“And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil.
And he ate nothing during those days. And when they were ended, he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.'”
And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'”
And he took him to Jerusalem and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.'” And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.
It’s Lent again – that time when the merriment of the Christmas season and the January holidays most definitely comes to a crashing holt as we enter that traditional period of sombre self-assessment leading up to Easter.
I appreciate, of course, that you can’t go on partying forever but I did feel a bit short-changed this year, having Ash Wednesday (the first day of Lent) fall on my birthday. Even so, as I say, you can’t go on partying forever, and I accept indeed that now is the time to step back a bit from the revelry, just as it’s time to step back a bit in our Gospel reading today, to revisit Jesus’ temptations.
If you’ve been following our readings over recent weeks we have been pushing our way relentlessly through the Gospel of Luke. We’ve gone from Jesus being born to Him being circumcised, to His baptism, the launching of His ministry, to amazing miracles and good news to the poor, but now we take a step back to the beginning of Luke chapter 4 where Jesus is being tempted.
And that makes sense, I think, from the point of view of the church year, because it’s Lent, and hence an appropriate time to slow down a bit. It may be less obvious though why Luke the Gospel writer (who I assume didn’t frame his narrative around the church year) chose to insert this story where he did in his Gospel, for it comes as something of an anti-climax.
I was trying to think of a good Lenten story to tell today to lighten the mood somewhat and the only one that came to mind was that one given me some years ago by an elderly gentleman in an RSL club. He told me how he’d found an old lamp while cleaning up in his garage. He said he’d tried to give the lamp a bit of a polish and, lo and behold, the most beautiful genie suddenly appeared before him. The genie said, “I’ve come to give you super sex!” He said, “I told her, ‘I think I’d better take the soup,'”
I thought that story had a Lenten feel about it and that it was strangely relevant to our Gospel reading this morning, as we’ve got so many dramatic events taking place in these early chapters of the Gospel of Luke and yet somehow today we got the soup!
For look at the sequence of the stories we get in the opening chapters of Luke:
Jesus is born
Jesus is presented in the temple
Jesus is baptised
Jesus prepares to launch His ministry
And then they’re followed by Jesus is tempted.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Luke might as well have included ‘Jesus has breakfast’ or ‘Jesus visit’s the men’s room’. For being tempted is something that happens to all of us, every day! Why bother mentioning the experience of being tempted in the middle of this dramatic sequence of events? Why bother mentioning Jesus’ temptations at all? Were Jesus’ temptations really all that different from anybody else’s?
Now the knee-jerk reaction of course is to say ‘of course they were. Jesus’ temptations were entirely unique’, and I appreciate that the dramatic dialogues with the Devil may not be familiar landscape to us, and yet I have heard plenty of people describe their own struggles with temptation in similar terms, and I myself am not above depicting my own internal battles in terms of them being bouts with the Devil, for indeed, Jesus is not the only one who has to battle the Devil.
The extreme context of these confrontations may seem unique though . Jesus does battle with the Devil after 40 days without food, and that is something outside of the experience of most of us. If our old friend Father Elias were still with us though he would be humbly smiling at this point as he has completed a 40-day fast on two separate occasions if I remember.
I don’t remember him telling me whether anything particularly extreme happened to him after 40 days. In Jesus’ case of course He seems to have the mother of all temptation experiences such that we might expect, having survived these temptations he would never be tempted to do anything inappropriate ever again, but that turns out not to be the way it works.
There’s no suggestion in this temptation story that this was the only time Jesus was tempted, as if a whole life-time of temptations were squeezed in to this one tumultuous event, after which He was entirely above all temptation. No! Indeed, how much later is it that we find Jesus was shouting at Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!” as He experiences again one of the same temptations He’d already dealt with in today’s Gospel story.
These wilderness temptations are by no means the end of Jesus’ struggles, and indeed, our narrative in Luke 4 concludes with these words: “when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.” (Luke 4:13) In other words, temptation was going to return to Jesus, just as it does for all of us. So, again I ask, ‘what is it that makes Jesus’ temptations so special?’
Well it’s not the content of the temptations, for they are in fact almost archetypal forms of normal human temptation!
It was the great Jesuit priest and psychologist, John Powell, who first drew my attention to the fact that the first two temptations of Jesus (as outlined here in Luke 4) square rather neatly with the two most famous theories of human motivation, as detailed by the world’s greatest personality theorists.
Jesus’ first temptation (to end His hunger by turning the stones into bread) seems like a straightforward application of Sigmund Freud’s ‘pleasure principle’ – that all human behaviour is determined by the desire to increase pleasure and decrease pain.
It’s a pretty simple theory (even if Freud had to travel a rather complex route to reach it) as it seeks to explain human behaviour through reference to our basic bodily desires (for food, water, sex, etc.) and in Jesus’ first temptation His battle is both with the Devil and with his own natural bodily needs – something we are all familiar with.
Similarly, the second temptation Jesus deals with – to have power over all the kingdoms of the world – is remarkably reminiscent of Alfred Adler’s theory that most human behaviour is motivated by the individual’s lust for power.
Those weren’t Adler’s words exactly. He spoke more in terms of our all-consuming desire to be ‘somebodies’ rather than ‘nobodies’ in this world. Either way, Jesus is again being tempted by something that tempts us all.
The last temptation – to throw yourself off a cliff – doesn’t dovetail as neatly into these mainline theories of human motivation though, frankly, it is the temptation that I find the most personally unnerving.
I find I can’t mention this last temptation without seeing images of people I have loved who have (sadly) given in to this exact temptation.
I appreciate that in Jesus’ case the temptation is framed in terms of His being able to expect angels to lift Him up if He does jump off a cliff, so that He won’t actually get hurt but frankly I don’t think that’s all that different from what goes through the mind of everyone who has struggled with the temptation to jump.
It’s always about taking the ‘easy way out’, and that is exactly how it is put to Jesus too – ‘Take the easy way down. God will take care of you!’
At any rate, my point is that with this and the previous two temptations, what we are dealing with is not outside our normal realm of human experience at all. On the contrary, Jesus is tempted just as we are tempted. Both in form and in content Jesus is travelling the well-worn path that we all have trodden.
There is nothing particularly unique about the kinds of things Jesus is tempted with nor the context in which these temptations take place. So what is it then that makes these temptation narratives so unique and so worthy of mention in Luke’s Gospel?
I’m guessing that most of you have already answered this question in your minds – namely, that what is unique in Jesus’ wilderness temptations is that He actually overcomes temptation whereas we regularly do not. Jesus overcomes temptation, beats the Devil at his game, and shows us that sin and human weakness do not have the final say in the way the world is going. But … I’m not sure that’s really the answer either?
Well it has to be a part of the answer, I suppose. Certainly the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews rejoiced in the fact that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15)
Even so, I wonder if it’s ever really that easy to make a clear distinction between temptation and sin.
There’s one particularly lovely boy in our Youth Centre who told me that he gave up his job as a security guard at a local fashion outlet because he found he couldn’t stop starting at the patrons. He told me that he’d been brought up to believe that ‘if you look once, that’s okay but if you look twice’
Now the obvious response to that is to say, “well bother, you were tempted but you didn’t do anything about it. Congratulations!” But from this guy’s point of view the being tempted was itself a sin of sorts, and who am I to try to correct him on that when Jesus Himself did say that those who commit adultery in their hearts (ie. are tempted even if they don’t do anything about it) are just as wicked as those who give in to temptation!
Now I’m not suggesting that there aren’t some useful distinctions to make between sin and temptation and self-control and human weakness but I’m convinced that it is all rather complex, just as I’m convinced that Jesus’ superiority over human weakness is not the only reason (or even the chief reason) that these wilderness temptations are given such priority of place in the New Testament.
Indeed, I believe the reason that the Gospel writers were so keen to portray Jesus as being tempted in their narratives was not because there was anything particularly unique or special about the Jesus temptations, about their context or even Jesus’ response to them, but rather what made this experience so special was that it was in fact so ordinary.
We are tempted. Jesus was tempted. Jesus was tempted by the same things and in the same way that we get tempted. We struggle with these things all the time. Jesus struggled too. And yet the Good News that emanates from this wilderness story is that Jesus was not destroyed by His struggles, which means there’s hope for all of us! For the struggle we see Jesus have in the wilderness is the same struggle we all share in.
The concept of wandering through the wilderness predates Jesus of course. The Israelites wandered through the wilderness for 40 years, and there is no doubt that Luke the Gospel writer is echoing back to that ancient wilderness wandering in the way he describes Jesus’ experience.
Our spiritual forefathers struggled out there in the wilderness, and their struggles led them around in circles to the point where (what should have been) a 40-day trip became a 40-year nightmare, yet Jesus shows us that there is a way out of the desert.
The struggle is the same, His temptations are the same ones that are familiar to us all and yet we do not need to be destroyed by them. There is a way out of the desert. Jesus has walked this way ahead of us and is keen to lead us home. Amen.
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, February 2010.