By Seth Vopat
War rages with all its fogginess and once again we find ourselves in the United States questioning how we should respond. Will airstrikes alone be enough, or will we need ground forces? Ebola spreads throughout parts of Africa despite the efforts and sacrifices made by medical staff, some with their very lives, to contain it.
Reflecting on these events transformed my reading of the Gospel of Matthew this past week. I was once again reading through the temptations of Jesus when I noticed my heart was in an entirely foreign territory. I found myself agreeing with Satan.
Yes, you read it correctly. Like Satan in the second temptation, I want Jesus to reveal himself in all his glory. To bring peace in lands which continually bear the scars of war. To put a halt to the devastation wrought by the Ebola virus. Whether it’s Jesus Christ superstar or superhero, I am ready for that Jesus.
And yet, as I read the temptation narrative of Jesus this seems to be the very answer he rejects.
The narrative begs the question: In what way will Jesus reveal himself as Israel’s Messiah? Even the third temptation of Jesus inheriting the kingdoms of the world — in line with theologian Walter Wink’s work on the powers — is asking whether Jesus’ kingdom will come as others have, in might and power.
Jesus’ response? No.
Shocking as it may be in our society, Jesus has not chosen the path of superstars and superheroes. Rather, what is attested to in the Gospels to Jesus’ messiahship is manifested in the women and men who place their trust in him. It is through the hands of human beings who take up the call to follow Jesus that God’s kingdom is revealed.
As I much as I hunger for the superstar, the easy button God who responds at the first sign of a prayer, I have come to the conclusion that a God who responds in this manner would lead me further and further away from compassion for my fellow human beings. Think about it for a moment. If God jumped into the crisis every time we called on his name, would we engage with those around us and try to walk a mile in his or her shoes, or would we offer up a quick prayer so we can get back to what is most important in life — the narcissistic self?
Don’t misunderstand me. I believe God is fully at work in our world today. However, it’s a work God has chosen not to do alone. Through the incarnation Jesus is calling us into partnership with God. Think of the medical staff members who are working right now to contain one of the 21st century’s most deadly diseases. Their compassion for their fellow human beings which puts their own lives at risk is much more in line with how Jesus chose to manifest himself to the world. And not to be overlooked is the courage of those afflicted by this disease who listen to medical recommendations and stay put rather than give in to panic and spreading the disease further.
Prayer isn’t an easy button that allows me to get back to whatever I was doing. Prayer calls us to a deeper affinity with those around us — both the friend and the stranger. Prayer forms us into more compassionate human beings who seek to understand those around us rather than being understood (credit deservedly goes to Francis of Assisi). Reading the Bible becomes a practice of looking into a mirror deeply and recognizing the way we are all made in the image of God and worthy of respect regardless of where we come from and what we believe.
Perhaps this is why we struggle with prayer. It’s not going to be a timesaver. It’s not going to allow us to go on about our day. It’s going to call us into an uncomfortable posture of a servant and a human being.