Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage (Matthew 4:1-25) transports me to a barren wilderness atop a rocky cliff where a Spanish swordsman awaits a masked man who is climbing to meet him. After exchanging some pleasantries and life history, the Spaniard, Inigo Montoya, challenges the masked man, the Dread Pirate Roberts, to a duel, with these words, You seem a decent fellow. I hate to kill you, to which the Pirate responds, You seem a decent fellow. I hate to die. A fast-paced bout of left-handed fencing proceeds, taking them up and down hills and over rocks, with them conversing all the while, You are using Bonetti’s defense against me, uh? . . . I thought it fitting, considering the rocky terrain. . . . Naturally, you must expect me to attack with Capo Ferro. . . . Naturally, but I find that Thibault cancels Capo Ferro, don’t you? . . . Unless the enemy hasn’t studied his Agrippa, which I have! You are wonderful! . . . Thank you, I’ve worked hard to become so. . . . I admit it, you are better than I am. . . . Then why are you smiling? . . . Because I know something you don’t know. . . . And what is that? . . . I am not left-handed. . . .
I must admit that the scene from Princess Bride is fresh on my mind because the movie was on tv yesterday morning at my in-laws, where we are visiting for the holidays. (Nothing like having cable available, when you don’t watch any tv at home. I’ll get my yearly fill of Matlock and Law and Order.) But the scene really does connect me to the passage of the day, as Jesus finds a formidable fencing partner in the persona of the foul tempter, the devil himself. These two both wield the sharper-than-a-two-edged-sword Word of God as they fence around the wilderness, up and down hills and over rocks, with Jesus foiling the fiend’s every move with a well-prepared defense (de-fence). The Capo Ferro of the diabolical rapier involves the sharp edges of temptation to power. Jesus is indeed on guard as he fends off attack after seductive attack: Be a hero! Take advantage of your angelic security system! Seize control of the world’s kingdoms – surely you could do a better job than theses bumbling idiots!
Jesus must have still been wet behind his ears, literally dripping with baptismal waters, when the peaceful dove of the Spirit went ballistic (literally so in Mark’s version of the story, where the verb for driving him into the wilderness is ek-ballo) and flung him into the wilderness like a sling shot. Not exactly the answer to the model prayer request, (lead us not into temptation) that Jesus would have hoped for. Jesus went like a speeding bullet from beloved Son to poor pilgrim of sorrow, cast into the wide world alone, feeling tossed and driven. But as the passage shows us, he is not alone for long, with Satan immediately stalking him, slashing away with scripture’s sword. Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice made reference to this in Act I, the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. At the end of the day, the devil’s purpose is to reshape the identity of Jesus. He is is posing the same question to Jesus that Inigo asked – Who are you? I must know. And since Jesus’ core identity is contrary to every diabolical agenda, the devil essentially hears the response of the Dread Pirate, Get used to disappointment. It occurs to me that the very same double-edged sword used by the devil there in the wilderness continues to be wielded by those who want to redefine Jesus, who want to re-cast him as superhero problem solver or political kingdom conqueror. Today’s saber-rattling scripture-quoters lunge at the Lord with pointed proof texts to try and tempt him to act contrary to his essential self. They love to bandy the Bible about with great flourishes in attempts to seduce Jesus into becoming the poster child for prosperity or fortification against foreigners or the conquest of enemies. But Jesus’ defense still cancels out those attacks. And his sharp words hold true for us; we really do live life by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Not by words quoted or shouted or posted from King James or the NIV. We live by the Word made flesh, by the Word embodied in Jesus. We live by the Word that proceeded from the mouth of God and came to earth to stand in solidarity with the poor and welcome strangers and love enemies. It is the Word of undiluted mercy, the quality of which, as the Merchant of Venice reminds us, is not strained.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.