The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 2/17/02
Text: Matthew 4:1-11
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Have you ever gone to a restaurant, hung up your coat, and noticed a sign warning that the management is not responsible if it gets lost or stolen? Ever read the small print on your airplane ticket? The airline takes no responsibility for any delays or missed connections, and if your baggage is lost, they only have to pay an amount agreed upon at a convention they held in Warsaw in 1955. Park your car in some high-priced garage or lot, and a sign will tell you that management is not responsible for any items lost or stolen from your vehicle. Do those "Not responsible for..." disclaimers bother you? They do me. It seems no one takes responsibility for anything anymore.

I read about a man who was suing a hospital. A doctor had performed staple surgery on his stomach to help him lose weight. A couple of days after his operation, he raided the hospital refrigerator and stuffed himself with everything he could find. This tore open the staples and forced another surgery. He was suing the hospital for having a refrigerator near his room. He claimed the temptation was too great. Thus, his complications were not his own fault but the hospital's fault!(1)

A little girl was sent to her room for misbehaving. Sometime later her mother happened to pass by her door and heard her praying. "God, I am stuck up here because of YOU, you know. Last night I prayed for you to help me be a good girl. Well, you didn't, so it's your fault!"

Sounds a bit like the conversation between God and Adam and Eve in the Garden. God asks what's going on, Adam responds by admitting that he ate the forbidden fruit, but then he blames God ("the woman YOU PUT HERE ...") and if that is not enough, he blames her ("SHE gave me some fruit from the tree"). Is SHE responsible? Ask her. Of course not! "The SERPENT DECEIVED ME, and I ate." Genesis does not actually say it, but there must have been a "Not responsible for..." sign on one of the trees in Eden.

Poor Eve - she was only a victim. She could not be held responsible for eating the fruit. Neither could Adam. "The Devil made me do it!"

Adam and Eve's descendants--especially we here in this country--have refined victimization to a fine art. We do not use victimization merely to get off; we use it to cash in. If we trip on our shoelaces and fall flat on our face in the middle of the sidewalk, we sue everybody from the City of Warren to the shoelace manufacturer.

If you want to get rich, invest in victimization. It must be America's fastest-growing industry. Millions make a fat paycheck by identifying victims, representing victims, interviewing victims, treating victims, insuring victims, counseling victims, and, of course, being victims. Not only does it confer absolution for our stupidity and sinfulness, but it allows us to sue for damages. "If you have experienced personal injury," we are assured by the lawyers in their TV commercials, "you may be entitled to compensation." Even if you stepped in front of a car when the light was against you, somebody else should pay.

Victimhood allows us to be blameless, and someone else owes big for what happened. Blamelessness is as American as the Constitution - the Fifth Amendment guarantees that no one can make you blame yourself. That being the case, when something bad happens, it cannot be your fault. It must be someone else's.

A psychologist visited a prison in connection with his doctoral dissertation and asked the question, "Why are you here?" The answers were very revealing, even though expected. There were many of them: "I was framed;" "They ganged up on me;" "It was a case of mistaken identity;" "It was not me--it was somebody else." The psychologist concluded that you could not find a larger group of innocent victims anywhere else in the world than in prison!

Even the cartoonists are picking up on the trend. The Wizard of Id has a lawyer flanked by his rope-bound client, standing before a judge and saying, "My client was raised in a ghetto! He is a victim of our society and should not be punished!"

The judge asks, "What about the guy he mugged?"

The lawyer responds, "Call it therapy."(2)

You have heard of "no-fault" automobile insurance? "No-fault" elevates victimhood to a more sophisticated plane. Both the guilty and the innocent become victims, and everybody gets to collect.

Then there is the ultimate: the guilty victim. A few years ago an Albuquerque, New Mexico prisoner filed a lawsuit against his accusers for the trauma caused him by the whole ordeal. The man, sentenced to 34 years in prison for multiple counts of child molesting, claimed that he had been humiliated, had suffered health problems, and had been deprived of employment opportunities because of his criminal conviction. He was seeking $2-million in damages from those he molested. Would it be safe to say that our society has a warped concept of what a victim is when it even allows such a lawsuit to be filed?(3)

No wonder people ignore the gospel. You see, victimization convinces men and women to look for a scapegoat instead of a Savior. After all, if I am not to blame for what I do, the cross on which Jesus died is much ado about nothing. How hopelessly out of date the old spiritual sounds to us: "Not my mother or my father, but it's me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer." Victims do not need prayer or God, just a sympathetic therapist or a good lawyer.(4)

But scripture is very plain - "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God;"(5) there is none righteous, no not one."(6) In fact, there has been only one totally innocent victim in human history...Jesus.

Yes, he had opportunity to sin. And if he had succumbed, he would have had wonderful excuses - no one could blame him.

The passage we read from Matthew has three strong temptations presented. Jesus, you are incredibly powerful; use that power to meet your own needs. If you don't take care of yourself, you will not be able to take care of anyone else. On top of that, if word gets around that you turn stones into bread, think how many folks would follow you. Everyone can use a little extra bread. Who could have blamed Jesus for doing something like that?

The second temptation was equally enticing. Let folks know beyond the shadow of a doubt that YOU ARE THE MESSIAH, the Chosen One of God. What a spectacular stunt to leap from the Pinnacle of the Temple, drop the 450 feet straight down into the Kidron Valley, and land unharmed. God's angels will protect you. People will SURELY listen to your message when they hear what you have done. Would anyone legitimately reproach Jesus for deciding to take that course?

The third temptation was enormous - unchallenged political power to right all the wrongs...all the kingdoms of the world. How incredibly simple, Jesus: you can ORDER folks to listen. You can ORDER justice and an end to all oppression. What a wonderful opportunity! All it will take is a tiny compromise, an ever-so-slight division in your loyalties. You do not have to stop worshiping the God of heaven, just spread that worship around a bit. Jesus, this is the offer you cannot refuse. Who could have blamed him for accepting?

I am intrigued at the way Jesus avoided giving in. Scripture. After each of the temptations was offered, he quoted scripture. Perhaps that should not be surprising. After all, spiritual maturity only comes when we have a deep relationship with the God of all the universe whom we meet and learn from in the pages of the Book.

Do you do enough Bible study? Do you have a regular time of private devotion to immerse yourself in the Word? Are you a part of a regular study group? Would you like to be? I hope so. Spiritual maturity, the kind that allows us to see ourselves and all around us as God sees, does not just happen.

One of the problems with this "no-guilt trip" our society is on is the loss of incentive for repentance, restitution, or improvement. Years ago, America's first televangelist, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen said, "There has been no single influence which has done more to prevent man finding God and rebuilding his character, has done more to lower the moral tone of society, than the denial of personal guilt."(7)

Guilt can accomplish some very positive things. A Kansas City man who robbed a bank in Abilene over forty years ago recently donated $50,000 to rebuild a band shell that burned in that Abilene's Eisenhower Park. In making the donation the man said he was making no excuses for his previous crime (how refreshing!) and knew that he could not repay society for the wrong. However, he did wish to do something right where he had previously done what was wrong.(8) Good for him.

Yes, since the beginning of time our first instinct has been to blame others for our own failures. Instead of accepting responsibility, we claim we are victims of cruel and callous forces. It would serve us right if God simply turned away and allowed us to stew in our own sins. But that is not the God of love we meet in scripture.

Do you remember what Adam and Eve did after their trip to the tree? In coming to the sudden realization that they were naked, they made themselves fig-leaf loin cloths. Well, as the old movie says, "Stupid is as stupid does," and this was a stupid move. Have you ever felt a fig leaf? It is NOT "the comfort of cotton." In fact, if it comes in regular contact with sensitive skin, it is itchy-city. Back there in the Garden, God saw what was happening and, in a gesture of divine grace, said, "Here. Let me give you something that will work better... animal skins." Ah-h-h. What a relief.

I remember a "Peanuts" strip in which Marcia telephones Charlie Brown: "Guess what, Chuck...the first day of school, and I got sent to the principal's office. It was your fault, Chuck."

"My fault?" Charlie Brown replies surprised. "How could it be MY fault? Why do you always say everything is MY fault!"

"You're my friend, aren't you, Chuck? You should have been a better influence on me!"

As you know, I am a fan of "The West Wing" on television. An ongoing subplot in recent months has been the fact that President Jed Bartlett has Multiple Sclerosis, and HAS had it for a number of years. But his MS was kept quiet - and the result was that no one knew of it when he was campaigning for the highest office in the land. Now his opponents are screaming FRAUD; his supporters are just screaming. Congress wants to censure him for his duplicity.

Negotiations go back and forth between the White House and the Capitol. Could the President avoid such a harsh public condemnation? Should he simply accept it? His staff is adamant in opposing any compromise, but finally the President tells his Chief of Staff, Leo McGarry, that he is going to go along with the censure. Leo objects.

The President responds, "I was wrong. I was. I was just... I was wrong. C'mon, we know that. Lots of times we don't know what right or wrong is, but lots of times we do, and c'mon, this is one. I may not have had sinister intent at the outset, but there were plenty of opportunities for me to make it right. No one in government takes responsibility for anything anymore. We foster, we obfuscate, we rationalize. 'Everybody does it,' that's what we say, so we come to occupy a moral safehouse where everyone's to blame so no one's guilty... I'm to blame. I was wrong."(9)

Wow. How refreshing. Oh, that's right. It's fiction. Sigh.

The restaurant is not responsible for your stolen coat nor the airline your delayed flight nor the garage your burglarized car. And of course, neither O. J. nor Mike Tyson nor the Enron executives are responsible for any of their problems. Neither are YOU responsible. Are you? "The Devil made me do it." Right.

But now we come to the season of Lent, that period of the church year that calls us to a rigid self-examination. Hmm. Then we hear the God of heaven, the creator of all the universe, the God of love whom we first meet in Eden and then get to know intimately in Jesus Christ, saying "Come to me, all who...are burdened down [with that responsibility that you might rather not have]. Come...and I will give you rest.


1. Martin Thielen, Getting Ready for Sunday's Sermon, (Nashville:Broadman Press, 1990)

2. Greensboro News & Record, 8/24/94, D6

3. "DA to Defend Child Molester's Victims in Damage Suit Filed by Their Attacker," Knoxville News-Sentinel, April 5, 1989, A6

4. Haddon W. Robinson, "Call Us Irresponsible," Christianity Today, 4/4/94, p. 15

5. Romans 3:23

6. Romans 3:10

7. Pastors' Professional Research Service, Sept/Oct, 1992

8. ibid.

9. Aaron Sorkin, "H-Con 172," The West Wing, NBC, 1/16/02

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