Picture, if you will, a room furnished with a small desk and a chair. On the desk sits two marshmallows and a bell, and in the chair sits a four year old child. This is the setting for a now famous experiment conducted in the 60’s and 70’s by a Stanford psychologist. The experiment went something like this. The child was told by the researcher that they would be left alone in the room, and they were not to eat the marshmallows until the researcher returned. But, if they could not wait, they may eat only one marshmallow in the researcher’s absence and then ring the bell. So, essentially, if the child were to resist temptation he or she would eventually get to eat both marshmallows, and if not, then the child would end up with only one.
Some children swiped a marshmallow the second the researcher left the room while others were able to distract themselves by covering their eyes, humming a tune, or kicking the desk. The original aim of the experiment was to learn more about delayed gratification and whether or not there was a way to “teach” willpower. Were their strategies one could learn in order to resist the pull of things like marshmallows or, say, Maseratis, depending on your age and level of crisis experienced at midlife?
The studies were well done, the science sound, and findings impressive. But, the thing that made this research famous was the surprising data revealed when following up years later with the original children in the study. It turns out that the children who were able to delay gratification, that is, wait for the researcher to return before eating the marshmallows, went on to be physically healthier, better socially adapted, and score higher on the SAT. Social scientists worldwide jumped all over these results and speculation began. What implications might there be in the ability to determine at an early age essentially who has the ability to succeed and who isn’t? It’s almost like some sort of modern day, secular Calvinism. There are the “elect,” those destined for better jobs and privileged social status, and those who are not. Kind of ratchets up the anxiety a bit doesn’t it? Makes you wonder what your little four-year-old self would have done, eh? Well, it made me wonder.
And, obviously, since I’m no longer four, I had to settle for the next best thing—my kids. A few years back I set up the experiment and, to my delight, my daughter passed with flying colors, fighting the urge to eat the marshmallows until my return. I then tried it on my son, who just couldn’t resist. And since there’s a little bit of me in both of them, well, I figure we have good days and bad days.
I bring this up because I get this feeling that for many Christians out there, Lent has become little more than a religious version of the famous marshmallow experiment. It’s sort of a holy self-improvement exercise. We might give up coffee, or chocolate, or alcohol, or whatever stand-in we chose for the irresistible marshmallow in our lives. And if we can make it forty days having resisted the temptation to indulge, we have reason to feel good about ourselves. We are more worthy, more accomplished, more successful, closer to God, perhaps. And if we fall off the wagon, so to speak, well, I guess we’re not one of those people who has what it takes after all—justification for our lower SAT scores.
The fallacy here is the thinking that all this self-denial will somehow make us better, more perfect people. When the ashes are placed on the forehead during the Ash Wednesday service, the words are said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return,” not, “Remember that you are dust and with a little work you could fix that.” Lent reminds us of our mortality. It shouldn’t inspire us to overcome it.
Take today’s gospel passage from Matthew. After his baptism Jesus is sent out into the wilderness for forty days during which he is tempted by Satan. Jesus is hungry and is offered bread. He is placed in a dangerous situation and is offered protection. He is shown riches and offered power over them all. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with prosperity, protection, and power, but when these things are offered as a substitute for God’s greater provisions, as idols essentially, we have a problem. This passage echos the story of the Israelites’ forty year wilderness journey in Exodus. The difference is that the Israelites succumbed to temptation at every turn, whereas Jesus resisted.
The quick, yet short-sighted interpretation here is to say, well, we ought to strive to be more like Jesus. And sure, we ought to. But a more faithful reading, a more Lenten reading, perhaps, is to be reminded that we have much more in common with those stumbling Israelites. “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Like Adam and Eve, we are human, flawed by nature and at the end of the day we will eat the apple … or the marshmallow, if you will.
The Good News is not so much that we have a fine example of perfection in Jesus to aspire to, but rather the Good News is that Jesus exists. In Romans, Paul draws the contrast between Adam and Jesus: “Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Jesus is the reconciler, the unifier, the one who sees our sins and responds with holy compassion. Jesus loves us because we are dust, because we are worthy just as we are. And we will continue to be worthy, wether we eat the marshmallow, or not.
Lent 1, Year A