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Entitlement Meets Vulnerability

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Entitlement and vulnerability are characteristics we need to pay attention to in so many phases of our lives. Both can cause us lots of trouble.

Today’s texts – Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11

Pastor Phil

Two stories. Two really familiar stories.

Adam and Eve decide they are entitled to be like God.

Jesus decides that he is not entitled to act like God, that he can be vulnerable in a harsh world.

Two more stories, less familiar, also about entitlement and vulnerability.

Two women met with a group of guys – including me – this past week at Domestic Abuse Intervention Services. Both were vulnerable to intimate partner violence. Both were victims of their partner’s sense of entitlement. Both are now living free, independent lives.

Let me suggest that both entitlement and vulnerability are characteristics we need to pay attention to in so many phases of our lives. Both can cause us lots of trouble.

Adam and Eve had good reasons to feel entitled in the Jewish telling of their story.

God had created them after all – the first human beings on our earth. God had given them a beautiful place in which to live. In the middle of the garden was the tree of life. A river flows to water the garden.

As God told Adam and Eve, they had dominion over “the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

But not only that. God also said, “I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth.”

This first couple was, like, totally in charge of everything. You can understand why they might feel pretty entitled. God had told them that they were.

Except for one thing. That other dominant tree in the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Remember what God said about that one?

“Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!”

Die? What does it mean to die? They had no experience with that. They only had experience with being in charge of everything. And everything was wonderful. They were not at all self-conscious. They just enjoyed this paradise in which they lived.

And then there was that snake. Just take a bite of the fruit on that tree. It will be good for you. You know – an apple a day keeps the doctor away.

Or, as the snake said, “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Oh, heck, why not be like God? We are surely entitled to that, aren’t we? And it turns out the fruit is really tasty. And it turns out that we are naked – hadn’t noticed that before.

All of a sudden, I feel pretty vulnerable, don’t you? Let’s cover up.

Now if anyone had a right to feel entitled, that would have been Jesus. After all, Matthew begins his account of Jesus’ life with these words: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” That’s a pretty impressive heritage.

Surely Jesus heard stories from his parents about all the hoopla around his birth. He would have heard from his father about an angel saying that the baby that Mary was carrying in her womb would be called Emmanuel, which means “God With Us.” He would have heard about the visitors who traveled from the east to see him, the efforts of a king to kill him.

And then just before today’s story of Jesus going into the wilderness, he was baptized by John in the Jordan River and heard a voice from the heavens proclaiming, “This is My Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Wouldn’t you feel pretty entitled after all that? Wouldn’t you feel that you pretty much ruled the world, that folks ought to defer to you and that if they didn’t, well, they would have to pay the consequences?

You can be pretty sure that the tempter in the desert – the one Matthew calls the devil – was betting on that. Just appeal to Jesus’ sense of entitlement and we can make common cause.

Turn those stones into bread.

Jump off the temple. Nothing can harm you.

Look out at the kingdoms of the world. You are entitled to rule them all.

Nothing doing, says Jesus, playing a bit of scriptural Ping-Pong with his tempter. Don’t test your God.

All this happened when Jesus, whatever his sense of entitlement, was also at his most vulnerable. He had been alone in the wilderness. He probably had not been sleeping well on the hard ground what with the howls of animals echoing through the nights. He was starving. He could use an ally. But not at the cost of his soul – or at the cost of the betrayal of his mission.

Entitlement. Vulnerability. They are so much a part of our lives.

The two women at DAIS talked about their husbands exerting more control over their lives bit by bit, control that moved from intimidation to violence, control that played off the cultural norms that saw men as the ones entitled to submission from their wives, the family defenses of the behaviors of the man no matter what the woman said.

If the two women were vulnerable in their marriages, they also were vulnerable when they finally decided to break free.

One of them talked about threats from her husband that he would wait for her outside her workplace and kill her. The increased vulnerability in that flight to independence is a common story for survivors of intimate partner violence. It is one of the reasons it is so hard to leave and it is so hard to remain independent.

The stories of those two women put the issues of entitlement and vulnerability in sharp relief for me this week. But they are not only issues in intimate relationships. They are issues that cut across workplaces, neighborhoods, politics, global issues.

How do we assess our own sense of entitlement? How do we protect ourselves when we are vulnerable? How do we stand with others who are vulnerable, when they face the consequences of someone asserting their entitlement?

Andy Crouch

Andy Crouch is the executive editor of Christianity Today and the author of a little book called Strong and Weak, that reflects on some of the themes I am talking about today. I had a chance to hear him last fall in Madison.

He writes about vulnerability as being exposed to the possibility of loss – not just things or possessions, but the loss of one’s own sense of self. It means risking wounds and moving through the world in a more careful way because of them. And yet, Crouch would argue, vulnerability is an important part of who we are as humans.

That’s because we will encounter those who feel entitled. And let’s face it. We are also people who may well feel entitled ourselves as times – more on that in a moment.

In Crouch’s book, he used the word “exploiting” rather than “entitled” but the consequences are the same for those who are vulnerable. In Crouch’s view, exploiting seeks to maximize power while eliminating risk. And when you think you are entitled to unlimited power, then you find ways to exercise that power.

Part of that quest for power comes from fear – a fear of the loss of something even more than a quest for more of whatever it is. You might say that we fear vulnerability.

Crouch wrote: “Our daily lives are filled with these small choices – small at first, but over time, becoming a deep dependence on strategies that preserve our sense of action while minimizing our sense of risk.” He listed what have been called the seven deadly sins – lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, pride. They are ways of pursuing authority without vulnerability, he wrote.

All of them, Crouch wrote, “are just variations on the promises that accompanied the very first idol, the fruit proffered by the serpent in the Garden. ‘You will be like God’ – unlimited authority – and ‘you will not die’ – none of that vulnerable creaturely dependence.”

They offer us control, the ability to act without the possibility of loss. The offer us the illusion of strength, of entitlement.

But it really is an illusion.

As Andy Crouch put it: “There is, in the long run, no such thing as true authority without true vulnerability. Our idols inevitably fail us, generally sooner rather than later. And as they begin to fail, we begin to grasp ever more violently for the control we thought they promised and we deserved… As a few people pursue and even for a season grasp the idol of control and exploitation, the community around them falls into the poverty that exploitation always brings.”

Adam and Eve ate the fruit that they thought would make them like God. What they got instead was banishment from paradise, the pain of childbirth, the sweat that comes with backbreaking labor, thorns and thistles instead of abundant vegetation and then children who would bring jealously and anger and murder into what had been the peaceable kingdom.

Their sense of entitlement did not turn out well for them – or for anyone else.

Let me pause for just a moment and distinguish between privilege – a word we hear a lot these days – and entitlement.

Privilege is simply a fact of our lives. In this room, virtually everyone of us is privileged in one or more ways. It may be because we are Americans and hold a privileged place in the world. It may because we have enough money not to be sleeping on the streets or going to bed hungry at night. It may because we are white or we are male or we have a job with some authority.

Recognizing the privileges we have is not the same as entitlement. Entitlement comes when we use those privileges in ways that benefit us and hurt others. It comes when we think these are privileges that we deserve. There’s nothing noble about entitlement when we take advantage of others.

But remember in the story about Jesus, he traded entitlement for vulnerability. What was that about? Why not rule the world?

One takeaway from the story of Jesus in the wilderness is about making ourselves vulnerable to some of the hard things in our world.

That does not mean making yourself vulnerable to exploitation by others, to putting up with abuse, to being a doormat.

What choosing to be vulnerable does mean is giving up a bit of our control, being will to take risks so that those we are in relationship with can flourish, so that love can break through in those really tough situations. It means we are willing to sacrifice a bit of ourselves for someone else.

When Jesus left the wilderness, he was not leaving with a sack full of loaves of bread or applause from a daring jump off the pinnacle of the Temple or the submission to him of rulers of all the kingdoms of the world.

As Matthew tells the story, Jesus came back to his home region and began gathering allies with him to help him proclaim that the kingdom of heaven was now among the people, to begin teaching in the synagogues and to bring healing to those who were suffering and to offer new ways to engage the world to those who followed him.

As we begin this season of Lent, let’s pay attention to the actions and messages of Jesus. Let’s look at the ways we think of our selves as entitled, let’s look at those around us who are vulnerable exploitation and then let’s be willing to take the risks needed – to make ourselves vulnerable – to let love break through.

Let’s remember the words that David, the Jewish king, said after he used his sense of entitlement to rape a woman and have her husband killed to cover up his crime. They are words from Psalm 51 and they are echoed in Hymn 188 – “Give Me a Clean Heart.”