Meeting Mr. Scratch, Part 1

I have four children under the age of nine, so I’ve spent several years hunting for good children’s bibles. And beyond the typical earmarks of prose and illustration, there are always two places I turn to. First is the story of Noah’s Ark. Does Noah build the ark because God is going to destroy mankind, or does Noah build the ark because he wants to save zoo animals from a big flood? The former is important to me not because I’m big on wrath, but because I’m big on truth, and regardless of what you or I may think about Old Testament violence, God’s reason for the flood is in there, and I think without it the story of Noah’s Ark becomes disconnected from the overarching bible narrative that leads to Christ. And if a bible leaves out the reason for the flood, it’ll leave out a lot of other things too.

The second thing I look for in a children’s bible is even more important to me, and yet I have to compromise on it almost every time. It’s the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, when Jesus leaves his baptism for some serious one-on-one time with his Heavenly Father and ends up being tempted by the Devil to compromise the purpose of his ministry before it even gets off the ground. Out of the scores of bibles I’ve read for young children, only two of them include this story at all. 99% of them skip it entirely, moving from the baptism by John straight to the calling of his apostles on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:18-20).

The closest I’ve seen any young children’s bible come to telling of Jesus’ encounter with Mr. Scratch is the highly acclaimed The Jesus Storybook Bible by Sally Lloyd-Jones. At least in her version we see that Jesus is even tempted at all, and (unlike the one other bible I’ve see with this story) it at least hints at the overarching purpose of the encounter: to establish Jesus as the new Adam, the Adam that does not eat the forbidden fruit, whatever that fruit might be. And still, I think much is lost here. While getting credit for even including the story at all, Lloyd-Jones doesn’t bother to list the three temptations, let alone the significance of each.

And I think this great absence in the vast majority of children’s bibles is tragic, because it’s in the nitty-gritty of the temptations that I believe we learn just what the difference is between the ministries of John and Jesus, between the clearing of the road and the traveling on it. In other words, the devil’s in the details. (Groan all you like, friends, but never was a pun more apt).

I believe Jesus’ encounter with the Devil, Old Scratch, or Satan is so important that it serves as the foundation for the rest of Luke’s gospel, for everything that gets Jesus into trouble with the teachers of the law, for everything that drives the poor and sick and possessed to Jesus while most everyone else flees or forms battle-lines. And yet, I think this account is read and then forgotten by most readers — laymen and theologians alike. Even though the account is mentioned in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, and both Matthew and Luke describe the encounter in full with all three temptations distinctly delivered and deflected, I’m of the opinion that most of our modern theology does exactly what most of our children’s bibles do: it uses the baptism in the Jordan as the foundation of Jesus’ ministry, and then moves straight on to the calling of the apostles.

Here, friends, is what I see as the problem. If we base Jesus’s earthly ministry on his election (the descent of the dove in Luke 3:21-22) rather than on his rite of passage (the three temptations in the desert in Luke 4:1-13), I think we lose the corporeality, even the vulgarity, and the just downright crunchiness of the claim that Jesus is the New Adam. Without this encounter we are only left with the weighty theology of Paul (Romans 5:12-18, 1 Corinthians 15:45), which is true and glorious in its own right, but inaccessible to children and to those new to the Faith (see 2 Peter 3:16).

In other words, folks, I think we need to acknowledge Mr. Scratch. And in part 2 of this post, we will.

RNM

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