The Superman Conundrum
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Matthew 4: 1-11
I have a fantasy. The fantasy is “What if I was Superman?” If I was Superman, with my red cape and blue tights and the big S on my chest, I could solve all the world’s problems. I could stand against injustice everywhere. I could round up all the dictators and terrorists just like that and toss them into the Phantom Zone where they belong. I could make everyone distribute food and wealth fairly. I could eliminate poverty! I could probably even end war altogether. I’d even be impervious to nuclear weapons and I could make all weapons and armies obsolete. I could bring about peace in our time!
Of course, some people might not like it. Some people might raise questions about how I got appointed judge and jury. They might prefer to make their own decisions rather than me make them for them. But look, they’ve had their chance. I’m a good person with a strong moral center, a good Christian, a believer in social justice and fairness and democracy. Just give me the power, and I’ll straighten everything out.
That’s the temptation that Satan throws at Jesus when he says, I’ll let you rule the world if only you bow down and worship me. Jesus Christ, Superman!
I can’t imagine that Satan tempted Jesus in such a ham-handed fashion. To tell Jesus “Oh, you can rule the world if only you worship Satan” is totally unlike the serpent in the Garden of Eden of whom we are told he was “the subtlest creature in the Garden.” Satan’s whisper would have been much more indirect. It would have appealed to Jesus’ heart, to the way he loved people, to the pain he felt about their suffering. It might perhaps have gotten to his almost hidden, but real, ambivalence about God’s plan for him. It’s an ambivalence we will see in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus wonders if God could take the cup of suffering away from him. “Does it have to really be this way?” Jesus wonders. Do I really have to die? Is this really the best and most sensible and practical way to bring people back into right relationship with God and one another?
Satan would have tempted Jesus through his compassion and also Jesus’ well-recorded impatience. Jesus was in a hurry, maybe because he knew his time was short. But it was also because he saw suffering and need everywhere, and it hurt him; and it especially hurt him when it was caused by other humans. He had no patience for politics; and subtlety was not his strong suit either. He had a bad habit of saying exactly what he thought about people who abused power or neglected love. Satan would have used that. “Why submit to these idiotic rulers like the high priest and Pontius Pilate—or even Caesar for that matter? Why let such meager, evil men kill you? You are more powerful than all of them! Make them bend to your will! Make them do what is right!”
You can see why that would be very tempting.
But Jesus doesn’t buy it. His response to Satan’s offer to rule the world is:
“It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.’”
The first two temptations are about Jesus helping himself. In the first, he’s tempted to feed himself; in the second, he’s tempted to save himself from harm. But in this third temptation, he’s tempted to give up on God, to place himself on the pedestal, to play the role of God himself. Where is God? We have all these problems and no solutions. It’s time to give up on God and look to ourselves for all the answers.
I think the reason this is last temptation in the desert in Matthew is that this isn’t really so much a temptation for Christ: it’s a temptation for those of us left on earth after Jesus’ earthly life. It’s a temptation for Christ’s body, the church.
This is the temptation the post-resurrection church continues to face every day. We are waiting for Jesus to return and solve all the world’s problems once and for all. But in the meantime, what are we supposed to do? We know that on the one hand, to do nothing in the face of all the world’s ills is irresponsible and un-Christian and a denial of the entire witness of Scripture. But on the other hand, seeking to solve all the world’s problems can become obsessive, overwhelming.
The temptation is to get impatient and to think that since God isn’t solving all these problems right away, it’s up to us. We stop trusting God, and we start to trust ourselves.
This leads us to the sin of egoism, to the Superman obsession. It looks like God has left it up to us to solve the world’s problems! Maybe conversion is the answer—even if it’s forced, through passing Christian laws, whatever those are, and making this a Christian country. This is what drives the Dominionists, a group of Christians who believe it is their job to make the United States a Christian country, by force if necessary and certainly by squelching dissenting voices. This kind of thinking is similar to the way that rebellious First Century Jews thought about how to solve the Roman problem—overthrow them and assert a Jewish state! But this solution is precisely the one that Jesus rejects when he rejects the option of becoming a worldly king. Political solutions are helpful, but they aren’t the ultimate solution.
But for most of us, this sin of coopting God’s powers and responsibilities isn’t as grand as all of that. It tends to be more subtle, as the work of Satan always is. It’s a lie built on a fabric of truths.
Take how we’ve handled the coronavirus. We’ve tired of all the restrictions and the slow process of coming up with a cure and how unpleasant our lives have become. We’ve been tempted to take matters into our own hands. We think that somehow I can solve this problem myself—or at least that maybe it’s okay for me to break the rules every once in a while. Let’s acknowledge that we’ve all not only been tempted to do this, but we’ve occasionally done it. For many of us, because it was an occasional thing, we didn’t experience consequences. But some of us did.
For some people it’s gone further. They’ve imagined themselves super-people, impervious to COVID-19. They’ve bought into some crazy conspiratorial theories because these theories make them think they are in on the secrets of the universe and they know they true score. It’s a myth of omniscience—all knowledge—that gives them omnipotence—all power. It allows them to be super-people. But we have no right to judge this, because it’s a temptation we all face. It’s the temptation of not trusting God.
You see, what we believe, or at least hope, as Christians, is that the Lord God is the sovereign superpower of the universe who holds all the crazy and unpredictable and uncontrollable stuff that we don’t understand in the palm of God’s hand. But when we get desperate or confused or hurt or despairing, we forget that. We begin either to imagine we ourselves have the solution—or we give up hope altogether.
You may not realize it, but this is the temptation of ministry. I can assure you that there is not a single person who’s gone in the ministry without feeling a strong need to fix things. For me, problems in my family made me a “fixer,” someone who wants to heal the world’s ills and solve the world’s problems. It’s easy for ministers to put themselves in the role of God. After all people look to us for all the “God” answers, right? So it becomes tempting to try to provide those answers, to try to solve all your congregation’s problems, and all your friends’ problems, and ultimately all the world’s problems.
Essentially it is a well-intentioned, good-hearted usurpation of the role of God in people’s lives. It’s easy to do because God doesn’t often seem to be directly solving those problems in person, so you start to think it’s up to you. It can be heady, maybe even a bit of a power trip. But ultimately it trips you up because you aren’t a super-person. You’re human. You do things wrong. You mean well but you say or do the wrong thing. People are hurt or disappointed or angry. And then you feel terrible.
And ministers aren’t the only ones guilty of this. It’s an occupational hazard of any community service provider—nurses and doctors, social workers, counselors, police officers, politicians, leaders of social change movements.
We Boomers were as a generation afflicted with it as young people, believing that our movements for peace, love and understanding could change the world. In many ways we are the poster child for the problem inherent in this way of thinking. As we got older and realized we couldn’t solve all the world’s problems, we Boomers became cynical. We decided that since we couldn’t solve the world’s problems, we could at least solve our own problems by making ourselves wealthy, healthy and successful. Sad to say, the “peace and love” generation is hardly recognizable today. Many of today’s ills are the result of the Boomer generation building a world for themselves and saddling the cost of it on future generations and the poor.
Now of course not all Boomers have done this. A lot have held onto the values of their youth, but they’ve matured. They have learned how to be more measured and patient. They’ve learned not to judge and condemn those with whom they disagree, but to continue to stand up for what they believe. They’ve learned to accept that they can’t solve all the problems of the world, but that any progress is better than no progress. They’ve learned to accept their limitations and, as they say, not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.
I don’t say this to indict anybody, especially you and me my fellow Boomers! I think Jesus’ challenge to us is to recognize that while the horizontal direction of love is critical, we have neglected the vertical dimension.
We all know well that as our reading from First John reminds us, to love our neighbor is to love God, and to love God is to love our neighbor. That is the horizontal direction of our relationship to God. This drives us to do good for others and to seek within our limited abilities to ease the burdens of a needy world.
But Jesus reminds us, “Worship God and serve God alone.” The temptation to be the solution to all the world’s problems is the temptation to forget the vertical direction—it is the temptation to forget that there is a relationship between me and God, and that ultimately all of life is about that relationship with God. We are called to be the hands and feet of God, and that’s a good thing—until it isn’t. Until it turns into a belief that God isn’t at work unless I am at work. Then it can turn into “I have to be God for everybody.” And that is an impossible, unbearable burden. It will eventually lead to exhaustion and perhaps even cynicism and disappointment.
If we think it’s all up to us, the well runs dry pretty fast. Jesus wants us to remember: this isn’t about us—about us solving the world’s problems or having the answer to every question. It’s about God. It’s about that deep, personal relationship with God that is, in our hearts, what we most deeply need and what we crave.
Jesus’ three temptations in the desert all come down to this. Even for Jesus, it’s not up to him to solve the problems of the world—it’s up to God. Even for Jesus—maybe more for him than anyone else in history ever—trusting God to provide was essential. Even for Jesus, that vertical relationship with God was the thing that most mattered.
Now of course we all believe, and are correct to believe, that God loves us. As First John asserts, God sent the Son to die and rise again to save us. God’s love for us is incontrovertible and inevitable.
But it is easy to get disoriented about that self-giving love on God’s part. In our self-help world, talking about how much God loves us has become a way to make us feel better about ourselves. It is as if the whole reason God exists is to make us feel good about ourselves.
But the root of Judeo-Christian faith itself is not in how much God loves us, but in how much we are to love God! “Hear O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone, and you must love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength.” This statement doesn’t say God loves us—though it’s certainly true. What it says is that WE NEED TO LOVE GOD. God doesn’t exist to love us. We exist to love God. And when we lose sight of that, we run the risk of doing one of two things: we depend too much ourselves to solve the world’s problems—or we give up hope altogether.
The problem with depending on ourselves to solve the world’s problems is that we are still flawed and imperfect. We make mistakes. And the world is too big. Even when all humanity is focused on solving a problem—like the pandemic—it’s hard work. Should we work to solve humanity’s problems? Absolutely. But if we only have ourselves to depend on to play the role of God, either we will grow weary of all the problems we can’t solve, or we’ll assume the authority and arrogance of God and become tyrannical.
We often imagine that love is a feeling, and so perhaps we think that to be told to love God is to feel affection for God. I’m not saying that’s wrong; but just like in any earthly relationship, it’s also not enough. The real core of love, any love, is mutual respect and trust. And trust is especially the issue when we are tempted to take matters beyond our grasp into our own hands—when we start to imagine it’s our job to play God.
The plain fact of the matter is that there is far more in life that is out of human control than is in it. To seek to solve all of life’s problems, to seek the answers to every conundrum and all the world’s troubles, is not in itself a bad thing. I think it’s irresponsible and un-Christian to say we shouldn’t try to solve the ills of the world.
But in the final analysis, all our best our efforts will never solve all problems or answer every question. That way lies either weariness, cynicism, or despair. In the final analysis, we have to trust God. That is the greatest challenge and the truest measure of our love for God. When we don’t have the answers, when we can’t solve the questions, when things are spinning out of control, we realize that we have to trust God.
We have no choice. We must look to this omnipotent, all-wise, and all-loving heavenly super-being and say, “I have to leave this up to you. And I trust you enough to accept whatever you then bring my way. I know this because you love me—but I also know it because I love you. I know that I can trust you with those things I can’t control, that I don’t understand, that hurt or confound me or make me feel small. I know that you are trustworthy to handle those very things that are trying to crush me under their weight. I know you are trustworthy and so I can bear the unbearable—because you love me and I love you.”
In many ways this is the whole message of the cross. Love isn’t about being all powerful and all-knowing. Love is about vulnerability, about accepting what we cannot change, even as Jesus accepted his terrible death on the cross. Love is about trusting God when we don’t understand and can’t control what’s going on. Christ’s love for God gave him the trust to make the ultimate sacrifice for our salvation. Our love for God gives us the trust to take on new challenges but also to bear the troubles we cannot overcome.
To love God is to trust God with what we can’t control. And God deserves all that trust. Thank God for that.