The biblical temptation stories are religious stories that teach spiritual truth, not historical reports or factual accounts. The serpent in Genesis and the Devil in the temptation of Jesus personify temptation. This subtle, evil force resides in each of us and in systemic form it exists in large organizations and social systems. I emphasize this because even if you happen to believe in a personal Devil, these stories employ the figure of the Devil as a way of talking about the universal phenomena of temptation.
I make that point because of our tendency to project evil and create scapegoats. It can be quite convenient and opportunistic to find evil everywhere else but in our own lives. Many of you will remember Flip Wilson on the show “Laugh In” constantly echoing, “The Devil made me do it.”
And of course there are endless stories aren’t there? I like the one where the woman brings home an expensive dress and her husband says, “Why did you buy that dress, dear? You know we can’t afford it?” She says, “Well, honey, I was trying it on and the Devil said to me, ‘You look gorgeous in that dress.’” He replied, “Why didn’t you say, ‘Get behind me, Satan.’” She said, “I did. And he said it looks great from that angle too.”
The capacity to do harm—to act selfishly in our own interests to the detriment of others, to diminish others and our own soul in the process, to deceive others as well as ourselves—lies within each of us. And it exists in very subtle forms as reflected in the temptation story.
In T.S. Eliot’s “Murder in the Cathedral,” Eliot portrayed Archbishop Thomas Becket as one who dreamed of martyrdom as a way of becoming immortal and not forgotten. The tempter asks: What can compare with the glory of saints and dwelling forever in God’s presence? The tempter entices him to seek the way of martyrdom, to make himself the lowest on earth, so that he could be among the highest in heaven.
Becket then comes to realize the subtlety of the temptation—that if he became a martyr to satisfy his own desire to be honored and remembered, he would not be a true martyr. Eliot writes:
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.
That is the dynamic at play in the temptation story in Matthew (also in Luke).
Matthew says that Jesus was in the wilderness fasting forty days and nights. The number is significant because there is an intentional connection with
years of testing in the wilderness narrated in Deuteronomy 8. All three of the
Scriptures that Jesus references in his encounter with the Devil come from
Deuteronomy. Two of the passages quoted by Jesus follow immediately after the
opening section of the Shema, Israel ’s
confession of faith where the people of God are commanded: “Love the Lord your
God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” Israel
And that really gets to the heart of the challenge Jesus faced and the challenge we all face who would follow Jesus. Do we love God enough to do God’s work God’s way?
The first temptation relates, on the surface, to a very practical matter. Jesus had been fasting. He was hungry. The tempter seems to speak with the voice of reason, even compassion. I am told, however, by those who engage in extended fasts, that you never break such a fast by eating a chunk of bread. You break it gradually with liquids and soft foods. Actions that may seem very relevant on one level, may not be relevant at all on a deeper level.
More important than solving the presenting problem—the problem on the surface—is the need to heed God’s Spirit. As Jesus says, we do not live at this deeper level on bread alone; we live a meaningful and transformative spiritual life by listening to and obeying the Voice of God. As Paul said in his letter to the Romans, those who are led by the Spirit—that deep force that flows out of our true self—live out their identity as children of God.
Henry Nouwen said that the first thing that struck him when he left his teaching post at Harvard to be a chaplain to a house of mentally and physically challenged people was how their liking or disliking him had nothing to do with any of the useful things he had done until then. They didn’t care about his degrees, or his prominent teaching posts at Yale and Harvard, or his ecumenical experience. None of that mattered.
Not long after he arrived he was offering some meat to one of the assistants during dinner and one of the mentally challenged men said to him, “Don’t give him meat, he doesn’t eat meat, he’s a Presbyterian.”
Nouwen said that he was unable to use any of the skills that had proved so practical in his past and he was suddenly faced with his naked self, open for affirmations and rejections, hugs and punches, all dependent on how he was perceived at the moment.
Nouwen wrote, “It forced me to rediscover my true identity . . . forced me to let go of my relevant self — the self that can do things, show things, prove things, build things — and forced me to reclaim that unadorned self in which I am completely vulnerable, open to receive and give love regardless of any accomplishments.”
In the second temptation Jesus is tempted to jump from the pinnacle of the temple and force a miraculous deliverance. Such a feat would win the masses, dazzle the crowds, and make Jesus immensely popular.
But to act in such a way would be to bypass the ways and means of God. I doubt if God is much interested in a faith based on showmanship and razzle-dazzle.
In the third temptation Jesus is shown all the kingdoms of the world. The tempter offers them to Jesus if he will bow down and worship him, which amounts to worshiping power and control.
The tempter suggests that the powerful kingdoms of the world are his to give and sadly that seems to be the truth of it. It is true that Jesus is Lord, but Jesus’ Lordship, the coming of God’s rule, the realization of God’s will in our personal lives and communities is directly dependent on our “Yes,” our willingness to participate and cooperate in God’s purposes. God so respects the freedom of human beings that God does not force or coerce or overwhelm; God only woos, invites, asks. God’s will can be done only at our invitation.
The tempter does not respect this freedom. And let’s be honest, the temptation to seize power and exercise control is very enticing, especially when we see how much good could be done if one had the power to make it so.
The wielding of power could make radical changes for the better in the kingdoms of the world. Power could more equally and equitably distribute the world’s resources. Power could insure a fair system of laws and enforcement of laws. Power could regulate business and economics and politics for the common good. So much good could be done by someone like Jesus, if he had the power to make it happen.
Jesus, however, refuses to worship power. Jesus knows that the very exercise of such power has a corrupting influence. I think of the power of the ring in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings.” The power of the ring turned Gollum into a twisted, monstrous, pathetic creature. Even Bilbo Baggins or Frodo cannot live with the ring of power without it turning them toward evil. The ring of power corrupts all who wear it.
One of the things that makes the temptation to power so irresistible is that it offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It is easier to play God than love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life. Jesus resisted and confronted the love of power with the power of love.
It is significant that the Devil takes Jesus “to a high place” to expose him to the world’s kingdoms— this is the position of power. But Jesus assumed a low place—the role of servant—and pursued a life of service to others rather than power over others.
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Maggie Dawn writing in “The Christian Century” tells about the time when she served as a college chaplain. It was her practice to serve tea and cakes after chapel whenever one of the students had a birthday. One year some of the students had given up chocolate and cakes for Lent, and her birthday happened to fall during Lent. In order to celebrate her birthday, a student suggested they do what some Christians do: break their fast on a saint’s feast day. So some of the students suggested they find a saint whose feast day corresponded to the chaplain’s birthday, so they could celebrate with tea and cake, even if it was during Lent.
So they did—they found a saint and ate birthday cake on a Thursday afternoon during Lent. As they ate, they talked about their elaborate ruse of choosing a saint’s day so they could eat cake. This led to a discussion about the relationship between actions and motives, and what really makes something a sin.
Can sin be reduced to some behavior that is deemed unacceptable? Or does it go much deeper? At the table one student said that she gave up cake for Lent, but the real reason she did it was to lose weight, not to get closer to God. Another student confessed that he had given up chocolate and alcohol, so others would admire him for being so spiritual.
Dawn observes that overcoming temptation is not just about obeying rules—doing this or not doing that. It’s about identifying our underlying motives; it’s about why we do what we do, not just what we do. It’s about understanding our deeper reasons and tensions, the real forces and powers that move us to act in certain ways.
If Jesus is our guide then it seems that doing the right thing for the wrong reason becomes the wrong thing. But the reverse is also true isn’t? Someone might do something deemed wrong or unacceptable for the right reason. When someone comes to this country illegally in order to save their children, in order to escape poverty and oppression and war, is that wrong? If a mother or father steals to feed a starving child is that wrong? Or is a society at fault because it creates conditions that trap people in poverty and oppression?
If we are going to adequately deal with temptation we always have to go deeper than what we do. We have to deal with why we do what we do, we have to look at motives and the inner workings of our heart.
The need to be relevant and the desire to seek popularity and power for some good and noble endeavor can be very enticing. One thing that can help us in this struggle is this: We can remember who we are—which is all gift, all grace. None of us earned our place at the table. We are the daughters and sons of God by grace, by virtue of the simple fact that we are alive. It’s not necessary that we become relevant, or exercise authority, or become popular and gain a following. None of that matters in the larger story of God’s unrelenting love.
Let me suggest this as a goal for all of us during Lent: Let’s see if we can learn how to simply be who we are—God’s beloved daughters and sons. May our goal be to simply be at rest in being who we are.
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Our good God, as we now share around the table, eating the bread and drinking the cup, may we feel secure in your grace. May we know how loved we are, how forgiven and accepted, how much you delight when we turn our attention toward you and your kingdom. And when we leave this place, and this week feel the pull to grasp and grab, to be powerful or popular or relevant, may we remember that what you want most is for us to simply to receive and share your love. Amen.