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)

How Jesus Was Tempted as We Are

field1Mark tells us that immediately after his baptism, the Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness where he was tempted, or tested, by Satan.

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark tells us nothing else about the testing so we do not get a set of three drawn-out temptations to analyze. We are left with the bare fact of testing. What night the testing have consisted of in addition to, or underlying, the longer accounts?

René Girard has given us a new and profound way to understand “Satan” in scripture by noting that the word skandalon (the Satan) literally means a stumbling block. Girard has demonstrated the ways humans become stumbling blocks to one another when they become conflicted. (Satan is well known to be a sower of discord.) In this model, it takes at least two to have a stumbling block, so how could Jesus, alone in the wilderness, have dealt with conflict unless he was fighting a supernatural creature? I, for one, know that when I am alone, many other people are still with me, particularly anybody with whom I happen to have a conflictual relationship. In fact, being alone during a time of conflict is a great way to become obsessed with a rival—OR—to let go and listen to a deeper voice free of scandal, such as Jesus’ heavenly Abba.

As soon as Jesus began his public ministry, it was immediately clear that he knew scripture and the tradition of his people very deeply. Many biblical scholars suggest that Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness recapitulates the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Surely Jesus would have been deeply mindful of that journey: his people’s gratitude for the escape from slavery, their hopes for the future, but also their violent social conflicts and rebellions. These events in the journey would have given him much to reflect on as to how humans make themselves stumbling blocks to others.

Jesus also demonstrated from the start an acute awareness of what many of the Jewish leaders were like, surely enough to give him strong premonitions of how they might react to the religious vision inspired by the heavenly voice at his baptism and strengthened in the silence of the wilderness. He was most likely tempted to rehearse his arguments with the elders and think of ways to get the better of them. To overcome this challenge, he would need to find a way to interact with these leaders in a non-rivalrous way so as to embody the non-rivalrous character of his heavenly Abba. More important, he would have to begin facing possible outcomes of his ministry in the face of the Jewish and Roman leadership in Palestine. Since all of us have to deal with the small and great conflicts that tempt us to become stumbling blocks to others, Jesus was himself, as the author of Hebrews said, tempted in every way as we are. The uncanny way Jesus managed to deflect conflicts with the Jewish leaders away from escalations and, at the end, his willingness to die rather than use violence to save himself, show us that the Spirit, after driving Jesus into the wilderness, had indeed strengthened him to absorb the nonviolent ways of his heavenly Abba for the sake of our salvation.

For an introduction to René Girard, see my essay Violence and the Kingdom of God.

Stumbling blocks in the Desert: the Temptations of Jesus

freshBread1When Jesus went out into the desert after his baptism, he became aware of the fundamental temptations he would have to fight throughout his life. James Alison helps us understand the social nature of these temptations by pointing out that “devil” (diabolous) means “divisive obstacle.” Such an obstacle requires two or more people to stumble over it. That is temptations are unavoidably social.

The social implications of the first temptation are spelled out in John 6 where Jesus feeds the multitude in the desert. The feeding is a sign of God’s willing of abundance (see Divinely Created Abundance) but bread, like any material good, exists in a social context.  The temptation presented here is to align bread with economic and political power. The people who have been fed fall into this temptation and try to seize Jesus and make him king (the glory of all the kingdoms of the word–see Ignominous Glory). Jesus had to resist the temptation, go off alone, and then return to preach about bread from heaven, bread that is a gift from God.

In the temptations, the devil taunts Jesus as being the “son of god.” Likewise, when Jesus casts demons out of people possessed by them, the demons call Jesus “the son of god.” Thinking back to the attempt to seize Jesus and make him king, Jesus’ ordering those he has healed to tell nobody makes a lot of sense. Jesus was focused on healing those who had need. The demons tried to politicize the healings to make them part of a thrust for social power. This dimension is particularly apparent in the name of the demon possessing the man of Gadara: Legion.

When Jesus predicts his imminent suffering and death, Peter is called a “satan” when he tries to dissuade Jesus from following that course. As with “devil,” the word “satan” means a stumbling block. Lacking support from his closest followers could only have multiplied Jesus’ difficulty in holding the course laid out by his heavenly father. How much better would it be to fling himself off the roof of the temple and force his heavenly father’s hand? The devil was right to quote the verses from Psalm 92. God would bear up the son of man, but not until the son of man had truly and deeply put himself into the unforced hands of the heavenly father by allowing himself to be handed over into the hands of angry sinful humans.

Like Jesus, we must be alert to where the stumbling blocks are in our relationships with other people and with God. Like Jesus, we must learn that the stumbling blocks are too heavy for human hands to lift and toss away. Like Jesus, we must turn to our heavenly father who is always waiting for us to ask him to toss the stumbling blocks away.