The duo sang a medley of 1970s pop songs. Unmistakable from its opening notes onward was Boney M’s “By the rivers of Babylon”, the song of the exiles who feel they cannot sing of their lord in this strange land. Drawn from the words of Psalm 137, the song omits the final verse, “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” The anger of the people was such that they sang of killing the children of Babylon.
Editing out the awkward bits makes the bible a much easier book with which to cope, makes it much more palatable. But taking the easy way was the temptation resisted by Jesus of Nazareth, three times he is offered an easy way, a lazy way, and three times he resists – whether it be turning stones into bread, leaping down from the Temple, or bowing down to evil in order to gain authority.
Christians twenty centuries later tend to be less rigorous in their thinking – it’s about experience now, about how people feel, about going along for one’s personal edification. There’s not much by way of the wilderness in gatherings of people sat on comfortable seats watching a pop band at the front, nor is there much engagement with the deeper theological questions that have gone unanswered.
As the church reads of the temptations this Sunday, the greatest temptation will be for it to avoid the difficult and the controversial. The season of Lent leads to Good Friday and the death of Jesus. The atonement, as it is called, is at the heart of Christian belief. Jesus dies as a sacrifice for the sin of the world.
In college days, a one term course addressed the problems of the atonement, one of which was that in Jewish theology, the scapegoat, the one who carried away the sin, did not die, but was driven into the wilderness. With the passing years, the theological problems have deepened. In times when violence against a person is quite properly eschewed, what does one make of a story where a father leaves his son to die? What does one make of a father who thinks that the death of an innocent person is the only way to satisfy himself?
Christians will avoid the question, or will repeat familiar doctrinal arguments; to challenge the theological orthodoxy would be a step too far. Succumbing to the temptation to lazy thinking is much easier than asking what the story of the death of Jesus says to a Twenty-First Century listener.