Lent I — Luke 4:1-13
If I were to show you a drawing of a person with a tiny angel perched on one shoulder and a tiny devil perched on the other, I have no doubt you would recognize immediately what the picture was trying to convey. Temptation is a universal phenomenon, isn’t it? All of us know what it is to be tempted. There isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t had the experience of being torn…
between the desire to do good and the desire to do evil,
between the impulse to help and the impulse to harm,
between the wish to speak and act kindly, and the urge to be hurtful and cruel.
We know what it is to have the devil whispering in one ear and an angel whispering in the other.
The familiar story in today’s gospel reading suggests that Jesus knew this experience, too. He was tempted – just as we are.
I wonder if you believe that. I wonder if the Jesus you imagine could actually have struggled to choose between good and evil, between right and wrong, between pleasing God and pleasing himself. I suspect most of us have a rather “stained glass” image of Jesus; we imagine someone quite unlike us for whom doing the right thing came naturally and without effort. (He was the Son of God, after all.) Most of us can’t quite imagine him locked in combat with the same temptations that plague us on a daily basis, in spite of gospel references like this one. And actually, this story doesn’t do much to dispel that image, does it? Jesus seems to defeat the enemy without effort or strain, simply by quoting a few well-chosen verses of Scripture. Where’s the struggle? With a flick of his finger, he sends the tiny devil flying off his shoulder and into space – without even breaking a sweat.
I don’t know about you, but this is not my experience of being tempted.
But if we believe, as the Church has always professed, that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine…. and if we affirm, as Scripture does, that he was “tempted in every way as we are”…. then we have to be able to imagine a Jesus who struggled with temptation as we do. We have to be able to imagine that Jesus was genuinely tempted to disobey God, to satisfy his own desires in his own way rather than submitting to God’s desires and God’s way.
So what might this story teach us about the temptations Jesus knew?
The first temptation Jesus faces in this story is the temptation to use the powers God has given him to his own advantage. He is on a forty-day retreat in the barren wilderness of Judea, fasting, when the devil suggests he might like to use his power to turn the stones on the desert floor into loaves of bread. First, of course, to satisfy his own hunger and put an end to this ridiculous, unnatural, (and possibly harmful) fast. But then, too, what better way to feed the hungry masses and to gain a popular following? An easy path to success!
Can you remember a time when you were tempted to use your “powers” – your looks, or your knowledge, or your personality, your wealth or influence – to satisfy the demands of your ego or to obtain something or someone you desperately wanted? Did you try to win the recognition and favor of others, in order to be admired or seem successful? Did you want to feel important, to be praised, to be popular? Did you posture just a bit, maneuver just a bit, manipulate just a bit, to get what you wanted or thought you needed? Was there a time when you were tempted to use your “powers” to satisfy your craving? Or might it have been your company, or your organization, or your nation, that used its powers to further its own cause at the expense of others?
Why should you be hungry, Jesus? Why should you be suffering? It is for others to suffer, not you. Use your power now to get what you want.
The devil then leads Jesus to a high place with a great view, and offers him everything that he can see and more, if only he will bow down and pledge allegiance. (In rabbinic and early Christian teaching, the kingdoms of the earth belonged to the devil, not God; they were under his control.) The temptation is to be a political messiah, to make himself a ruler of nations and peoples, a liberator and a king. Can you imagine a Jesus who was genuinely tempted to use his power and divine favor to overthrow Roman rule and restore Israel to national independence and glory? Can you imagine a Jesus who was lured by the temptation to be a political hero? If you can’t, your Jesus isn’t human enough. Surely he identified with his oppressed people and desired their freedom. Might this be the way he was intended to be the Messiah? Was this the way God’s reign would come upon earth? …Or was it just a means of exercising his own self-will and pride?
Have you known the lure of power and the desire for control? Haven’t you, at some time, craved the ability to have it all, to be in control of your life and your destiny, to arrange things as you wanted them to be? Every day advertisements entice us with this possibility; you can be beautiful, powerful, independent, in control. You can have it all. And hasn’t a group or company or organization or nation to which you belonged sought to take control, to use force to impose its desire and will on others? We love to hold and to exert power – and sometimes we are tempted to abandon our values and compromise our integrity to obtain it or keep it. Can you imagine a Jesus who was tempted to gain and use worldly power to accomplish his ends? If you can’t, your Jesus isn’t human enough.
In the Bible’s story of the creation and fall, human beings are enticed by the prospect of being “like God.” Isn’t it often our desire to be free from the limitations of the human condition, to avoid its suffering, to distance ourselves from its pain? Here the offer is put before Jesus: you can possess it all, control it all. You can be like God. Abandon this foolish notion of identifying with the human condition, of taking on the limitations of human flesh, of embracing weakness rather than strength.
Finally, Jesus is led to the pinnacle of the temple, where the evil one suggests that he seek a sign from God to confirm that he is indeed the Messiah, the Son of God. Quoting Psalm 91, the devil argues that that God would surely not allow his Chosen One to be harmed, and would certainly rescue him from any danger. Throw yourself down, Jesus! If you are God’s Son, God will send his angels to rescue you! Any lurking doubts you have about your identity as the Beloved One of God will be put to rest; you will know beyond any doubt that you have been chosen…. and so will everyone else! The crowds will certainly yield to such a clear and powerful sign.
We humans experience temptation, but we can also tempt others. And we can even tempt God, by demanding a manifestation of God’s presence to supply our own need and desire. And if God should fail to satisfy our demands, we feel ourselves quite justified in abandoning God and turning from faith. Why didn’t God keep my partner from dying? Why didn’t God turn away the hurricane that tore through my town? Why doesn’t God stop us from killing each other and threatening the life of our planet? Why doesn’t God end my suffering? Why doesn’t God manifest God’s presence in the way I need and want? How can I have faith in a God I can’t control?
If God loves you, if you are indeed the Chosen One, God will certainly rescue you, suggests the evil one. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” Jesus replies.
He was tested in every way as we are. In every way… just as we are. And yet he did not sin. And by his victory he has become for us a Savior, one who is able to help us who are tempted and tried and tested in life.
There is plenty of evidence that will force us to admit that we lack the resources to endure temptation,
that we are defenseless and powerless,
that we are vulnerable to the enticement to do evil rather than good, to harm rather than help, to be spiteful and cruel rather than helpful and kind,
that we are inclined to use power to manipulate and control,
that we are given to satisfying our own needs and desires first, often at the expense of others,
that we regularly try to control God.
It is clear that we need a Savior.
Temptation becomes an instrument of God’s grace when it causes us to acknowledge our helplessness, when it prompts us to look for God’s help, when it puts us in places where we realize our need for a Savior.
The good news of God is that we have a Savior, one who was tempted in every way as we are and yet did not succumb to sin, and that he is able to save and deliver us.
To him we pray, “Save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil.
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