For centuries, the Church has reflected on the human condition and on temptation as a universal human experience. This fact probably has much to do with our observance of Lent that began last Wednesday. Lent is a forty-day period of self-examination, reflection, and repentance that calls to mind Jesus’ own struggle with temptation.
If you were to look at a calendar you might notice that there are actually forty-six days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. But, according to the Church’s age-old system of reckoning, Sundays, as feast days commemorating our Lord’s resurrection, are not Lenten days.
Forty days, out of a year, is a relatively short period of time. The longer I live, the shorter it seems. But when it comes to Lent it can’t seem short enough. Today is the first Sunday in Lent and I’m ready for Lent to be over. I don’t like Lent much. So this morning, I am consoling myself with the thought that there are only thirty-six more days of Lent.
I don’t know where you are in your life journey but I would imagine that sometimes your life feels a bit like my Lenten aversion. Depending on where you are, your life might feel a lot like it, right now. If you are anything like me, you want to get where you think you need to be just as fast as you can, preferably on your own terms and as painlessly as possible.
During Lent, we are supposed to become more recollected; we are supposed to slow down and dig down a bit. But sometimes we don’t want to dig down too deeply because the digging is hard. And besides, we might not like what we find when we finish the spade work. I’m not talking about discovering some phantasm or bogey man here. I am simply referring to nothing more nor less than our humanity: our broken, confused, defeated and often very needy selves. How difficult it can be for us to love what we would rather not see or acknowledge. How difficult it can be for us to realize that God’s love is infinitely compassionate love for us and for our world. How difficult it can be for us to embrace that very human self that God, in the Word made flesh, took upon himself in God’s loving attempt to teach us to love, cherish and accept ourselves in and through the always challenging and sometimes painful experiment that we call life.
All three of the synoptic gospels and the Letter to the Hebrews attest to Jesus having been tempted.1 In the gospel version we just heard read, Matthew has Jesus quote three passages from Deuteronomy to remind us of the wilderness trials of the children of Israel. In his characteristic style, Matthew emphasizes the connections between Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness and its Old Testament “antecedents: Moses forty days on the mountain without food; Elijah’s forty days of flight to the mountain of God in the wilderness.”2
But, this morning my intention is to refer to the details of Matthew’s text only as a context. As a context that will hopefully allow us to step into the inner or spiritual process of Jesus’ temptation. I don’t want us so much to consider the external process of each of the temptations, as Matthew presents them, as I want us to look at the devil’s strategy at work in the temptations. I want us to try to better understand why St. Paul could write to the Corinthians with such confidence that “…much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for many. [For] if because of one man’s trespass [that is Adam’s trespass] death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.”3 I want us to try to get a better picture of the depths and costs of that free gift given to us. I want to better understand why you and I need to travel our Lenten wilderness journey to reach our Easter home; why self-examination, reflection, and repentance must be part of that journey.
To begin, I would say that we need to understand the temptation in the wilderness as a primary witness to the Incarnation, the central mystery of our faith: God became fully human; so that he might move with us through the many stages that lie between our birth and death. [Not human in just a biological sense, not just identifying with the experience of living in a body, but identifying fully and completely with the spiritual reality of our existence.
When God decided to become human God took a radical and uncompromising step. God didn’t just dress up as a human being to act out a role in some sort of divine stage drama. He renounced his divinity and took upon himself fully and completely the inherent “poverty” of the human condition.
The temptation in the wilderness was nothing less than a direct assault on this radical, uncompromising step. Jesus was in essence tempted to renounce his humanity, to betray his humanity by assuming the power of his divinity. He was tempted to do what we do when we sin: to renounce the inherent poverty of our humanity.
As human beings, we have nothing that we can hold up before God. Being human means to be “poor” in the face of God’s total claim on us. By accepting that poverty, our Lord began the process of our salvation; he held back nothing, he clung to nothing. Even his divinity did not protect him because, “though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself…”4
In the process of the temptation the devil tried repeatedly to obstruct Jesus’ self-renunciation because Satan knows and fears the ultimate power of God to save in weakness and frailty. The temptation was a satanic invitation to strength, security and spiritual abundance because the devil knows that these can and do obstruct God’s approach to us.
Satan tried to appeal to Jesus’ divinity. Here we see the consummate lie of the Great Liar. This is and has always been the tempter’s approach to mankind. In Genesis he tells Eve, “You will not die…you will be like God.”5 “It is the temptation that he has set before [us] in countless variations, urging us to reject the truth of our humanity as it has been given to us.”6
The tempter doesn’t want the Incarnation to be real. He wants God to remain God. “You are famished,” he tells Jesus. “Make a miracle and you can satisfy your hunger; you can change all that. You are standing on the pinnacle of the Temple. You don’t need to put up with frightening experiences. You can command your angels to protect you.” No, Satan didn’t want Jesus to be like us, he wanted him to hang on and cling to his divinity. “Don’t plunge yourself into the loneliness and futility that is part of human existence. Sneak back to heaven and away from the miserable lot of this humanity.” But Jesus did not shrink to teach us that hunger is human hunger only when it cannot be satisfied, desire is human desire only when it cannot be quenched, and nearness to falling can only be human falling when there is no helping hand for protection.
“…but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”7
Jesus’ “no” to Satan is his “yes” to us and our humanity. He didn’t simply dip into our existence, wave his magic wand and retreat back to heaven. He did not leave us with our disappointments, our shattered dreams so that we could become Stoics and simply ruminate over the mystery of life.
Jesus subjected himself to our situation. He immersed himself in our pain and followed our road to the end. With the full power of his divinity he came down from heaven and plunged himself into the darkest depths of life.
In his fidelity to his total renunciation, Jesus demonstrated what took place in his heart: he took our humanity upon himself; he endured our suffering; he stepped down from his divinity. He made himself available to us exactly where we are. He came to stand next to us so that with our whole heart we can say “Yes” to ourselves in exactly the condition that we find ourselves at each and every individual moment of our lives.
It is in Christ’s courage that we find our courage to be true to ourselves. The cross represents God’s total commitment to us. It is our sign and it says that one man remained true to himself. That one man accepted his humanity in its fullness and its poverty, so that we can accept and love our humanity in its fullness and its poverty.
The German Dominican, Johannes Metz sums up the mystery in these words:
“Hanging in utter weakness on [that] cross, Christ revealed the divine meaning of man’s Being. It said something for the Jews and pagans that they found the cross scandalous and foolish. To the enlightened humanitarians of a later day the cross provokes only flat irony and weary skepticism. These self-styled advocates of humanity are more experienced; they are too indifferent to find the cross scandalous, yet not so naïve to laugh at its foolishness. And what is to us? Well, no one is exempted from the poverty of the cross; there is no guarantee against its intrusion.”]8
“…but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”
In his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus did not forsake us or stay aloof from us. Instead we have the self-sacrificing love of the cross, showing us the true nature of ourselves. When we sin, we do not elevate our suffering, we mitigate it. Sin is precisely our attempt to step around our situation and to reach a compromise with the children of sin, suffering and death. When we sin we join ourselves to them before they can teach us about our true selves.
We need to allow ourselves to be taught. We need to know our true selves so that we can know what has caused God love us so much. We need “to seek out the mystery of divine grace present in places and experiences which seem insignificant, dark, and empty.”9
We need to have our Lent so that we can fully exalt in the glory of Easter, as sisters and brothers of our living God, Jesus Christ.
1. Fred B. Craddock. Matthew. Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990, p. 54.
2. Craddock, p. 54.
3. Romans 5:15-17
4. Philippians 2:6
5. Genesis 3:5-6
6. Johannes Baptist Metz. Poverty of Spirit. Mahwah: Paulist Press, p. 15.
7. Hebrews 4:15
8. The section in brackets is largely a paraphrase of “God becomes Man,” from Poverty of Spirit, p. 13-20.
9. The Rule of the Society of Saint John Evangelist. Cambridge: Cowley Publications, p. 16.
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