03/08/2012 08:53 am ET Updated May 08, 2012

Lent: The Wilderness Within and Without

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Lent is the time when we think of Jesus in the wilderness. The gospel of Mark is short and vivid on this topic: "He was in the wilderness 40 days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him." But usually we don't stop there when we think of Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew and Luke elaborate on the temptations. In their telling, Jesus was tempted by Satan with food to overcome his hunger; tempted to jump from the pinnacle of the temple, to prove he was the Son of God; and tempted to claim dominion over the world.

The story suggests that Jesus may have experienced a surge of self-doubt and a longing to overcome it by proving himself. Moreover, when Satan says, "If you're the Son of God, do this or that," he implies that turning stones into bread and jumping from the temple are the kinds of things that the Son of God would do. There is no argument; it's just assumed. The frontal attack tries to sow doubt in Jesus' mind, while Satan casually presumes that the Anointed One should perform spectacular feats.

But Jesus repeatedly rejected the expectations that his enemies and followers held for him. At the outset of his ministry Jesus identified himself with the suffering servant of Isaiah, the fellow -- suffering, partisan redeemer who brings hope and deliverance to the oppressed: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." Then he had to run for his life, for Luke says that the crowd, filled with wrath, tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. From the infancy narratives, to the Magnificat, to the temptation in the desert, to the Sermon on the Mount, to the confrontation in the temple, to the cross, the gospels present Jesus as a prophet of righteousness who spurned the power-worshipping ways of the world. Jesus refused to rationalize oppression, or grab for power, or appeal to national pride.

What does it profit anyone to gain the whole world but lose one's soul? This haunting question was an echo of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. Human beings have an indefinable craving that the world cannot fill. We need the things of this world; many of them are good; but this need leads us into temptation. Our economy rests on the constant growth of the gross domestic product. The devotion to production crowds out the craving in us for something besides material goods. We are tempted and exhorted to consume far more than we need, in an extravagantly wasteful way, and encouraged to go into serious debt.

Look where that led. The financial crash started with people who were just trying to buy a house of their own; who had no concept of predatory lending; and who had no say in the securitization boondoggle that bunched up thousands of sub-prime mortgages, chopped the package into pieces, and sold them as corporate bonds. Financial professionals were caught in the terribly real pressure of the market to produce constant short-term gains. Speculators gamed the system and regulators looked the other way. Mortgage brokers made fortunes off mortgages they had no business selling; bond bundlers made fortunes packaging the loans into securities; rating agencies made fortunes giving inflated bond ratings to the loans; corporate executives made fortunes putting the bonds on their balance sheets. The rating agencies handed out triple-A ratings for toxic securities, being paid by the very issuers of the bonds they rated. The big banks got leveraged up to 50-to-1 and kept piling on debt.

The day of reckoning came, and now we are consumed with the politics and policy options of the aftermath: the crushing loss of jobs, savings, and homes. The megabanks, now bigger than ever, have rushed back to gamble in the swaps market and pay huge bonuses. And the outposts of progressive religion, long accustomed to their marginalization, have struggled to find their voices on economic justice, militarism, and other social justice issues. Social justice has been off the table for so long that many religious communities have little memory of how to stand up for it.

I spend much of my time dealing with the latter problem. But the word from the desert, a spiritual reminder, has not changed: We need consumer goods, but they do not fill the chasm. We find, like Jesus, that we are tempted into evil by things that are not evil; some are even good. Driven into the wilderness, we confront our superficiality, which conjures up the beasts of anxiety, jealousy, malice, contempt, and fear.

Meanwhile our craving for something more is still there. On first impression this desire seems too small to make a difference. Yet Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, and he cautioned that we shall not live by bread alone.

These words strike us at the center of our being. They articulate a hunger that sends us in the right direction. We need to hold fast to this hunger and not be diverted from it. By attending to it we recognize that we are not in control. Our restlessness with what the world has to offer points us to God, and draws us to social justice work that allows others to share in the harvest.