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Panem et Circenses

Luke 4:1-13 (Lectionary text for 14 Feb 2016)


“They shed their sense of responsibility / Long ago . . .

the mob / That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything /

Curtails its desires, and reveals anxiety for two things only: /

Bread and circuses.”               (Juvenal, Satire X, circa AD 100; trans. Kline 2011)


There are, more or less, 168 hours in a week. Give eight hours per day to sleep: 112 left. Give two per day to meals: 98. Give 48 more to work and work-related accoutrements: 50 left. Give 16 to a waking day of rest: 34 left. Give 14 hours to keeping house and home: 20 hours remain that might be called “discretionary time”—time to do everything that is not demanded by the world or does not bring a tangible reward.

20 hours a week; less than 3 hours per day.

Jesus goes into the wilderness and abstains from food, from drink, from work, from all things productive. The Tempter comes to him and points him to three things which, as the Son of Man, rightfully belong to him and are intrinsically good: food, power, and security. And Jesus says, in effect, “No—I’m not supposed to have those at this moment.” His objection is not to bread (who doesn’t like fresh-baked bread?); it is not to power (I appreciate the authority of teachers in the classroom); it is not to safety (my kids wear bike helmets). His objection is to taking those things when God wants something else for him.

Jesus is on a mission, and he will have to watch out for the distraction of good things which are out of place.

Juvenal, a Roman satirist of the first century, observed that if powerful members of society want to keep people sedated, all they have to do is offer lots of bread and lots of entertainment. Distracted by food and circuses, they will happily let go of the primary mission of citizens: consciously shaping society for the better.

We only have 3 hours per day to pray, study Scripture, commit acts of mercy and compassion, volunteer in the community, and sit on town, village, and city councils. We have 3 hours per day to shake out salt on the earth and shine light in the world.

And we Americans, on average, spend 5 hours per day watching a digital display for entertainment ( We consume an average of a half-pound of sugar per day ( Neither turn out to be healthy for us. But how great do they feel?

I prefer generally to avoid predictions, for the liability that they necessarily carry. But I am hazarding one here: abstaining from things that have an attractive taste and things that entertain us will be a dividing line between faithful and unfaithful Christ-followers in the 21st century.

As an American, I find something viscerally repugnant about a prediction like this. But then I look at Jesus’ ministry, and I discover in the gospel of Luke what blessings filled the void left by his abstinence: “good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners, sight for the blind, release for the oppressed, and the Lord’s favor all around” (Luke 4:18-19).

Ice cream and TV? I’ll give them up for those blessings.


~ emrys tyler,  Chair of SVP Cabinet 2016


 "The Presbytery of Susquehana Valley

lives to serve and encourage congregations 

as we together seek to be faithful

in our calling to Jesus Christ."


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