Christ in the Wilderness: The Scorpion (Stanley Spencer)
Something a bit different today. We have been running a Lent series at Kingsteignton URC focussed on the “Christ in the Wilderness” paintings by Stanley Spencer. Today we explored this one – possibly the one best known… If you want a full and engaging (and accessible) exploration of some of these paintings – then I cannot recommend Stephen Cottrell’s little book highly enough:
Available on Amazon (other bookshops may exist!)
I do want to say a couple of things about The Scorpion, though (and I have Stephen Cottrell and the fine folk of Kingsteignton URC to thank for helping stimulate these thoughts.) Spencer worked from Scripture, but didn’t make it obvious! There are two references to scorpions in the New Testament – both of them in Luke’s Gospel, so we can be confident he had one or both of these in mind as he painted this.
“Which father among you would give a snake to your child if the child asked for a fish? If a child asked for an egg, what father would give the child a scorpion?
Luke 11:11-12 (CEB)
The seventy-two returned joyously, saying, “Lord, even the demons submit themselves to us in your name.”
Jesus replied, “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning. Look, I have given you authority to crush snakes and scorpions underfoot. I have given you authority over all the power of the enemy. Nothing will harm you. Luke 10:17-19 (CEB)
Question: What kind of father would give his child a scorpion when that child was hungry for an egg?
Answer: Jesus’s heavenly Father. Jesus was surely hungry – and he is given a scorpion. He is also given stones instead of bread.
The associations are too strong to be ignored, Spencer is clearly saying something powerful here about Jesus accepting the pain that was to come – leaving behind his own desires and embracing the road that led to the cross… Not my will – but yours be done.
Do you see both scorpions? Yes – there is one by Jesus’ right foot. Jesus has the power to crush that scorpion underfoot and not be hurt (just like the 70 disciples he sent out) – yet he chooses not to do that.
Instead he holds the scorpion – treasures it, almost.
You might say that Jesus is trying a harder path. He is not eliminating the source of pain – he is loving it.
Look closer at Jesus’ fingers – they are swollen. Some have said they resemble plaited bread – and you couldn’t blame Jesus in his extreme hunger for having that vision of bread as he looks at his fingers – and he sees the bread he desires blurring in and out of focus with the scorpion he gets…
But, more obviously I think – these fingers look as if they have been stung by that scorpion.
This love that Jesus is going to model in his ministry is not gooey, mushy love that so captivates the scorpion that she renounces stinging and turns to a life of peaceful co-existence with human hands! NO! The scorpion remains a scorpion – it’s what she is – she stings – and it doesn’t stop Jesus loving, it doesn’t drive Jesus to hate.
I think Spencer is saying that this “love” Jesus has is not going to be easy for him – it is not going to eliminate the pain – it does not take away the cross – and this moment in the Wilderness shows Jesus finding peace in accepting that even though he might be stung and stung and stung again. Wow!
It is, if you like, a foretaste of that moment in Gethsemane.
Henri Nouwen tells about a man who meditated by the Ganges River. One morning he saw a scorpion floating on the water. When the scorpion drifted near the old man he reached to rescue it but was stung by the scorpion. A bit later he tried again and was stung again, the bite swelling his hand painfully and giving him much pain. A man passing by saw what was happening and yelled at the meditator, “Hey, stupid old man, what’s wrong with you? Only a fool would risk his life for the sake of an ugly, evil creature. Don’t you know you could kill yourself trying to save that ungrateful scorpion?” The old man calmly replied, “My friend, just because it is the scorpion’s nature to sting, that does not change my nature to save.”
What’s the alternative?
Scorpion (Jo Shapcott) I kill it because we cannot stay in the same room. I kill it because we cannot stay in the same room with me sleeping. I kill it because I might look away and not see it there on the wall when I look back. I kill it because I might spend all night hunting it. I kill it because I am afraid to go near enough with glass and paper to carry it outside. I kill it because I have been told to. I kill it by slapping my shoe against the wall because I have been told to do it that way. I kill it standing as far away as possible and stretching my hand holding the shoe towards it. I kill it because it has been making me shake out the bedclothes, look inside my shoes, scan the walls at night. I kill it because I can. I kill it because it cannot stop me. I kill it because I know it is there. I kill it so that its remains are on the heel of my shoe. I kill it so that its outline with curved sting is on my wall. I kill it to feel sure I will live. I kill it to feel alive. I kill it because I am weaker than it is. I kill it because I do not understand it. I kill it without looking at it. I kill it because I am not good enough to let it live. I kill it out of the corner of my eye, remembering that it is black, vertical, stock still on the white wall. I kill it because it will not speak to me.