|The Temptations of Christ, 12th century mosaic,
St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice, Italy
Lectionary Passage: Mark 1: (9-12) 13 (14-15):
He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
And (Alternatively!): Matthew 4: 1-11:
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
The Gospel writer known as Mark doesn’t seem to be that worried about Jesus being tempted. In fact, he’s almost dismissive of it–acknowledging that it happened but not delving into it too much. And yet, surely temptation is something with which we can all identify and connect. After all, it happens to the best of us! The Matthean Gospel, though, seems to be extremely concerned about it, going into great detail. First, Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread, to guarantee that he had what would sustain him. It is the temptation to live with a theology of scarcity, filling and filling (and filling!) our lives with stuff and hoarding what we need that we might always be prepared, always be sustained, always have enough. Next Jesus is tempted by his need to be validated, his need to be liked. We all have that. We want people to like us. We want people to like who we are and what we do. And, finally, Jesus is tempted with the American Dream–the desire to be in control, to have all the power and glory that we need. Jesus was tempted with greed, with affirmation and impressiveness, and with power. And, to be honest, think what Jesus’ ministry in which he was entering would look like if he had these things. Think of all the good we could do if we had all the resources we need, if people looked upon has the authority, and if we had the power to change the world. (So, at your next Church Council retreat, maybe that’s, after all, not the best question!)
Now, when you read this, do not imagine a little red man with horns running around disturbing Jesus on his wilderness retreat. The truth is, that wild and fantastical personification of evil is, in the big scheme of things, a pretty modern (and pretty far-fetched) notion. On some level, it makes it easier, shifting the blame of our human overreachings and our spiritual shortcomings to something other than ourselves. Rather, Scriptural writers probably envisioned more of a constructive adversary, perhaps a compelling force of some sort (probably something other than a third party entity!) that would empower us to look at ourselves and our own lives, to look at those things that drive us and center us. It calls us to an honest reflection of who we are and who we are meant to be.
And so Jesus was tempted. That’s bothersome for us. After all, he is the one we look to for the model life. And if Jesus is tempted, what hope do we have for figuring this all out? Temptation is an interesting thing. Think of it as a turn, a fork in the road. Do we choose to follow our wants, our needs, our desires? Or do we let them go and follow who we really are called to be? That’s uncomfortable. And so, it is easier to blame it on that little red man with horns or, to be totally inclusive, the phantom seductress who wiles her prey into what she wants. Really? So it has nothing to do with us? We’re just pawns on a game between good and evil, between the holy and the ways of this world, between God and this imaginary personification of evil. Really?
Well, that would neatly wrap it up, wouldn’t it? But I don’t think that’s the way it works. I think this very human Jesus (thanks be to God!) went out into this wilderness to pray, to search, to discover who God called him to be. And while he was there, he was tempted to overreach. Dr. Albert Outler once said something to the effect that sin is not falling short, but overreaching. It is not being more human (as if being human, being made in the image of God, could be bad!) than we are called to be, but attempting to be more Divine. Maybe sin and tempation are about our dabbling in God’s business. It is about letting ourselves be controlled by greed and insecurity, by the need to be affirmed and liked, and by the lust for power. (So have you listened to the political rhetoric lately? I rest my case.) But the truth is, sustenance is short-lived, affirmation and being “spectacular” is really hard to maintain (after all, don’t you sometimes just want to wear your warm-ups and no make-up and sit in the back of the sanctuary?), and, as Lord Acton put it, “power corrupts.” So, on that note, this passage is not an historical narrative about Jesus’ altercation with the devil; rather, it is a lesson of the wilderness: Instead of yielding to your fears and your desires, follow that which is everlasting sustenance, that which is gracious and unconditional love, and that which is life-giving.
Jesus wasn’t showing us how not to be tempted or even that temptation is evil. Rather, once again, it’s about perspective. We are not expected or called to be anything other than human–nothing less and nothing more. That’s the lesson that this Lenten Wilderness teaches us. It’s not about us. It’s about The Way. So, where do we find ourselves on The Way?
Grace and Peace on this Lenten Journey,