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The First Temptation: Turning Stones into Bread

September 28, 2018


By Christopher Menzhuber

Most people imagine that Jesus’ first temptation in the desert was to turn stones into bread. This makes perfect sense because the text literally states the Tempter told him “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Mt 4:3. But without undermining this traditional interpretation or minimizing the importance of fasting, what if for a moment we considered that scene may not have played out exactly as many have imagined? What if, instead of loaves, the devil was really tempting Jesus with human hearts?

Human hearts? What could possibly suggest Jesus was being tempted with anything other than bread, much less hearts of all things? To begin answering this question, listen closely to what just happened in the same Gospel a few verses earlier. When the presumptuous Pharisees and Sadducees came to John in the wilderness he warned them “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Mt 3:9.

Were these stones John was referring to similar or perhaps even the very same stones scattered around the scene of the temptation? Was the devil’s temptation influenced by listening to John the Baptist’s reproach of the power brokers of that time? Who knows? But what is significant about John’s statement is that God –who made the whole universe out of nothing – can surely raise up faithful people from stones.

Next, recall how the prophet Ezekiel described the new covenant that God would forge with his people. “I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 36:26. Of course this was not meant to signify a literal organ transplant. Rather, it describes in symbolic language what God was promising to accomplish through his Messiah, a promise which Jesus would of course have been aware of and very much desired.

And so if we allow these Biblical texts to provide a background for this temptation, then it is not really a contortion to imagine that during the deadly mystical showdown between the savior and the father of lies, while they were indicating the physical stones in front of them, there was an awareness these stones signified something far greater: They represented the hearts of men.

But how would Jesus be tempted to turn hearts of stone into faithful ones? The text states that Jesus was hungry. Of course, there is no need to downplay the significance of real physical hunger after fasting. But we also know from the Gospel of John what Jesus hungers for even more than food. After speaking with the Samaritan woman his Apostles offered him something to eat and he explained, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me, and accomplish his work.” Jn 4:34. The exchange with the woman at the well fed him. His food –his bread- was the changed heart of the Samaritan woman.

When we put these ideas together and re-read the story, as the devil points to the stones, he is at the same time indicating all those faithless, obstinate, “stone”- hearted people who fall so very short of what really satisfies Jesus. The temptation to “make stones into bread,” takes on a new level of meaning: “Since you have the power of God, why don’t you just snap your fingers and change those hard-hearted people into good people? It’s what you’re most hungry for, after all.”

Considering the temptation in this way contrasts two very different ways of using power. To someone who is concerned exclusively with themselves, it is incomprehensible that you wouldn’t use power to satisfy yourself, commanding, intimidating, and coercing others to get your way, especially if what you want is something good. Those who mocked Jesus on the cross revealed their misunderstanding of divine wisdom when they taunted, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” Mt 27:40.

This temptation to use power to change others into something for my own consumption has reiterated down the centuries to our present day. In politics, entertainment, industry, media, education, and even tragically within the Church itself –we can observe instances of capitulation to this diabolic temptation: I command you to be my bread; I’m going to use my power to turn you into what I desire.

But what was Jesus’ way? How did Jesus -the great I AM- wield his omnipotence? What did Jesus ultimately do that not only repelled the temptation, but completely subverted the devil’s notion of how to use power?

Jesus did not turn us stone-hearted people into his bread. Jesus turned himself into bread for us.

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The Price of Knowing

July 30, 2018


by Christopher Menzhuber

Sometimes car salesmen will use a tactic that goes like this: If the customer offers to buy a car at a certain low price, the salesman writes that price down on a piece of paper and asks the customer to sign their name next to it. Signing one’s name is the customer’s pledge to buy the car at that price so the salesman has motivation to talk to his manager to try and get that low price.

It can be a little disorienting because often customers just want to know if the dealership will sell a car for a certain price before having to decide if they want to actually make the purchase. This tactic requires a commitment from the customer in order to obtain that knowledge. It takes away the advantage a customer has of being free to walk out of the sale and it requires the customer to be confident in the price they offer. I recently encountered this technique and the experience brought to mind what I think are two important and related principles.

Firstly, there is a kind of knowledge that can only be obtained by investing something of ourselves in a kind of quid pro quo. For example, will joining this parish help me grow spiritually? Do I have what it takes to stay committed to this person in marriage? Will this person stay with me? What is it like join the Catholic Church and become “Catholic?” When we are presented with such overtly life-altering decisions, it’s only natural to want to know the outcome before it happens, especially if the decision involves some kind of personal risk.

But we only come into full knowledge by taking the leap of faith, entering into them with ourselves and accepting all of the risks and uncertainties that go along with it, trusting that God is a providential Father who loves us and wants what is best for us. These are not transactional in the same way as major consumer purchase, but they are relational; for all of the preparation that can be done leading up to the decision, after a certain point one cannot learn anything more from a position of detachment.

Secondly, the anxiety of being presented with a significant decision can be greatly diminished by the preparation we do. The effort spent striving after virtue during a courtship pays dividends later in marriage. Attending Mass and meeting with parishioners and staff can help prepare us for what to realistically expect at a given parish. The RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) is designed to gradually lead people to a place of freedom where they can say with confidence “I believe in all the Catholic Church believes.” Above all prayer, works of charity, participation in Sunday Mass, and frequent confession give us the spiritual foundation to move forward in peace.

We are living in a time when there is an unprecedented amount of data available to us, much of which can be passively acquired safely behind a screen. We are called to be good stewards of this opportunity but to also remember that there are kinds of knowledge that can only be obtained by opening up ourselves in a generous exchange with the reality that is before us. Last February, Pope Francis summed it up well when he encouraged young people to “Open wide the doors of your life! May your time and space be filled with meaningful relationships, real people with whom to share your authentic and concrete experiences of daily life.”

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The Last Jedi and the Renewal of an Institution (Spoilers)

April 18, 2018


by Christopher Menzhuber

Christopher Menzhuber

The tension between authentically renewing institutions and destroying them has been around as long as institutions have been with us. Many people would agree the Church -as an institution- should be in a constant state of renewal yet few would agree on what that means. The root of such disagreement lies in our understanding of what Jesus came to do: establish a Church or destroy religious institutions altogether?

For those who believe Jesus came to destroy institutions, “Christ … appears as the revolutionary of love, who pits himself against the enslaving power of institutions and dies in combat against them (especially against the priesthood),” writes Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) describing this view while criticizing it in his book Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today. From this perspective, organized religion is seen as an obstacle that must be removed before faith can freely animate a community of prophetic individuals to follow their individual consciences and fully realize the power of love in the world. In short, it is thought that if the kingdom of God is to prevail, the institutional Church must end.

In the most recent installment of the Star Wars saga, “The Last Jedi” released December 2017 and grossing over a billion dollars worldwide, Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) echoes this sentiment about his own Jedi religion. “I only know one truth: It’s time for the Jedi to end.” By creating tension between a would-be reformer and the Jedi as a religious institution, director Rian Johnson may be depicting a galaxy not-so-far away as he explores the dynamic of renewal in the Star Wars universe.

Master Skywalker embodies the perspective that organized religion suppresses faith. Reflecting on their legacy of mistakes, Luke has come to see the Jedi as proud usurpers of the Force, which does not rely on the Jedi to exist. “To say that if the Jedi die the light dies is vanity,” he tells Rey. In another important scene, Skywalker attempts to destroy the sacred Jedi relics exclaiming “I’m ending all of this,” an action that would erase all memory of the Jedi and liberate the Force from the Jedi’s confining traditions.

Over and against this perspective is the young protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has been inspired by the legends of the Jedi, and maintains the hope that by being formed in the tradition of the Force she can bring light to the galaxy and find some inner illumination. “The galaxy may need a legend.” she says. “I need to know my place in all of this.”

Does the film espouse one view over the other? The moral character of both perspectives gives us some more insight. Luke, embittered by personal failure, is moving toward self-destruction. Moreover, we also learn he has closed himself off from the Force, and has actually never even read his own Jedi Bible. Drawing a real life analogy to the Church one can see in him the Christian archetype who has grown cynical, who has abandoned the life of prayer, and who despite significant education remains ignorant of his own tradition. Under the pretext of reform this person undermines the very things that give Catholicism its distinctiveness like the sacramental priesthood, moral teaching, and authority of the magisterium, the result of which is tantamount to destroying the memory of the Church.

Rey appears in sharp contrast to Luke: idealistic and energetic; perhaps a little naïve and proud; she wants to be a part of the venerable Jedi tradition. Her scant knowledge of the Jedi is accurate but woefully incomplete. When challenged about what she really knows of the force she stammers only bits and pieces: “Lifting rocks and getting people to do what you want.” Think here of people who grew up without any real religious formation but hear God calling them in a world incapable of providing meaningful answers. They long for the adventure that comes from accepting a truth which places demands upon them and calls forth acts of courage. Far from viewing the Institutional Church as confining, they embrace the ancient but ever-growing Catholic Tradition because it connects them to the greatest story ever told.

While the movie appears to relish the conflict between perspectives, it also seems to tilt in favor of preserving institutions when we catch a glimpse of the salvaged Jedi texts suggesting the Jedi tradition will continue. Rey is acknowledged as a Jedi and her rudimentary grasp of the force turns out to be exactly what the rebellion needs. Luke rediscovers his faith and it sets him on a path seeking forgiveness which “is the heart of all true reform,” writes Benedict.

Overall, “The Last Jedi” takes a more thoughtful departure from its predecessors as it embarks on its own journey of renewal. Whether you can see in it a comparison to what’s happening in the Church or perhaps read it as a metaphor for the renewal of the franchise itself, you may find “The Last Jedi” has an interesting portrayal of the tension between authentically reforming an institution versus destroying it. And if you find those themes to be interesting, you will probably enjoy the book “Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today,” by Catholicism’s own Jedi Master, Benedict XVI.

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