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’m sure 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 kind of “stained glass” image of Jesus; we imagine someone quite unlike us for whom doing the right thing came naturally and without effort. After all, we think, he was the Son of God! 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. He seems like a super hero; the enemy’s bullets simply bounce off his chest. 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 the temptations I experience are rarely so easily overcome.
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? We won’t get very far if we interpret this story literally. After all, how many of us are actually tempted to turn stones into loaves of bread or throw ourselves off of high buildings? Unless we can translate these images into something that we relate to, we will find it difficult to imagine that Jesus was tempted as we are, and we will continue to feel a wide gap between his experience and ours.
[The First Temptation]
Jesus is on a forty-day retreat in the barren wilderness of Judea, fasting, when the tempter suggests he use his power to turn the stones around him into loaves of bread. What is this temptation about? Perhaps the temptation was for Jesus to satisfy his hunger and to put an end to his fast. Or perhaps it was for Jesus to use these stones turned into bread to feed the hungry masses and to gain a popular following. Whatever it is, this first temptation seems to be a temptation to use the powers God has given him to his own advantage. We could say it is the temptation to misuse power.
Can you remember a time when you were tempted to use your “powers” – your looks, or your knowledge, or your personality, your wealth or your influence – to satisfy the demands of your ego or to obtain something or someone you desperately wanted? Did you use your gifts to try to win the recognition and favor of others, or to be admired or appear successful in their eyes? 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 desires?
We can imagine the voice of temptation. “Why should you be hungry, Jesus? Why should you be suffering? It is for others to suffer, not you. Use your power, your God-given gifts, now to put an end to your hunger and get what you want.”
[The Second Temptation]
In the second temptation, Jesus is taken to a very high mountain and offered all the kingdoms of the world, if only he will align himself with the evil one. (In rabbinic and early Christian teaching, the kingdoms of the earth belonged to the devil and were under his control.) Perhaps the temptation here is to possess and control, to “have it all.” These days modern advertising encourages us to think that we can “have it all” and that we should want what we do not have. Did Jesus struggle with the temptation to possess, to control, to rule over everyone and everything? The gospels suggest that God’s desire for Jesus was not to follow the way of riches, wealth or pride. Rather, he was called to the way of humility, of self-offering, of laying down his life for others. Would Jesus have preferred a different way?
Have you known the lure of possessions and the desire for control? Have you wanted to “have it all”? Have you convinced yourself that you can and should be in control of your life and your destiny, that you have the right to arrange things as you want them? 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 and possessions to accomplish his ends?
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 allowing yourself to be vulnerable and weak. You could be in charge of it all!”
[The Third Temptation]
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 enemy argues 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.” The third temptation seems to be a temptation to pride, a temptation to be special in God’s eyes and in the eyes of others. I call it “the temptation to be spectacular.”
Can you relate? Have you ever wanted to be noticed, to be thought of as special (a cut above everyone else), even to be seen as one who is especially holy or close to God?
This can also be seen as a temptation to put God to the test. Was Jesus tempted to try to influence God to act in a particular way? Have you ever experienced a temptation like that, a temptation to insist that God act in the way you want God to act? Sometimes we do this. And if God should fail to satisfy our demands, we feel ourselves quite justified in abandoning God and turning away from faith. Why didn’t God keep my partner from dying? Why didn’t God turn away the tornado that tore through my town? Why doesn’t God make me wealthier? Why doesn’t God end my suffering? Why doesn’t God act in the way I need and want? How can I have faith in a God I can’t control? This is the temptation of pride. It fails to recognize that God is God and that we cannot control or manipulate God to conform to our desires.
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 often defenseless and powerless in the face of our compulsions and addictions, 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 sometimes 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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