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.

The Beloved Son on the Mountain

Transfigurazione_(Raffaello)_September_2015-1aAt the end of Epiphany, we celebrate the Transfiguration of Our Lord to prepare for Lent. The vision of the glorified Christ is supposed to cheer us up for the grim days of penance and the grimmer days of following Jesus through his Passion. The Transfiguration also prepares us for Easter as it gives us a foretaste of the glorified body of the risen Lord.

The climax of the Transfiguration is the bright cloud overshadowing the disciples and the heavenly voice saying: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Mt. 17: 5) These same words were said to Jesus at the time of his baptism. These words of encouragement from Psalm 2 strengthened Jesus for his immediate trial in the desert when he was tempted. This time, they strengthen Jesus before his final trial at the time of his Passion. The royal psalm also has much of the same foreshadowing as the “kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed.” (Ps. 2: 2) This is exactly what happened to Jesus.

When the disciples heard the voice from the bright cloud, they “were overcome with fear.” What were they afraid of? Was it just the power of a voice from Heaven? That could account for the fear. But maybe there is more to it. The disciples had been following Jesus for some time but they often failed to understand him, not least when Jesus predicted his imminent suffering and death. Were these predictions giving the disciples second thoughts about Jesus? If so, the heavenly affirmation of Jesus would have been frightening if it was Jesus’ willingness to suffer that made Jesus the beloved Son with whom God was well pleased. Worse, this could mean that being willing to follow Jesus through the same suffering and death was the way for them to be sons with whom God was well pleased. The glory revealed on the mountain was a powerful encouragement, but the kind of encouragement that must have left the disciples shaken, as it should leave us shaken.

Lenten penances are small potatoes compared to the willingness to suffer if the kings and rulers and all other people should rage together and rise against the Lord and those who follow the Lord’s anointed. May the glory of the Lord’s Resurrection strengthen us with the deep life that casts out fear so that we can bring peace into the world of strife and rage.

On Living with Temptation

altarDistance1The temptations of Jesus in Matthew and Luke are stylized accounts of three temptations that may not have happened in so neat a fashion in real life, but are clearly meant to be comprehensive of the fundamental temptations that challenge all humans, Jesus included. Jesus’ responses to the three temptations, which would have been particularly strong during his forty days of solitude in the wilderness, are a guide to dealing with the same temptations in our own lives.

The first temptation, that Jesus should turn stones into bread, can stand for all sensual temptations. It is surely not a sin to satisfy one’s hunger but it is a sin to be focused on physical sustenance to the neglect of all else, to make god our belly. (Phil. 3: 19) The devil’s proposal puts bread front and center, which sparks the competitive tendencies of humans to seek more material goods for the sake of having more material goods than others. Jesus’ reply puts bread in a wider context, implying what Matthew spells out, that we not only need bread but “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt. 4:4) Within this broader context, bread is provided in the wilderness by God as it was to the Israelites in their desert journey after escaping from Egypt. When bread is a gift from God, then it should also be a gift between humans as well.

Lust for power is often thought to be the greatest human temptation, as Matthew suggests in his ordering of the temptations, but Luke makes it the second greatest temptation. We might think that the devil’s offering Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” as being out of our league, but all of us tend to seek power in our own social settings. That is, we try to build up what sociologists call “social capital.” This is what Jesus was warning us about in the Gospel for Ash Wednesday when he told us not to fast or give alms “like the hypocrites” who compete for human admiration. (Matthew 6) In seeking social capital, we try to build our little kingdoms piece by piece. As with the first temptation, Jesus responds with the larger picture grounded in God by alluding to Deuteronomy 6: 13: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” That is, we should seek our social capital first with God rather than with humans. By worshiping and serving God, we will then serve other people rightly and thus gain social capital in less competitive ways.

The third temptation is the most subtle and the most dangerous. The first two temptations proposed substitutes for focusing primarily on God. The third temptation focuses on God. The devil quotes Psalm 91 to assure Jesus that if he threw himself from the pinnacle of the temple, Jesus’ heavenly Abba would surely save him, as promised in the psalm. But the focus on God is distorted in what amounts to an attempt to manipulate God, which would make God a competitor among human competitors. Catching this distortion, Jesus clarifies the right focus on God by saying that one should not put God to the test. The distortion of the third temptation is subtle because it is based on the profound truth that God cares for each of us and takes care of us. But to assume that we can do anything, no matter how heedless and reckless because God will take care of us is presumption, putting God to the test. If there is anything the prophets have taught us, it is that God allows us to live with the consequences of our choices. Otherwise, what meaning would free will have?

The imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our frailty as mortal creatures. The temptations of Christ, the same temptations we experience daily, remind us of our moral and spiritual frailty. If Jesus had to remain mindful of his heavenly Abba and guard against distortions in that relationship, we should do no less. Let us take comfort that, as the author of Hebrews said, precisely by being tempted in every way as we are, Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. (Heb. 4: 15, 12: 2)

Benedict’s Easter

BenedictChurchStatue1An early Easter throws many things awry, not least the saints’ calendar. St. Benedict’s day is normally celebrated on March 21, but this year, it was transferred to Monday after Easter Week. Thinking about St. Benedict in terms of Easter reminds me of what he said about Lent in Chapter 49 of his Rule.

Why would we want to think about Lent when we have just survived it and are now celebrating Easter? Well, Benedict famously thinks we should practice lent all year round. That means we should practice lent during Easter too. And here we thought we had Lent over with for a year! So why would we want to go back to Lent? For one thing, Benedict thinks that we should “wash away the negligences of other times” during Lent. That’s really a good thing to do all the time, rather than waiting for Lent to do it. Benedict also says that we should “look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.” If it’s Easter already, what do we need to look forward to it? But when we realize Benedict wasn’t thinking about looking forward to jelly beans and chocolate, it becomes clear that Benedict has an eschatological yearning in mind.

Longing for Easter, of course, is yearning to actually live the life of the Resurrection. Benedict expresses this Easter yearning at the end of the Prolog to his Rule when he says that we shall run with “our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” Sounds like a good thing to have all year round. It is this Easter Joy that Benedict says we should run toward, not walk and certainly not dawdle. Benedict’s admonition to long for Easter helps us understand why we should run towards Easter even though Easter is already here. It is one thing for Easter to arrive in the course of days. It is another thing for God to inspire us with the life of Jesus’ Resurrection all year round. It is yet another thing for us to be inspired by the Resurrected life of Jesus. Washing away our negligences and running rather than wasting any more time helps us to be inspired by the Resurrected life by opening our hearts to the “inexpressible delight of love.”

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Turning on Ash Wednesday

altarDistance1As we begin the season of penitence on Ash Wednesday, we do well to put penance in a context beyond our individual selves. René Girard’s concept of mimetic desire tells us that our “individual selves” are merely an illusion; our desires are unavoidably caught up in the desires of other people. (see Human See, Human Want) With that being the case, cleaning up our “own” desires simply does not do the job.  Instead, we must clean up the desires we share with others, and that means relating to others.

Early in his great poem “As Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot zeroes in on healing shared desire by following the first lines about hoping to turn his life: “Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope/I no longer strive to strive towards such things.” That is, the tenth commandment about coveting includes coveting the God-given gifts of others and their insights. If we turn from our entanglements with the desires of others, we will affirm and rejoice in their gifts and insights and in doing so, will awaken to the gifts and insights that we have within us to give to others.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus follows his teaching on renouncing mimetic rivalry (turn the other cheek, etc.) with a solemn caution against using “good” actions such as repenting, fasting, almsgiving, and praying as occasions for competing with others so as to desire gifts and insights of others.  If we practice piety “in order to be seen by others,” then our piety is locked in our competition with others and not on God. That is why God cannot reward such piety which isn’t piety at all. The Desert Monastics also found themselves falling into the trap of competitive asceticism. On of the reasons Benedict, in his Rule, asks his monastics to tell the abbot about their Lenten disciplines is to put the practice of each into the context of building community. All this is compiling treasure on earth just as much as fattening our bank accounts.

The alternative to “praying in secret” may seem to be individualistic but it is really a matter of being an individual before God, which is a different thing. (An individualist flaunts his or her individuality over/against others—another thrust in a life of fencing.) Rather, “praying in secret” grounds each of us in God so that we can rejoice in God’s giftedness of others and ourselves. More important, it is precisely in the midst of these admonitions against flaunting our piety that Jesus teaches us the Our Father which reaches its climax with the petition that God forgive us as we forgive others.

As we turn again back to God, let us look at the turnings we must do in our relationships, realizing that unhealthiness in our relationships is not the same thing as the unhealthiness we may see in ourselves as individuals, although there is a relationship between the two. With T.S. Eliot, let us not even try to want the gifts of others but instead turn to the gifts we have to give to others.

For more about Lent in the Rule of St. Benedict in dialogue with Girard, read Tools for Peace