Given the current political climate in the U.S., I’ve been thinking a lot about temptation and how Christians tend to trivialize it. Jesus wasn’t tempted by small things when he was in the wilderness. It wasn’t a question of eating an extra cookie or skipping his time at the gym or engaging in dubious sexual activity. Jesus was tempted by bigger things, not because he was the Christ, but because he was human. The more we focus on the small temptations we face, the more we diminish the power of Jesus encounter with Satan in the wilderness.
Yes, I am inclined to treat this story as metaphor and myth rather than history and fact. It is, nonetheless, a true story. I don’t doubt that Jesus went into a time of fasting and prayer after his baptism. He very likely went out into the wilderness to do so. What better place to encounter God than in a land untouched by human hands? The longer he was there, the more he wrestled with his personal demons. We would do well to follow his example.
The first temptation Jesus faces is his hunger. He could have turned the rocks to bread, but would that have satisfied him? If our hunger is spiritual and not physical, no amount of bread will fill the void. If one is fasting in order to facilitate a deeper spiritual encounter, then bread will not meet that need. Jesus knew something that Eve had not learned when she bit into the serpent’s temptation; knowledge and wisdom are two different things. Jesus knew that feeding his stomach would not prepare him for what lay ahead.
In the modern context, we mistake fasting with dieting. We mistake the physical for the spiritual, especially when it comes to hunger. Those of us with full cabinets and freezers fall back on our Puritanical preset of believing that people who cannot afford to feed themselves are somehow to blame and their poverty is God’s punishment. Even when we say we do not believe this archaic theology, we tend to act as if we do and by so doing, we make physical hunger a spiritual problem. On the flip side, those of us with access to enough food often eat more than we need and just as often use food to soothe ourselves. In other words, we attempt to satisfy our spiritual hunger with physical food. This is no more affective than the reverse. Perhaps it is time we sort this out. No doubt Satan and his minions would rather we continue as we are. Otherwise, feeding those who are physically hungry and nurturing those who are spiritually hungry sounds a lot like Jesus’ response about not living by bread alone.
Having failed in his first efforts, Satan moves on. Jesus’ second temptation is to prove his own value by throwing himself off the pinnacle of the temple. Jesus seems to have understood his own worth better than most of us today. He was not concerned with proving how far God would go to protect him. Was he secure in God’s love for him or did he simply understand that the worth others bestow on us means nothing until we bestow it upon ourselves?
We are awful judges of human value today. We foolishly believe that financial and material wealth are signs of God’s favor without giving a thought to racism and other social factors that hold many generations in poverty. While we might be tempted to say that God loves all human beings we are, at core, highly skeptical about our own standing with God, not to mention our neighbors’. Once again our Puritanical preset reveals our lack of wisdom. We can know that God does not favor the wealthy over the poor, the able over the disabled, the healthy over the sick, etc, but our behavior shows something different. Look at the state of this country and it is impossible to deny that we have let outdated-unexamined theology wreak havoc. Perhaps we could follow Jesus’ example and believe that God loves us and all our neighbors and stop trying to prove that we are valued and loved and important.
If we don’t, we will never manage to escape the third temptation. Satan invited Jesus into ownership of and power over everyone. It was simple enough – worship Satan and not God. Jesus saw through this with seeming ease (though I suspect it was more a struggle than the Bible lets on). Jesus chose God over Satan and his time of temptation ended. The power was in the choice.
The unfortunate truth is that we aren’t very good at worshiping God. It is often more enticing to seek after ownership and power. And in a society that frequently mistakes these things for signs of blessings, the temptation is even stronger. Worshiping God is often the harder choice when siren song of society is, “bigger, better, more…” Who wants to be a humble servant to Love and show that by serving human beings and Creation with intentional compassion when the accumulation of wealth leads to power and success? Now might be an excellent time to disentangle ourselves from the pursuit of power and dedicate our lives to serving the most vulnerable among us as Jesus commanded.
If you are among the many who have given up chocolate, coffee, beer, wine, or even social media for Lent, how will you spend that time you would have spent in those pursuits? Will you watch to see if the numbers on the scale go down? Will you browse the internet to fill the void created by the absence of social media? Or will you enter into the wilderness place and chance meeting your demons who will put your true temptations on display? Whatever your Lenten practice may be, may we face our own demons and the demons of our society with grace and assurance of God’s love. In this way, may we wrestle as Jesus did and make the choice that will end our time with Satan with the arrival of angels.
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RCL – Year A – First Sunday in Lent – March 1, 2020
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7