Living With Jesus’ Temptations

Every year, the first Sunday of Lent has us reflect on Jesus’ testing in the desert. In two of the three years, the Gospel narrates the three temptations presented by the devil. We have been over this terrain many times, but since we struggle with temptation and fall, each year we need to see what insight we might get from the way Jesus dealt with the three temptations. With the help of Luke’s ordering of the temptations, it is easier, compared with Matthew, to see the first two temptations as focused primarily on our relationship with the material world while the third is focused on our relationship with God.

This year, I realized that in the first temptation, it is the devil who offered the stones as raw material for bread. This ties into the second temptation where the devil claims that the kingdoms of this world are his to give. If the devil believes he owns the kingdoms, it is small wonder he thinks he owns the stones in the desert. So who gave the stones and the kingdoms to the devil? God? Hardly, as Jesus makes clear in his reply. The only other possibility is that humans have given the kingdoms and stones to the devil. What does that say about us? I can’t help but think of Jesus’ rhetorical question: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Mt. 7: 9) But when we think of all the carbs, fat, sugar, and other junk that goes into so much food these days, aren’t we practically feeding each other stones? This thought leads to the suggestion that in offering the kingdoms and their authority, the devil is offering mountains of stones that threaten to bury us. And with the overwhelming social injustices in our country, not least the racist system that entangles all of us, our social relationships consist of throwing stones at each other rather than offering each other wholesome bread.

The first temptation is closely linked to the feedings in the wilderness narrated six times in the four Gospels. Significantly, Jesus does not pick up stones and turn them into bread; he takes a few loaves of bread and makes many loaves to feed the people. Jesus is not concerned with feeding himself; he is feeding others, and he is using the initial generosity of the disciples (or the boy with some loaves and fish in John) and extending that generosity. Generosity creates abundance while parsimoniousness creates scarcity. There is much we need besides bread alone to live on, and one of them is the willingness to share with others. The same principle applies to our relationships with kingdoms and their authorities. The stones that the devil offers feature sacrificial practices where the well-being of many is sacrificed for the benefit of the few. That is certainly the case where maximizing the bottom line in a business becomes an absolute value to the exclusion of everything else. It is tempting here to wax eloquently about the dictator of a certain country who has unleashed an invasion of another country, but we must not let that distract us from how we ourselves handle social and power relationships.

This brings us to the third temptation. As a promise of care and protection, Psalm 91 is among the most comforting in the Bible. That the devil should quote it to pervert the assurance that the angels will bear us up lest one dash a foot against a stone (Ps. 91: 12) is especially painful. When Jesus replies with Deuteronomy 6: 16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he gets to the heart of the matter. Yes, we are to trust in God’s providence but not in a way that focuses on self rather than God. We ourselves put God to the test in the same way if we assume we can do what we want and God will protect us from the consequences. The late Tom Truby, a good friend of mine, said in a sermon on this Gospel that our ecological situation is an example of this presumption. The demonic voice says: “Go ahead, jump into environmental free fall, nothing will happen to you.” With this attitude, we are testing God, expecting God to clean up our messes. Instead, we may dry up all the drinking water on the planet.

There came a time when Jesus indeed fell into the pit of death and needed to trust his heavenly Abba and the angels to catch him and raise him up. But far from self-centeredly making a spectacle of himself, Jesus gave his life for the sake of us all. If we think and care deeply for others, we will enter difficult and sometimes dangerous situations for their sake. This is what the psalm verse is about. God and the angels will protect us but, as with Jesus, the protection does not necessarily leave us unscathed in this life. After all, we are venturing into the Paschal Mystery. As material goods such as food and our social relationships need to be focused on the good of others, our dependence on God’s protection must be focused even more deeply in the same way. As Jesus depended on his heavenly Abba and the angels to sustain him during the temptations in the desert and throughout his life and death, so we also must depend on Jesus and his heavenly Abba.

Rivalry and Competition (Or, the World Serious)

The time of the World Serious, as Bullwinkle and others called it, is a good time to reflect on why someone like me who doesn’t like rivalry is a baseball fan. I was raised in the Detroit era when Al Kaline was a star, so maybe that has something to do with it. Obviously, I can’t expect God to favor one team or another. More obviously, we need to keep games in perspective. Winning the World Serious is not as important increasing social justice for economically challenged people I have come to see a distinction between rivalry and competition. Rivalry is centered on the rival, making the rival an idol, in an attempt to win at the rival’s (and other people’s) expense. Competition can be undergirded by a deeper cooperation. For example, competitors in a game collaborate to create a well-played game that is fun for the participants, such as playing tennis or golf with friends, or playing professional baseball games that give fans pleasure along with some agony when my team blows a big lead in the last inning. Perhaps this distinction is of some use in economic issues as well. Capitalist theory tends to encourage completion as beneficial to the public good because companies that try to have the best product at the best price will deliver quality to the consumer. It is hard to see how as many useful and fun innovations would have been created without the spur of competition. I am skeptical, though, about Adam Smith’s contention that an “invisible hand” makes selfish motifs contribute to a sound and fair economy. Divine Providence surely is about a benevolent God fostering divine benevolence in humanity. However, the line between constructive competition and destructive rivalry can be very thin. Baseball games sometimes descend into brawlgames where pitchers throwing at opposing batters tit-for-tat. Likewise, competition can be cutthroat when companies only want to destroy other companies. I could go on with quite a rant about the toxic atmosphere of American politics when politicians should be collaborating to discern how to work for the public good, but aren’t. If it is all about winning, then it is toxic rivalry. If it’s about having fun with others, then it is healthy competition. When we fall into the middle, we have some spiritual work to do.  We need to remember the words of St. Paul that we don’t run for a wreathe that will wither, but for a prize that never fades.