The Temptations

Lent 1        Feb 14, 2016

Luke 4:1-15

We begin Lent in that familiar place: with Jesus in the desert, 40 days and 40 nights, tempted by Satan. The Lenten tradition is that we share this watch and these temptations, standing alongside him.

And yet, I’m never sure how much we can share this journey. The journey he made, after all, was an intensely personal journey; the temptations are his, not necessarily ours. I think we have to hear them this way, to hear them as Jesus’s own specific journey, wrestling with his own identity as Messiah, before we rush to ask how they apply to us.

The fascinating figure in this story is the devil. In fact the devil is usually the most fascinating figure, when he turns up. That isn’t actually that often in the Bible. Sometimes we hear of powers and principalities, that is common in the New Testament; but the prince of demons, Satan, Beelzebub, doesn’t really show up that often. And he appears only couple of times in the whole Old Testament, as the Shaitan, the adversary, the one who – well, plays the devil’s advocate. The one who pushes and tempts, who plays on our doubts and insecurities.

Psychologists have fun with the devil. Psychologically speaking, this role of the adversary is clearly a reflection of our own inner struggles, the voices inside of us which we are not willing to recognize as our own, and so we project them on an external personality. That may be as that may be; but it is interesting how he really seems to have this role in today’s story.

Jesus has just come up from the Jordan, from baptism. He has heard those amazing words, confirming his own unique identity and role: “you are my well-beloved Son, with you I am well pleased.” And now he goes out into the desert to work out what that means. The temptations are about discerning who he is really called to be.

How does Satan begin? “If you are the Son of God . . .” These temptations clearly have to do with his role and identity, which he is working out. The temptation, the Satanic part, lies in that little word “if”. There seems to be just the slightest doubt, the slightest sense of needing to prove something. And that is often how the devil works, isn’t it? That is often where we are most vulnerable, where there is that nagged sense of doubt. That is what the tempter seizes upon.

The first temptation is pretty straightforward. Jesus is hungry. Satan is asking him to use some of that power as the son of God to turn the stones into bread. This shouldn’t be hard. No big deal. If you can turn water into wine surely you can turn stones into bread – if you are the Son of God, that is. Would the real son of God be so weak with hunger? It is such a little thing. No one will know. But of course it’s not a little thing. What Satan is actually suggesting is to deny the incarnation. As the Son of God, Jesus has been sent to share human life in the body, to share with us the limitations and the pain of being human. Limitations like getting hungry and weak if we don’t eat. If he starts cheating, starts using his superpowers to avoid discomfort whenever it happens, he has already betrayed his mission.

The second temptation is also clear. If he is the Son of God come down to earth, shouldn’t he be running things here? Shouldn’t he be in charge, with power and authority over all the kingdoms?
At least the devil shows some honesty in this temptation. He names up front the price to be paid: ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ I was reading this to Elisabeth last night, and she laughed out loud at this part. As familiar as this passage is, it suddenly struck her as funny. It is just so true, though we seldom see it so clearly black on white: the kingdoms of this world are Satan’s. He will give them to whomever he likes. Usually this truth is never said out loud. Power as exercised in this world is naturally Satanic. This is something we see played out in our politics: to exercise power one must necessarily compromise with the nature of power itself. This is not an easy process, for any politician who enters it with decent motives. I’m sure our premier, for example, could tell us something about the kind of hard decisions and compromises one has to make.

For Jesus to follow this temptation would be, again, to betray his mission. He did not come to exercise Satanic power, to lead the revolution, take over control, drive out the Romans – to set through his goals with bloodshed and violence.

The third temptation is weirder and harder to understand. Why would he want to throw himself down from the Temple, where’s the temptation in that? Perhaps the clue lies in the Scripture the devil cites: “He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you . . . on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” The temptation here is a temptation of faith: to misunderstand God’s providential love as though we were no longer subject to the laws of physics and biology, as though a strong enough faith could protect us from cancer or aging or car crashes. The temptation once more goes to the heart of the incarnation: is Jesus willing to enter fully into the human condition, with all our terrible vulnerability. Or is he only half-way committed to this incarnation business, willing to come among us but with a special escape hatch always ready for when things get tough. There is, perhaps, an echo here of the temptation that would later be throw at him in mockery: “If you are the Son of God, get down from the cross.”

These temptations come to us second-hand. That is to say, they are not so much our own temptations. They can be that too, but in the normal run of things, few of us are offered the chance to perform miracles or to rule over kingdoms and nations. For us, they are about what kind of God we believe in, what kind of Jesus we follow.

I read an article this week on the Prosperity gospel. [Kate Bowler, “Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me”] The author was a student of religion, a Mennonite woman from Manitoba, who has written book on this phenomenon in contemporary American religion. The prosperity gospel, for those who have not encountered it, is a movement in the evangelical church that claims that God rewards faithful believers with wealth and health. It has been called the quintessential American heresy, one whose understanding of the gospel is shaped by the American dream of prosperity.

The problem with the prosperity gospel becomes clear when we hold it up to the temptations that Jesus faced: it fails on all three accounts:

Where Jesus refused Satan’s temptation of bread when he was hungry, the prosperity gospel promises material comfort and wealth to its followers. Indeed, it seems to make the accumulation of wealth the point of our faith. How can this be seen as following the one who declared that the poor were blessed?

Where Jesus refused Satan’s temptation of power, the prosperity gospel seems to embrace power and influence as the just rewards of being a Christian. How can this be seen as following the one who told his followers not to lord it over each other, but to serve one another?

Where Jesus refused Satan’s temptation of superhero abilities, that would lift him above the common limitations of the flesh, the prosperity gospel promises health to all true believers, promises that illness can be cured if you just have enough faith. And yes, Jesus did perform healings as a sign of the coming kingdom of God, where illness and death and grief will be overcome. But in the meantime, for this world, he chose the path of solidarity with the suffering, even to the point of death, and commends that path to his followers.

The article I was reading had a dark irony. For its author, the questions her study of the prosperity gospel had raised were no longer purely theoretical, but a dark test she has to endure in her own life. At 35, at the height of her career, with a loving husband and a toddler, she has been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Suddenly, in the midst of her work on the promises of the prosperity gospel, she is confronted with her own inescapable vulnerability and mortality. The article is about how she makes sense of this. Of course she wouldn’t say no to a miracle. And she has come to understand all the more deeply the human desire for security and assurance, the need to know that this couldn’t happen to me, that I can overcome all obstacles if I have enough faith. She understands this; but at the same time it is clear that she will not submit to the temptation of this kind of thinking. God does not promise us wealth, or power, or invulnerability in this life, not even to his most faithful followers. That, as the gospel story makes clear, is actually Satan. What God does promise us in simply that he will be with us, that he surrounds us with his love, and that by embracing our true human calling we will find worth and meaning. And that his love is, in the end, stronger than death.