Sunday 1 March 2020
It appeared in today’s Collect and when we get to the Preface for Lent later in the Service, it will be evident again: “He (Jesus) was tempted in every way as we are, yet he did not sin.” It strikes me that the clearest account of Jesus’ experience of temptation was the one we heard this morning from Matthew’s gospel. There is also an account in Luke’s gospel and a passing reference in Mark’s gospel.
So if these were temptations that Jesus experienced, and “He was tempted in every way that we are,” then there is a certain reverse logic to believing that these temptations that we heard read today are in some way the sort of temptations that we have as well. It is a different way of considering the temptations of Jesus I realise.
Usually, Jesus temptations in the wilderness are discussed as if they were Jesus’ alone. Only the Son of God could be subject to these particular temptations.
But if, as we pray, “He was tempted in every way as we are,” we must be able to look at these specific temptations of Jesus recounted in the gospel and find in them elements that can apply to ordinary humans like us. Well I am certainly tempted to try, if you’ll excuse the pun.
How are we to understand Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness as temptations to which we might be subject?
They are three in number. Let’s reflect upon them one at a time.
By way of introduction, let me say right at the beginning, that, no matter how I hold my tongue, I have never yet been able to turn stones into loaves of bread. This presents an immediate difficulty for us in trying to view these temptations as having application to us.
But let’s dwell on it a little longer. What is at the heart of the temptation? For Jesus, it first appears to be a misuse of his power for personal satisfaction. This has tended to be the traditional interpretation of the text. However, Jesus’ response goes down another path. He says: “It is written, one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
This is a quote from Deuteronomy 8.3 and is not at all concerned with abuse of divine power. The context in Deuteronomy is that God tested the people in the desert by letting them get hungry and then provided them with manna which was something completely unknown to them. The point of the exercise was to point out most clearly to them that God provided for them and that it was faithfulness to God’s word that was paramount, not worrying about food.
So from our perspective, perhaps this first temptation is that of despairing of God to provide for us. Perhaps it is about losing hope and giving up on God. Looking to our own resources instead of recognising that all that we ever have and receive is pure gift from God who never gives up on his people. We might then need to reflect during this Lenten season upon those things that we do to order our lives so that we do not depend upon God. We may not need to go to the extreme of dependence upon God that we see in someone like St Francis of Assisi, but how far from that degree of trust do we stand?
The second temptation likewise has generally been viewed as tempting Jesus to arbitrarily prove God’s love and protection for him by a sensational intervention into the world. When the devil tempts Jesus to see whether God will protect him, Jesus responds with another quote from Deuteronomy 6.16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
When we look back at Deuteronomy, we find that the context is one of God warning the people of Israel not to put God to the test by turning to other gods when he brings them into the land he has promised. It is all about remaining faithful to God and not putting false gods before him.
Once again then, from our perspective, this temptation is that of not putting God first in our lives; of giving our time and energy and attention to other false gods. In our age, we could name some of those false gods as materialism, consumerism, popular media-driven values like personal satisfaction above all else. Once again, Lent provides us with an opportunity to reflect upon this aspect of our lives. As Jesus says in gospel that we read on Ash Wednesday: “Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
The third temptation for Jesus appears to be one of him putting himself on a pedestal above God. It is almost a temptation to pride or vainglory.
Once again, Jesus’ response, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” takes us back to the same section of Deuteronomy, chapter 6, this time verse 13. So once again it comes from a context of warning not to put false gods before the true God.
So there is a sense in which the three temptations can be viewed as variations on the one theme. We could combine the sense of all three temptations and say that the overarching temptation is to displace God from the central place in our lives through doubting God’s love and concern for us and turning to other lesser gods as substitutes.
And the message is, in the context in which we have approached it, that Jesus was tempted to go down this path, just as we are. The difference being, we have the clear evidence in the gospels that Jesus resisted the temptation and at no time doubted God or replaced God with illusions. Unfortunately, it is probably not so easy for us to say that we have been as faithful as Jesus.
Our own lives can often be a landscape of moments of doubt and hesitation to fully embrace the God of Jesus Christ as our ever loving and faithful God. The gospels tell us that Jesus was tempted in this regard, just like us. And Jesus overcame those temptations. If we want to do the same, we put ourselves in a better position to do so, the closer we craft our lives in the way of Jesus.
We have confirmation of this reality in the words of Jesus from John’s gospel: “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father” (Jn 14.12). If we truly believe in Jesus and give ourselves to him, we will be empowered to do what he did and avoid the temptation to displace God in favour of lesser gods.
Our pathway to faithfulness to our God is through discipleship of Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life. Throughout this Lenten season, let’s try to direct all our energies, our acts of self-denial and our prayer towards deepening our relationship with Jesus of Nazareth who lived, who was tempted but did not sin, who died and was buried, who rose again as the first-born of all creation, and who now sits at the right hand of the Father and intercedes for us.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen