the Parable of the Sower.

I have to admit that my mind wandered, because I didn't want to think about the Parable of the Sower. I wanted to think about the Temptation in the Desert. So I sat in my pew and pondered how I'd try to present this Gospel to children.

I think I'd tell some story about a time when I was a kid and an adult refused to do something for me, so I'd learn to do it myself. There was the time I'd climbed up on a high rock and was afraid to climb down, but my babysitter kept saying, "You got up there, and you can get down," and finally I did. There were all the times when my mother patiently gave me pointers on how to do homework that looked impossible, but made me do it myself instead of doing it for me. There were the times when my parents insisted that I learn to swim without a raft, learn to ride a bike without training wheels, learn to cross the street by myself. What seemed to me at the time like cruelty, like a mean refusal to help me be more comfortable, was really love: they knew I could do those things under my own power, and they wanted me to know it too.

So I'd tell one of those stories, and then I'd probably ask the kids if they had stories like that. (This is always the part that takes a while!) And then I'd explain that Jesus was doing the same thing, refusing the devil's temptation to do for us what we can learn to do for ourselves. Jesus, like his Father, was being a good parent.

And then I might give them some bread, and ask them to find someone in the congregation to feed.


  1. Really worth having, the worship of a people who know what they should do but still want it to be done for them.

    I'm sure there's a metaphor for contemporary society there, somewhere.

  2. Interesting thoughts!


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