Evil has no ultimate power
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."The Rev. Martin Warner wrote a reflection for the current issue of Church Times in which he saw this scripture through a Stanley Spencer painting reproduced here:
These references to beasts and angels hint at a tension implicit in the words Jesus speaks at the beginning of his ministry, after the 40 days in the wilderness: “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near,” he says. The tension is in that phrase “come near”. Jesus is announcing that the reality of the Kingdom is to be found in his own person, even though the Kingdom’s potential is not yet fully revealed.
Something of this anticipatory quality of now-but-not-yet is captured by the artist Stanley Spencer in his series of paintings entitled Christ in the Wilderness. Spencer originally intended to produce 40 paintings, but he never completed the whole series. The scenes he did paint relocate moments from the teaching ministry of Jesus back into the desert, as though they had all flowed out of that formative wilderness experience.
One painting in particular illustrates the symbolism of wild beasts, which represents a tension between blood lust and the harmony of paradise regained, and that tension Jesus alludes to as the struggle between the hiddenness of the Kingdom of God and the power and presence of its reality.
The painting is called The Scorpion. Jesus sits on the ground, holding in cupped hands an angry scorpion. He looks at this little creature with compassion and acceptance, knowing that its nature is to inflict deadly pain when it is threatened.
The scorpion is a sign of the destructive force of the natural world. But the holding of it by Jesus suggests something else. Divine love consumes this raging force and will bear its pain. Out of that bearing divine love will reveal the peace of the Kingdom of heaven that lies hidden within love’s mysterious ways.
As we begin this Lent, the tensions suggested by Mark’s account of the 40 days confront us all too vividly. The authority of virtue that infuses the Kingdom of God is obscure for many people today, no matter how transformative Christians believe it to be. The human race, scorpion-like, finds itself humbled not only by greed and self-obsession, but also by a virulent cycle of anger.
The journalist Jonathan Freedland has written recently about hate attacks on Jews in north London, in the wake of Israel’s offensive against Gaza. He set this in the context of the need to guard against Islamophobia in the wake of the 7/7 bombings in London.
The point is well made. It is precisely the point of Spencer’s painting, and the struggle of Jesus in the wilderness. Evil, if met with like, will only expand its destructive power. The wilderness experience of Jesus was an engagement with reckoning the cost of revealing the Kingdom of love, against which alone evil has no ultimate power.
Our wilderness, this Lent, might not be Gaza or London; it might simply be daily life, wherever that is. This is where love’s costly resistance to the cycle of greed, self-obsession and anger, on a domestic, local scale, could have significant consequences for enhancing the quality of our global life. Angels will wait upon you there; so will a hurting world.
Labels: Gospel reading