Now, it is obvious that Christ’s temptations differ from ours in significant ways. I have never spent forty days in the wilderness, or fasted for more than a few hours, or spoken to the devil, or been in the position to work a miracle. Probably the same is true for all of you.
But with a little imagination, we can translate the temptations described in our reading into the kinds of things we do experience.
Start with the easiest one. The devil offered to give Jesus authority over all the nations of the world if only Jesus would bow down to him. What is our equivalent? The temptation to sell out, to compromise our values in order to get ahead or to get along. We have all had moments when we were confronted with a choice—do we do the right thing even though it may cost us, or do we take the easy way out?
Jesus reminds us in those moments that our first loyalty is to God, that when we have to choose, we should turn away from the things of the world and to God. It is not easy to do. But in my experience, there is usually not much ambiguity. We recognize the temptation for what it is. The challenge is resisting it.
The third temptation in our reading is more subtle. The devil invites Jesus to throw himself off the roof of the temple. That doesn’t seem all that tempting! So what is going on here?
Jesus’ answer helps. Jesus refuses to put God to the test. With a little reflection, that is another temptation we can understand.
Think about a time you prayed—hard—for something that really mattered and it didn’t happen. How did you react? A common response is to get angry with God. I know a lot of people who have gone that route, and I have experienced some of that anger myself.
Depending on the circumstances, anger at God can be a natural, maybe even an inevitable, reaction. It also seems to be OK at least some of the time. Certainly there is good biblical precedent. Many of the Psalms contain bitter complaints to God.
But sometimes our anger amounts to putting God to the test, particularly when we can’t let go of our anger. We told God what we wanted and God didn’t do it, so we hold God responsible. We put God to the test, and God failed.
Here, too, we have to turn. We have to turn away from our bitterness and anger, and turn to God who alone can offer us the peace that passes understanding, especially when we are hurting. That turn takes time, and it takes grace. But in the end, we need to accept that God is in charge, not us.
The hardest temptation to make sense of is the first in our reading. Jesus has fasted for forty days, and he is famished. The devil suggests Jesus turn stone into bread. The fact that the devil makes the suggestion means it is bad. But otherwise it is hard to see why Jesus shouldn’t do it.
We know that Jesus is not above using his miraculous powers to feed the hungry. All four Gospels tell stories of Jesus doing just that. Miraculous feeding is clearly not a bad thing in itself.
It is even harder to see the problem if we translate this temptation into terms that make sense in our own lives. I can’t turn stones into bread. But I can use my resources to meet my basic needs. If I am hungry, I buy food. Unlike me, Jesus doesn’t need money and a grocery store; he has more direct means at his disposal. But what is wrong with Jesus using those means? What is the lesson for us in this one?
The lesson from this temptation lies precisely in its ambiguity, and that may be the most important lesson of all. This one reminds us that recognizing a temptation for what it is can be hard.
At a difficult stage in my life, I got into the habit of drinking a glass or two of wine every night. That didn’t seem like a problem to me. But a friend suggested that I was self-medicating and, although I didn’t believe him at first, he was right.
The problem was not the alcohol itself. The problem was the reason I wanted it. Without my realizing it, alcohol had gone from being an innocent pleasure to a temptation. What was perfectly fine for others, what was perfectly fine for me at other stages of life, was not OK for me at that time. Thanks to my friend, I came to see the temptation for what it was and so turned away from my self-medication and turned more to God.
Alcohol and other potential addictions are an easy example. Most people who suffer from addiction spend at least a little time in denial. But this is not an issue only for addicts.
In the way of love, our theme for this week is “Go.” Go out into the world in the name of Jesus Christ as an agent of reconciliation and hope. At our contemplative prayer session last Sunday, as a small group of us sat together listening for what God was saying to us through the Gospel reading for the week, what I heard is that I have disengaged too much from the social problems of our time. I have turned inward, focusing on my spiritual life, on my family, on our parish. All that is good, of course, and I plan to continue with all three.
But for me right now, exclusive focus on the issues that touch me most deeply has become a temptation. And so here, too, I need to turn, to turn outward a little more because that is emerging as a new way for me to serve God. So, this week, I hope to discern how God is calling me to re-engage, to “go.”
My guess is, all of us are facing temptations right now that we do not recognize as such. Those are, of course, the hardest temptation to resist.
Come back to our story. When the devil suggests that Jesus turn stone into bread, Jesus immediately turns to God. Jesus doesn’t think about his own preferences. Jesus doesn’t try to rationalize what must have been a very attractive proposal. Jesus thinks first about his life with God. And in light of his life with God, Jesus recognizes the devil’s temptation as a temptation, as an act that would draw him away from God. And so Jesus refuses.
That is our task, especially in this season for facing our temptations, for making an intentional effort to turn away from anything that separates us from God, for turning to God and the life that God calls us to lead.
So I pray. I pray that we can turn from the obvious temptations we face. But I also pray that we can recognize and resist the more subtle temptations as well. And I pray that in the name of Jesus Christ, who shows us the way and who is the way. Amen.