“Collective Fast, Collective Salvation: Hunger Striking Against Satan and Empire”
Text: Matthew 4:1-11
Opening prayer: God, in this season of preparation, instill in us the collective courage to face down Satan’s forces our world today. Amen.
Lent is not about our individual piety. Lent is not about our individual practices of quitting coffee, meat, or sweets. Jesus did not battle Satan in the desert so that you would quit smoking.
Jesus’ refusal of Satan is a refusal to serve the interests of the Roman Empire. We don’t talk about Jesus in relation to empire much, which is a deadly glossing over of history. Jesus’ daily life in Galilee was immersed in the brutality of Roman imperial rule. There is no parable, no healing story, no single word of the Gospel that can be understood outside of this.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Once the Roman army conquered a new territory, they would return to Rome and parade the spoils of their conquest through the streets. This procession was called a “triumph.” In 70 CE, just 10-20 years before Matthew’s Gospel was written, they invaded Jesus’ homeland: Judea. Survivors were brought back to Rome in chains for the Triumph. Josephus, the historian, described the procession:
Even the prisoners were worth seeing – no disordered mob, but the variety and beauty of their clothes diverted the eye from the disfigurement of their injuries. The greatest amazement was caused by the floats […] Many were covered in cloth of gold, and worked gold or ivory was fixed on all of them. The war was divided into various aspects and represented in many tableaux which gave a good indication of its character. Here was a fertile land being ravaged, here whole detachments of enemy being slaughtered, others in flight and others being led off into captivity […] On one float the army could be seen pouring inside the walls, on another was a place running with blood […] On yet others were depicted rivers, which, after the destruction and desolation, flowed no longer through tilled fields providing water for men and cattle, but through a land on fire from end to end […] Spoil in abundance was carried past […] A tablet of the Jewish Law was carried last of all the spoil […] The procession ended up at the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, where the generals got down. They still had to wait for the traditional moment when the news was brought of the death of the enemy leader. In this case he was Simon, son of Giovas, who had passed in procession with the captives, and had been dragged under the lash, with his head in a noose, to a spot near the Forum. That is the traditional place at Rome for the execution of those condemned to death for war-crimes. When his end was announced and a general cheer had arisen, they started the sacrifices, and after completing them with the customary prayers, they retired to the palace […] For on that day the city of Rome made holiday for their victory in the war against the Judeans, for the end of civil disorder, and for the rising expectations of peace and prosperity.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Matthew understood how empires are built. Jesus understood how empires are built. Their wealth depends on mass exploitation and death. Jesus refused Satan’s offer because he saw it was soaked in the blood and misery of oppression.
Those were harrowing times, much like today. We have been waging wars abroad for 13 years straight. Meanwhile at home, we have 3.5 million homeless people and 18.5 million empty houses–over 5 empty houses for each homeless person, per Amnesty International. All while this year’s annual bonuses on Wall Street are estimated to rise as much as 10%. Empires deliver riches to the emperor and leave the rest of us desolate or dead.
But we have everything we need, in Christ, to break this yoke. And we bear witness all around us to people following in his footsteps. Yesterday the news came out that 1,200 jailed immigrants at the Tacoma detention center have been on hunger strike since Friday. They are fasting for an end to the deportations that tear them from their families, the conditions they are held in without decent food or appropriate medical care, and the labor they are forced to perform in cooking and cleaning for the entire facility for the wage of one dollar a day. In retaliation, staff at the detention center have started taking away their pillows, blankets, and clothing. They have been left with literally nothing but their bodies, their minds, and their sense of degradation as human beings. And yet, like Christ, they fast. Not as pious individuals but as a gathered, faithful and broken body.
Nobody resists empire alone. Even Jesus had angels waiting on him after Satan fled. Temptation to brutalize and exploit God’s children will come to each of us in time. We will be tempted to mimic the emperor instead of Jesus, and we need to be prepared for that test. So yes, take on as individuals the disciplines that will strengthen you where you need to be strengthened. But whatever your practice is this Lent, ensure that it prepares you to stand and to endure for collective liberation—collective salvation. Your personal relationship with Jesus is only as strong as our collective thriving as a society, as a creation. If that sounds daunting, that’s the point. Jesus faced down the devil. Either we take his example seriously or Satan wins. I say: it’s Lent. Bring it on, Satan. We’re getting ready for you.