One of the things that struck me was an underlying theme of humility. The Deuteronomy reading was reminding the people that, even before they enter the promised land, they should never forget that times have not always been good. They should show gratitude and humility to God for making the good times possible. God is going to bless them. There have been difficult times in their past. Never forget that God has been with them, even when they themselves have tried to shake off God and tried to make their own wants and concerns the center of their attention.
That's a tough thing to keep in our minds, especially here in America. We are the land of "rugged individualism." We like to think that anything we get, we get because WE as individuals have earned it. We didn't succeed through anything but our own hard work and effort. Now, true, there is a corollary to this: we succeeded because God blessed us over others, and that is a real temptation, too. You know what I mean: athletes claiming that God gave them their victories, which implies that God gave the other team its defeat. This idea is a temptation, too-- one we must be vigilant not to let creep into our thinking. You hear this when you hear some televangelist claim that God has blessed us or cursed us every time the next natural disaster or man-made tragedy hits. Being blessed by God doesn't divide us into "winners" and "losers."
The Gospel reading also talks about this temptation to exalt the self. The devil tempts Jesus with all the trappings that would make him appear to be a "winner:" plenty of food, political power, reducing God's relationship with Jesus into something in which Jesus manipulated God and gains the upper hand. Any of these temptations would lead to wonderful things-- the hungry would be fed, Jesus would be a true King, God's existence would be proven! Jesus just needs to make HIMSELF the main show. Jesus just needs to be willing to take a few shortcuts, to make this "kingdom of God" thing match OUR expectations.
So why were each of these things so tempting? Fred Craddock and NT Wright have both made the important point that we are only tempted to do that which is within our power, and we justify giving into temptation because we judge the thing we are being tempted to do as good. Jesus had not yet engaged in his public ministry—this incident takes place before the reading of the Isaiah passage in the synagogue which was the subject three weeks ago during the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany. The devil is going to present Jesus with three alternative paths, paths which would appear to be capable of being used to achieve great good. Feeding the hungry by making loaves of bread pop up out of the stones scattered about? Having God’s son exercise political power and drive out all oppressors with their false gods? Having God prove himself? Wouldn’t all of these things be amazing?
But these are not what God has planned. God’s kingdom on earth will be established through different means—not according to what WE would want, but by establishing that “thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Jesus turns aside each temptation with scripture, including from today’s psalm, and even the devil quotes scripture in a great game of Biblical one-upmanship. Jesus’s source is Deuteronomy. In response to the temptation of bread, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 8:3—“He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
In response to the temptation of political power in exchange for worshipping the devil, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:13—“The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.”
In response to the temptation to test God, the devil quotes todays psalm, 91:11-12—“For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” Jesus responds with Deuteronomy 6:16—“Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah.” This refers to the incident in Exodus 17 where God, through Moses, made water flow from a stone.
The devil gives up temporarily here, but not for good. Temptation is always there. Always being humble and examining our motives helps us to overcome this temptation. Until an hour from now, when we will be tempted all over again.