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Lent 1, Yr C, 17.02.2013
Dt 26.1-11: a wandering Aramaean was my father...
Ps 91.1-2, 9-16: God is our refuge
Rom 10.8b-13: everyone who calls on name of Lord shall be saved: Jew & Greek
Lk 4.1-13: temptation narrative // Ezra (1091)  

Heavenly Father, your Son battled with the powers of darkness, and grew closer to you in the desert: help us to use these days to grow in wisdom and prayer that we may witness to your saving love in Jesus Christ our Lord.

(Luke presents Jesus as a counter-blast to the narrowness of the Essenes, etc.) 

           If I say to you. ‘Mary had a little lamb’, what is your response?  Yes, you immediately gave me the next line.  Even if you had not said it, you would have thought it, wouldn’t you? - for we all know this nursery rhyme.  Keep that in the back of your mind for a while.

          We are in Year C of the lectionary when our concentration is on the gospel according to Luke.  If one asks about Luke’s special concerns, then one of them is the concern for the outsiders such as women and Samaritans.  In today’s gospel we have further evidence of this concern.

          I preached on this Sunday two years ago when our gospel was Matthew’s version of the temptation narrative, In that sermon I spelled out how Matthew’s telling of the temptation related it to the wise, powerful, wellborn pattern of humanity. 

          Today we have Luke’s version, and although Luke certainly knows the same pattern of humanity and relates Jesus to it explicitly at least twice in chapter 2, it is not the tune he has chosen to march to at this point.  I believe that Luke probably received the tradition of the tempting of Jesus in basically the form that Matthew has it, but, rather than relating it to the story of Israel in the wilderness as Matthew has done, he instead has made it a counter-blast to the Essenes. 

          Let me explain.  You have heard of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The Essenes were a priestly sect, and it is generally agreed that they are the ones who produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Their type of emphasis on priestly purity in the line of Ezra is something opposed by Luke.  He does this by presenting the temptation of Jesus as the antithesis of the avowed mission of Ezra as found in the 7th chapter of the Book of Ezra.

          Why does Luke choose to present Jesus in counterpoint to Ezra?

          Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor were post-Exilic Jewish nationalists who were intent upon getting rid of all the foreign wives, etc. that Jews had married during or after the Exile.  This is sharply stated in Ezra 9.1-2 where it says, ‘The people of Israel have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands.  For they have taken of their daughters for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the peoples of the lands.’

           In other words, Ezra and Nehemiah tried to impose a form of what we would call ‘ethnic cleansing’.  This view was opposed at the time by a tract that we know as the Book of Ruth, which combats this narrow ethnicity by placing King David in the line of Ruth the Moabite.  Now it is this same narrow vision that Luke sets out to offset by telling the genealogy of Jesus and the temptation narrative that follows it in a way that subverts Ezra, chapter 7, verses 1-10, as we shall see. and he  gives a genealogy for Jesus that traces him back to Adam, son of God, a counter-blast to  Ezra’s ‘purity’ of lineage as a priest, and in the temptation narrative, which immediately follows the genealogy, Luke rearranges the order of the temptations, interchanging the last two so as to match the order of Ezra’s intentions.

          In the first five verses of chapter 10 Ezra proudly traces 16 generations of his priestly genealogy back through Zadok to Aaron the chief priest.  And in verses 9 and 10 he goes up to Jerusalem ‘according to the good hand of his God upon him’ (7.9).  ‘For Ezra had set his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgements’ (7.10).

          To recap the four elements of Ezra 7, we have (1) Ezra’s priestly descent, (2) Ezra seeks the law, (3) he seeks to do it, and (4) he seeks to teach it in Israel .

          Now Luke: just before today’s gospel Luke has given the genealogy of Jesus of 77 generations back through David, to Abraham, and finally to Adam, the son of God, thus including all humanity (3.23-38).  Then Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he is tested.  The first temptation to turn a stone to bread is met, as in Matthew, by Jesus citing Deut 8.3b, but Luke omits the words ‘but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’,  This phrase, meaning the Torah, Luke expects his audience to supply themselves.  Luke’s audience, drawing on their memory, would, in effect, ‘seek the law of the Lord’, and this very having to seek for it would emphasise that one is to seek the Torah.  Luke then places next the temptation to do the devil’s will rather than do God’s will, namely the Torah.  In the third temptation the devil seeks to teach Jesus the scriptures. 

          So, in effect, Jesus, the true Adam and Son of God, is tested in precisely the three things that Ezra himself was so proud of intending to do. 

          If Ezra and the Essenes tried to tighten up Israel , so to speak, then, Luke proclaims that Jesus came to open up Israel for all mankind.

          And so for our day.  How do you suppose Luke would handle some of the issues of our day?  If Luke offset the Jewish hatred of the Samaritans by making a Samaritan the good neighbour, how would he combat Islamaphobia?  If he based Jesus’ genealogy on Adam, how would he meet David Cameron’s call for marriage for same sex couples?

          In short, if Luke false-footed the Essenes of his day, does he not challenge us to be clear-eyed about the fears and prejudices of our day that hinder all people without exception being enabled to hear and respond to the gospel of love and the loving community held out in Jesus Christ?

          And, having in mind the Growing Church conference that we went to for our United Benefice away-day, are there viable and visible things that we can do at St Mark’s that will say ‘welcome’ in such a way that people may feel like trying to put their foot inside our front door.   A welcoming cup of coffee or tea, especially on cold days, is an excellent idea, but they have to come through two doors to get to them.  How can we make these doorways welcoming entrances rather than potential barriers to be overcome?  Perhaps Luke has given us some light on this that will change it from being a problem to a challenge and an opportunity.