Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7 and Matthew 4:1-11
Some of you may have noticed as you entered the chapel this morning the icon displayed on the small table in the antechapel. The name of the icon is “Ladder to Heaven,” and it dates from the 12th or 13th century. The original icon can be found at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai desert. The icon was inspired by the spiritual writings of St. John of Sinai, better known as St. John Climacus, an ascetic who lived in the late 6th and early 7th century, and who authored a book entitled Ladder of Paradise, a discourse which treats the virtues and vices that characterize monastic life.
The icon shows a ladder stretching from the lower left of the picture to the upper right. At the top of the ladder we see Christ in heaven. Climbing the ladder, moving from earth to heaven where Christ waits to welcome them, are a number of monks or pilgrims. Angels in heaven and saints on earth are watching and cheering them on as they climb towards glory. But we also see a number of demons, dark little figures who are using bows and arrows and ropes to try to cause the monks to fall off, and some of them are falling or about to fall, presumably tumbling into hell. One figure has fallen into the mouth of Satan, and is being devoured.i
The image is metaphorical, of course – a depiction of spiritual life as a journey in which we move steadily upwards, attaining virtue and growing in Christlikeness, until we are united with Christ in glory. But, as this depiction clearly shows, the spiritual journey is also fraught with risks. Evil forces assail us, seeking to lure us away from our heavenly calling and causing us to fall. We all know what it is to be drawn to God and to goodness, and we all know what it is to be tempted to turn away from God and embrace evil. This icon reveals spiritual truth in picture form.
We have two other pictures in our scripture lessons today. The first depicts the parents of the human race, Adam and Eve, giving in to temptation and turning from God, satisfying their own desires and giving in to pride, which creates a separation between them and their Creator. The second is the story told of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, a picture that witnesses to the Church’s belief that Jesus was thoroughly human – “tempted in every way as we are,” as the letter to the Hebrews puts it. Neither of these stories is intended to be an actual historical account; they are instead images or metaphors that reveal truth about the human condition. Temptation is a part of every life; no one can escape it.
What might we learn from these images about the nature of temptation, and about how best to defend ourselves against it?
According to Genesis, the chief sin of our original parents was pride. In the story evil takes the form of a serpent, enticing Adam and Eve with the promise that they will become like God, if only they eat the forbidden fruit. Lured by the attraction of this promise of immortality, they give in, only to discover that the willfulness and pride of their decision brings about a separation between them and the God like whom they aspire to become.
Throughout the centuries, countless spiritual writers have pointed to pride as the ultimate sin, the most alluring and the most dangerous temptation of all. St. Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th century Spanish saint, suggests that the intention of the evil one is always to draw us into pride, and that there is a predictable pattern in the way in which we are enticed. First, he says, we find ourselves tempted to covet whatever seems to make us rich. It may be material wealth or physical attractiveness or intellectual ability or reputation, status, or power. When we find ourselves possessing these things, we are tempted to bask in the recognition, honor and esteem that the world gives us because of them. Puffed up by the deference and honor given us by others, a false sense of personal identity and value emerges which leads to pride. Riches, says Ignatius, lead to honor, and honor leads to pride. Pride separates us from God. We become convinced of our own self-sufficiency and think we have no need of God. Rather than seeing wealth or beauty or intellect or power as gifts given us by God to be used for God’s glory, we bask in the honor they bring us and gradually drift into pride, cutting ourselves off from God, the giver of all good gifts and the source of life itself.ii
Jesus shows us another way. In the gospel story we read of three temptations with which he is faced. First, the evil one entices him to turn stones into loaves of bread, perhaps to satisfy his own hunger, or perhaps to satisfy the hunger of others and thereby win their favor and admiration. Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer of the 20th century, describes this as the temptation to be relevant.iii
The second temptation takes the form of a challenge. The evil one takes Jesus to the holy city and places him on the pinnacle of the temple. He challenges him to throw himself down so that the angels of God will rescue him and prove to all the uniqueness of his relationship with God. This, Nouwen says, is the temptation to be spectacular.
Finally, the evil one takes him to a high mountain and shows him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All these I will give you,” he says, “if you will fall down and worship me.” This third temptation Nouwen refers to as the temptation to be powerful.
All three temptations represent enticements to pride, to self-sufficiency, and self-aggrandizement. They are attractive and appeal to our desire to be important, distinctive, special. They are enticing “riches” that lead us to a false identity which is the direct product of worldly “honor” and which leads us to “pride.”
And Jesus rejects them.
He rejects them by reaffirming his dependence on God alone. He will not be enticed by the lure of instant popularity or worldly influence; he refuses to give in to the tempations of wealth and power. Instead, he chooses the way of humility and voluntarily subjects himself to the will of God. This is the path to which he points us, the path which he himself takes. “Though he was in the form of God,” Paul writes to the Philippians, “he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). Jesus rejects riches, honor and pride, and embraces the way of poverty and of self-emptying love. He takes the form of a servant, and humbly offers himself to serve the purposes of God in the world.
We see here the pattern of the evil one – enticing us with riches, flattering us with honor, and leading us to pride. And we see the way of Jesus – inviting us to embrace our poverty, to depend entirely on God, and to offer ourselves in loving service to God’s work of redemption in the world. This is the way Jesus teaches us and shows us by his own example. This is the path to eternal life, he says; it is the only way to God.
Perhaps you might take some time today to reflect on the riches that are yours, and on their potential to be gifts to be used in God’s service – or to be sources of worldly honor that could lead you to pride and eventually separate you from God.
Temptation is real; none of us escapes it. The evil one is a cunning opponent, St Ignatius tells us, and we must be aware of the tactics he uses to draw us into evil and to separate us from our true identity as beloved children of God.
In his Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius uses three metaphors to describe how the enemy works against us.iv See if these ring true to your experience.
First, Ignatius claims, the enemy is both a tyrant – and a weakling. Each time we listen to his voice and accept his words as truth, he gains more and more power. He is like a bully, a tyrant who knows when he has the upper hand. But if he is resisted he shows himself to be a coward who immediately backs down from a challenge. Imagine for a moment a small voice which whispers to you that you are not good enough – not smart enough, not attractive enough, not funny enough, not popular enough – never enough. When you listen to that voice and accept it as truth, it becomes stronger and stronger and will eventually lead you to self-disparagement and despair. But when you stand up to it, when you claim your true identity as a beloved child of God, when you resist its accusations and affirm the truth of what God says about who you are, you will find that it ceases instantly. It cannot gain a foothold unless it is allowed and encouraged. The enemy is like a tyrant when we give in to him, but like a weakling when we resist in the strength God gives us.
Second, says Ignatius, the enemy is like a seducer. A person whose aim is to seduce another or to draw him into evil loves to act in secrecy. This won’t hurt anyone, he assures us. Let’s make a secret pact; no one needs to find out. When we find ourselves acting in secret, unable to be open with others about what we are doing, we ought to recognize that we have been conscripted into evil. The enemy loves to bind us to secrecy; he is like a seducer who lures us into the shadows.
Finally, says Ignatius, the enemy is like a military commander who studies the weaknesses of the opposing forces and attacks at the weakest point in their defenses. Evil comes to us where we are most vulnerable; it seeks out the cracks in our defenses and forces its way through. Know yourself. Know where you are most vulnerable. Guard with special intention those places where you are most susceptible to temptation. Trust that God will strengthen you in these very areas, as you look to God for strength and help.
The spiritual life is a journey in which we gradually become that which God has declared us to be – beloved children, loved and cherished by the One who has created and redeemed us. The journey leads upward, but there are evil forces at work against us, temptations that pull us down or lead us astray, and may well cause our ruin. How can we resist them? By fleeing to God, by trusting wholly in his strength rather than in our own, but clinging to our true identity in God and abiding in that Love from which nothing can separate us.
Climb on, sisters and brothers, climb on.
i To view this icon on the internet, enter “icon, ladder to heaven.”
ii Ignatius of Loyola. The Spiritual Exercises, [136-146] (“Meditation on Two Standards”)
iii Nouwen, Henri. The Way of the Heart, pp. 13-14.
iv Ignatius of Loyola; The Spiritual Exercises, [325-327] (Rules for Discernment, 12-14)
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