by Vitor Westhelle
Professor of Systematic Theology
For forty days was Jesus alone in the desert with the devil as his only company, which we shall see, is no company at all. Company, “com-pane,” means “sharing the bread.” And the devil, might wear Prada, but does not eat bread, much less share it. Yet the devil knows that God enjoys bread to the point of becoming bread when shared. But when you are sick you don’t feel like eating bread or anything. And God, who loves to share bread, became sick for forty days and did not eat a crumb, or share a loaf.
Jesus was sick, terribly sick. For forty days Jesus was tempted as we are when we are sick, really sick. For forty days God was in quarantine. These were the trials of Jesus during those forty days: One, the third listed temptation, was to get out of it, as in now. Get out of it; angels will deliver. But God did not do what mortals cannot; bypass the cycle it takes for an illness to run its course or else get special medical treatment reserved for a few. Without health care for all, not for me, said God. And Jesus underwent the full course of that trial.
The second temptation was to sell his soul in order to get something accomplished, to have dominion and do some good. How much could have been accomplished for the betterment of humankind if that would have been conceded and humankind enslaved to Christ? Dostoevsky’s Great Inquisitor raises this charge against Christ: “Had you accepted Caesar’s purple, You would have founded an universal empire and given people everlasting peace.” But Jesus chose freedom and that is why God is still being crucified by those who have dominion. The Zealot and philanthropically minded Great Inquisitor ends his interrogation of Jesus with this verdict: “ … by coming here, You have made our task more difficult. For if anyone has ever deserved our fire, it is You, and I shall have you burned tomorrow. Dixit!” (I have spoken!)
But the first temptation that is listed was to get himself some bread. Jesus’ response came out of the book of Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone.” How do we read this? Is it something like “In addition to bread there are others things that also matter, like the word of God”? If the word “alone” here would mean “Yes, but other things too,” then this does not make sense, for there was no harm in getting some bread provided that the word of God would still be heard. Why would Jesus refuse bread altogether? Didn’t he even multiply loaves of it and fish for himself and the people to be fed? Because “alone” here means: “only by oneself.” What Jesus said was “one does not live alone with bread.”
One does not live if bread is kept by and to oneself only. And Jesus was alone in the desert, only the devil was by him. But the devil is no companion, for the devil does not eat bread, much less share it. Life comes with the sharing. A gift is only life giving when it does not stand alone but when it produces a generous spirit of companionship, born out of the sharing of it. When we say bread alone, it means bread that is not shared, and if not shared it is not life giving. The synoptic parallels in Matthew and Mark say that after this temptation of having bread alone, angels came and waited on him. Angels are those who share bread, and they shared it with Jesus; the alien was hosted in the land of those who share bread. This is why they were called angels. They shared God with their bread. And Jesus communed.
A couple of weeks ago we heard a well known US senator declare: “The terrorists do not deserve the rights before the law that Americans enjoy.” USA alone has become the creed. But when rights are not shared it is unrighteousness. If not shared it is not life giving. When might is alone, it does not empower; it dismembers the body.
In what is regarded by scholars as possibly the oldest confession of the faith in the Jewish-Christian tradition, these words were said when gifts were brought to the altar to be shared: “A wandering Aramean was by ancestor … and he lived as an alien.” Arameans were a semi-nomadic people scattered through the Fertile Crescent developing a civilization of renown.
Even if facing empires from the east to the west they themselves never built any empire, never consolidated their power so as to have it alone. Their contribution was a language that for a millennium was the lingua franca of the Fertile Crescent. They communicated, and in that they shared not least the very language through which God’s gift was once given. Aramaic was after all the language of Jesus. There was a time when God spoke to us in Aramaic. It was the wrapping in which God’s gift was presented, and it still comes to us when God speaks Spanish, Malayalam, Korean, Swahili, or even English.
The remembrance of the ancestors of the faith as wanderers in foreign land, be it Abraham and Sarah, the nomadic aliens, or Isaac, or Jacob, or Joseph, or Moses, the adopted child without birthright is pertinent here. They were the founders of the faith because they knew how to be guests as strangers in foreign lands, as resident aliens. They ground the faith because they learned the life-giving act of sharing, of companionship of receiving and giving forth the bread that gives life and is passed on and is not kept to oneself alone.
And the recitation of this confession is an act of remembrance of what made the faith. The confession was to be said when the people who were settled in a land now of their own brought forth the fruits of their harvest to the temple to be shared with the Levites and the aliens that resided in the land. Levites who took care of the temple received their share for they were the only tribe among the twelve of Israel to whom no portion of land was allotted. Although they belong to the people, their dispossession was the occasion for the faith to be practiced. The aliens were the very reminders from where the Israelites came from, for they, i.e., the aliens, are who their ancestors have been: wanderers.
Consider, then this shortest definition of the living tradition of the faith: aliens. They are those to whom the gratitude for the gift of faith is due. The dispossessed and foreigners are the living ancestors that ground the practice of the faith. If you want go deep into the most arcane layers of the foundations of the faith that holds and sustains us, you need not be an archeologist, you just need a door unbolt and a heart ajar. You just need to be not alone, and not have alone what you possess.
We entered the season of Lent with these two texts we heard: on the sharing of the gift, and the gift of sharing. It has been a custom in Christian circles to give up something during lent. But this is not its deeper meaning. If I give up chocolate, I might still stay with the rest I indulge in by myself, alone. It is about sharing: sharing bread, sharing the cup, sharing rights, sharing power, sharing knowledge, sharing justice, sharing time, sharing place, sharing peace, sharing an embrace.
In this season of Lent we are called to remember how faith comes to us. It comes to us because of the gift of sharing and the very sharing of God’s own self, for even God is not alone, and this is the mystery of the Trinity. God shares God-self in Jesus and becomes a creature, giving out everything, in every respect, including death. (Yes, God shares God-self in our tombs.) And so God is in the sharing of the bread broken and given to each of us with the words: this is God’s body given for you. And so it is through all creation and every creature in and through which God distributes God’s own self. And only because of this can we say “Christ alone,” (solus Christus) for this “alone” and only this is the name we give for the sharing of God’s own self, with whom we become companions.
Luke 4: 1-13