The Revised Common Lectionary, that we normally use as a guide from which to draw our scriptural themes each week, works in a three-year cycle. It does that to stop us from getting stuck on our hobby horses, and instead, to expose us to as much different scripture and scriptural themes as possible. But all three of cycles begin this time of Lent with today’s reading, shared as it is with each of the gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke. This year it is from Matthew. Next year it will be from Mark, and in 2025, from Luke, before going back to Matthew again…
For all three to have it, we can assume, suggests that it describes something hugely significant that must, historically, have happened in Jesus’ life. We can therefore also assume that, as we follow in Christ’s footsteps, it describes something that must be hugely significant in all our lives. And so, here, we believe, is something that we too mustlearn to deal with if we are ever properly to be growing in terms of our faith and spirituality as Christ-followers.
TEMPTATION! From the Latin ‘temptare’, …which means to handle something, to touch it, to try it, test it! Check it out! It’s to measure something’s worth. That’s exactly what Jesus was experiencing in the desert – this time of ‘temptare’: trial, testing, of being checked out…
And how it happened after 40 days and nights of fasting, when the scriptures tell us euphemistically that ‘Jesus was hungry’. Some scholars[i], see this passage as describing ‘…the three primal and universal temptations that all humans must face’ – and especially so before daring to take on any kind of power, just as Jesus was about to take on power.
For us, I don’t know, perhaps that power may be in the form of becoming a new grandpa, or describes our authority as a parent, or a manager at work, a classroom teacher, wherever we may find ourselves to be in a position of authority over any other person or group. They describe all those awful temptations that may come at us to misuse our positions of power for any purposes less than whatever is God’s intention. They describe ‘the misuse of practical everyday power, the misuse of religious power and the misuse of political power’[ii] – and we should make no mistake here – we are all so seriously susceptible to each of them. The minute we find ourselves using whatever position of authority may be in to serve just ourselves, we must know that THAT’S exactly what’s happening – that we are giving in to one of these deeply seductive temptations!
I think of how some feel so comfortable talking down to those who may be serving them, perhaps, as the servers at a restaurant, or at a customer service counter – don’t you just cringe? Some[iii] go so far as to write that ‘these three temptations are the constant tragedies that keep defeating humanity.’ Our temptation to abuse practical, religious, or political power – whether at a personal one-on-one level or at a much greater, even international political level – is always toxic!
Unless, like Jesus, we can come to terms with what these temptations are constantly trying to do by pandering to our personal ego-agendas, all our living will come eventually to be compromised and much less than what we are intended to be…
But, as we are given to overcome those temptations as Jesus was empowered in this passage to do, that’s when we can become useful to our God and realize the precious potential that we have all been created to have.
It’s sneaky, insidious. Temptation would be easy to resist if we could see it coming at us in some obviously despicable form – you know, as something (or someone) obviously bad and needing to be rejected. But that’s so very seldom the case, isn’t it? It would be easy if there wasn’t always something that may feel really good mixed up in it! But, it seems, it’s never that simple. If there wasn’t at least some good in whatever was tempting us, it wouldn’t be attractive. It’s the person who’s tempted to cheat on their partner perhaps, who says: ‘but how can it be wrong if it ‘feels’ so good?’ Or it’s the person who’s tempted to cheat on their taxes who says: ‘but how can it be wrong if it leaves me with so much more money – money for myself, or that I can tithe to the church, or give to charities?’ We become masters at self-justification!
In Jesus’ case, we’re told that after all that fasting, he was very seriously hungry, utterly alone, and so probably profoundly vulnerable, probably at a place of deeply doubting himself – both in terms of his identity and purpose. And so, the Evil One’s idea of turning stones into bread to satisfy his immediate need for food must have been seriously tempting, or, the idea of throwing himself off a high point in order to see if God actually still did love and value him and would send angels to protect him, or of him having absolute political power… Each of those must have been pretty winsome, if it wasn’t for that bit about Jesus first needing to turn his back on God by winking at Evil!
Most of our everyday choices are not between what is clearly and totally good or clearly and totally bad but, instead, lie within various complicated shades of grey – and that’s as it should be… We must live within that place of dynamic tension – constantly straining to discern and then live into the best possible good in a world that would so easily distract and undermine us by stretching us in a million different ways. What I think makes anything ‘Evil’ is when we allow ourselves to see anything and everything that is invariably only partially good or bad falsely as an absolute. It seems to me that only God is ABSOLUTE good!
But we are just genius at convincing ourselves otherwise. Things may become clearer as we notice ourselves putting the immediate wants of our own egos first, as if WE and our own immediate and always imperfect wants and needs are what sets the golden standard of good and bad – with no absolute authority greater than just OURSELVES! It’s such a slippery slope, and before we know it, we’ve begun to justify our sub-human living.
And so why does God allow it? I don’t know… But I do remember the children’s story of the hermit who had this enormous boulder outside of his front door. People would mock as they noticed how he would spend hours each day straining against it, apparently trying to move it!
Folks questioned is sanity, telling him how it would always be impossible on his own, that he should hire some form of machine to help him, but he would just ignore them and kept on with his apparently futile efforts. Until one day when there was an accident on the road past his cabin with children trapped beneath this great, overturned, ox cart… It was only the enormous strength of that hermit who saved them by gripping the side and using all his might was able slowly to lift the dead weight of that massive cart to set them free!
All those years of his apparently senseless, meaningless straining against that immoveable boulder had so strengthened him that he was single-handily able to save lives.
I know that sounds kind of trite – but seriously, I wonder if that isn’t something of why temptation is allowed to exist. Our straining against – not just ignoring it, or just giving in to it – but by living with it – straining against it, resisting it – is not for nothing. I think that every time we are faced with the comfortable, but what we may suspect is actually the wrong thing to do, and are given to resist it, push back against it, so we emerge just that much better, stronger, then before, and so better able to be a blessing to others.
Has that been your experience? What have been some of the greatest temptations in your life?
How about the temptation just to look after ourselves? To make all our living, our practical everyday living, our religious living, our political living, to be just for serving #1?
How have you allowed yourself to give into that? How depleted did that ‘giving in’ leave you feeling? But then can you think of times when you have been empowered to resist that temptation and were able to put yourself second? Step up to protest that injustice. Not just look the other way. And how empowered did that leave you feeling?
I acknowledge those times I slip and give in to the temptation to compromise, times when I’ve slipped and I’m not too proud of them – but I do also thank God for those times when I have been empowered not to give in, when I know that I have done the right thing! Stepped away from the attractive but clearly compromised option.
Oh, and like those angels who came to care for Jesus, I especially thank God for the promised presence of God’s ubiquitous Holy Spirit who, in Christ, is constantly at work to make me to be a better me. In a world where there is so much to distract us, tempt us away from that awareness, may that comforting, empowering Presence increasingly come to be what we need to resist temptation in its many forms, and so be the strength for others that God intends.
[i] Certainly including Richard Rohr whom I’m quoting from franciscanmedia.org, March 10, 2019
[ii] Op cit
[iii] Again, Richard Rohr
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