Updated: Mar 29, 2022
First Sunday in Lent, Year C, RCL, Luke 4:1-13, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16
Some scholars debate if the word ‘temptation’ is better translated as tested. If we say that Jesus was tested by the devil, then this whole event seems rather academic. Jesus gives the correct answers, did well, and achieves an A+. If the test is more of an analytical test, in the way you test a diamond to be genuine
or gold to be pure, then the answer is that Jesus is the Son of God. Any qualitative test would demonstrate this. The outcome of the test doesn’t seem to be in dispute or a shock to us readers. These scriptures were written for us to learn and know who God is and how God is revealed to us. And because of this, I believe that the temptations of Christ are truly that, temptations.
I think it is fair to say that if we are going to be tempted by something, we must have, on some level, a desire for that thing. For example, if I set before you a cup of a goopy, foul-smelling liquid and told you, “If you drink this, you will become sick in the most horrible ways for several days, yet be assured that you will not die from the ensuing illness.” If I did this, I doubt you would want to drink from this cup. Nothing is appealing about smelly sludge. There is nothing that entices our desires to try it.
The portrayal in the Gospel makes it sound like Jesus quickly and flatly denies the devil as if he was not really tempted. Yet, I believe, that he must have had some desire, or else he wouldn’t be tempted. Jesus is, after all, fully human and fully God. He knew the pain and suffering we experience in our lives.
The temptations expressed in our story represent the temptations we all experience in life. Jesus is tempted by bread to satiate his hunger. We are tempted by food, intimacy, or a desire to numb our problems with alcohol, drugs, or our electronic devices. All of these are needs that we have in life; needs that we try to fulfill through our primal instincts. Being human offers us these desires. But we can lose our boundaries, look for gratification in ways that hurt those we love or hurt ourselves. Talking about our addictive desires with others can bring us to accountability and help us turn from them toward healthier habits. I believe this is why all twelve-step programs begin with a vocally acknowledgement to others that we have these desires or addictions.
The devil offers to satisfy a different kind of hunger for his second temptation. This is the hunger for power, money, and control. We can look at almost any civilization and find the human desire to be on top and it often comes through the exploitation of others. In our society, it is evident that those in power desire to stay in power and they use tactics to maintain the status quo. The philosopher Paulo Freire has shown that when oppressed people gain the upper hand, “The oppressed, instead of striving for liberation, tend themselves to become oppressors.”[i] Even if we don’t have the desire to rule the world or the country or anything seemingly large, this doesn’t mean we don’t have an appetite to gain more than we need or receive our gains on the backs of others. I think this temptation is calling us to be mindful of the price we pay for the things we have or the status we hold. And I’m not speaking about the monetary cost but the human cost.
Throughout the exchange between the devil and Jesus, Jesus has used the scriptures to rebuke the devil. Yet the devil is crafty. He turns the table on Jesus and offers up a bit of scripture himself. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you.’ And ‘On their hands, they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
One of the more insidious things we hear today is the Holy Scripture being used as a weapon, taken out of context, and served up to prove a point. The devil is using this piece of scripture to incite violence on someone. The God I know would never wish harm on someone simply to prove that God exists. We see that the devil quotes scripture in a clever guise to silence the truth, to suit his own needs for power. And I suspect that others do the same for the same reason.
The devil in our passage today is not a being or a creature, the word being translated is an adjective. The quality of this unknown thing would be better named the tempter. I believe, for this passage, that this tempter is the voice we hear in our head that causes us to be tempted in so many ways. This tempter isn’t a diabolical figure with a pitchfork. It’s more like the figure in C.S. Lewis’s book, The Screwtape Letters. In this book, we find a demon-like figure coaching his nephew on various methods of undermining God’s word. These tend to be the whispers in our ears that cause doubt and fear to arise. In Screwtape’s advice, selfish gain and power are seen as the only good, and neither demon can comprehend God's love for man or acknowledge human virtue. We find that the nephew, a young demon, isn’t very good at subtlety. This makes it easier for “the Patient,” the person be swayed, to follow what is good and right.
I wonder if during this Lenten time, if we can pay attention to those voices in our head more clearly, with the attempt to distinguish the one that brings us toward God from the one that distracts us from what is good. Maybe we can distinguish the one that critiques our self-image; that tells us we are not good enough from the voice of God’s that says he made us perfect. There is the voice that tempts us to do the things we don’t want to do; the voice that sows fear in our hearts and makes us afraid of our neighbor.
If we can make this distinction then we will know this is the voice we should not listen to. For this is the voice of deceit and lies. If we can make the distinction yet we still feel compelled to follow it, then I propose to you, to reach out to one of your friends in the community or the church, or even me. Together we can walk on this journey to find the person that you would like to be, the person whom God made you to be. The child He loves, who can rest in His shelter and know that His angels are over you.
[i] Paulo Freire, From "Pedagogy of the Oppressed"