I am always curious about temptation. What is it about temptation that is so captivating? Why is it that people “fall prey to temptation”? And why haven’t we learned yet since the dawn of humanity that temptation gets us into trouble?
I looked up how many songs there are with the word temptation for a title. There are a lot.
My computer’s dictionary defines temptation two ways: a thing or course of action that attracts or tempts someone, or a desire to do something, esp. something wrong or unwise.
Temptation is a curious thing.
According to the world of Psychology, temptation is “a fundamental desire to engage in short-term urges for enjoyment, that threatens long-term goals.” And as Christians, we generally believe that temptation is the inclination we have to sin.
I love stories about temptation. I find them to be a great teacher about humanity and human tendencies. I also like to root for the heroes to overcome their temptations and prove to themselves that they don’t really need whatever it is that they are wanting, or think that they need, in order to be truly great human beings. A lesson that hasn’t always been clear in my head.
When I was a child, I used to say something – a particular sentence – a lot. And that sentence became this passive-aggressive marker to call my desire to my mother’s attention. “I really like that thing,” was a veiled compliment I would share with someone who had something that I wished was mine. And every time my mother was present to hear that sentence, said just so, her reaction was the same.
“You can’t have it.”
I know that hearing those words used to irritate me. I would argue with my mother about the true intent behind my words. I would try to convince her that I wasn’t being disingenuous; I really did just like something.
But she knew.
And, deep down, so did I.
I had failed to quell the temptation to be envious. To be whatever it was that I saw in someone else who had the thing I wanted. I failed the temptation to make myself into some vision of worth that was determined by my own limited perception.
But my mother always sees right through the crap and gives me the truth. And out of her love for me, has taught me to see the value that is already present in me, without the things that I thought I needed.
This life lesson has brought me an interesting perspective on the Temptation of Jesus story. A temptation story that pits two alternative versions of Jesus against each other.
I think we like to believe that Jesus is going up against the devil only because he has to. The devil is so persistent in pushing Jesus the wrong way that Jesus finally goes toe to toe with the devil, and wins. Like we expect Jesus, the Son of God, to do.
There are more than a few interesting things that I get out of this story, and I am going to share some of them with you. First, Jesus begins his ministry by heading out into the wilderness for 40 days – led by the Holy Spirit. Thanks a lot Holy Spirit! At first, I got to thinking that the Holy Spirit laid the pathway for Jesus to wander in the wilderness, into his encounter with the devil. The devil didn’t make him do it, the Holy Spirit did. Okay, so, another interesting thing: the Holy Spirit doesn’t abandon Jesus: Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit, our reading says. The Holy Spirit goes with Jesus. He is never alone.
But he does face temptation. He is tempted by the devil for 40 days… we see but only three of the temptations! And those three are pretty big ones. Which makes me wonder if the devil worked up to them, or if the temptations were random.
Temptation is a curious thing.
These three temptations that we are privy to have been studied for a number of years and interpreted and re-interpreted again and again. The bread, or gluttony, or self-indulgence; the power, or avarice, or self-aggrandizement; and the leap of faith, or hubris, or self-serving religious identity are all examples of the devil’s attempts to get Jesus to go down a particular path of life that is self-determined and self-described – with more than a little prompting from the devil.
And the devil is a cunning and charming character. Knowledgeable too.
The knowledge was what caught my attention this time.
Did you notice that both Jesus and the devil quote Scripture in this reading? In response to the temptations presented by the devil, Jesus quotes from the scriptures as the basis of his life and living. But it is apparently not enough to simply know which Scripture to respond with because, the devil, who quotes from Psalm 91 in the next temptation, also seems to know Scripture.
I like this image of scripture duelling Jesus and devil, out in the wilderness, quoting from the written wisdom, sentences fired off as the ammunition of accusation and defence. How very human.
And yet, the devil’s knowledge is flawed. As Lutherans, we might pick up on why the knowledge that uses the Scriptures as accusation and for the use of self-directed gain is flawed. “Scripture must be read rightly in light of God’s nature and the life envisioned for God’s people.”
The Gospel always points to God’s action.
So, we find ourselves at the beginning of our Lenten journey. For some, it began a few days ago as the ashes were placed on our foreheads. For some, it begins today. And we are faced with the story of temptations.
Which gets us all thinking about our own temptations – the things that tempt us in life. Some people make a point of giving up something for Lent. Most of these things are tied to indulgence, or avarice, or hubris – they are the temptations that are self-determining, and perhaps more damaging, attempts to move us away from God.
An individuals experience with temptation may influence a person’s future experiences, predict future possibilities, and outcomes. Those outcomes can be positive or negative. I think we focus far too often on the negative. We focus on the things we know we shouldn’t do. We focus on resisting the temptations that break down our confidence, our self-worth.
I think it’s time to start focusing on the positive experiences that temptation can provide. Most specifically, our ability to note when temptation is seeking to pull us away from God and away from a positive worth, and we actively choose, instead, to point to the gift and the grace of our identity and worth formed through God. And in the case of today’s gospel, I would hazard to say that Jesus’ experience with temptation influences not only Jesus’s future possibilities and experiences, but also ours.
You see, the Gospel always points us to God’s action.
We are claimed children of God.
We are all filled with the Holy Spirit. Wherever we walk – bright trodden pathways of the faithful or the chaotic mess of the wilderness – God goes with us. We are never alone.
Because he is filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus is able to turn from the temptation to turn a stone into bread for himself, only to later turn two fish and five loaves into a meal that feeds five thousand hungry people. Jesus turns from the temptation to be a king with incredible power through the devil’s gain to the path of the cross where he will pour out his life for the sake of a world in need. And Jesus ascends, not by the power of angels rescuing him, but by defeating and overcoming death so that all might have eternal life, faithful to a God that sees through the crap and speaks the truth to each of us.
We can ignore the numerous things that attempt to tempt us away from God because God is with us, and through God, all things are possible. And when we remember that: the devil is powerless and leaves us be.
Let us pray:
Thank you that you do not leave us empty handed. As we journey through the wilderness of our lives, empower us through the Holy Spirit to be led to focus on you. Teach us the truth of your love for us through the Gospel, and help us to lean on you when we grow weary and uncertain. Help us to continue to choose to do the right things for the right reasons – give us what it is that will sustain us through these forty days of Lent. Amen.
- Karoline Lewis. “Filled with the Holy Spirit.” Dear Working Preacher. Working Preacher.org
- David Lose. “Lent 1C: Identity Theft.” Dear Partner. …in the Meantime
- Ruth Anne Reese. “Commentary on Luke 4:1-13.” Preach This Week. Working Preacher.org
 Webb, J.R. (Sep 2014). Incorporating Spirtuality into Psychology of temptation: Conceptualization, measurement, and clinical implications. Spirtuality in Clinical Practice. 1.3. PP: 231-241 as printed on Wikipedia.
 Webb, J.R. (Sep 2014). Incorporating Spirtuality into Psychology of temptation: Conceptualization, measurement, and clinical implications. Spirtuality in Clinical Practice. 1.3. PP: 231-241, as printed on Wikipedia.