Temptation is testing. There are some famous points in the Bible that deal with temptation, the most obvious being Adam and Eve in the Garden. Now what’s interesting is that in Luke, right before this reading we have this week, Luke lists the genealogy of Jesus, and it ends with Adam. How did Adam deal with temptation? He failed, decided he knew better than God, and was expelled from paradise. Jesus, who is sometimes termed “the new Adam,” is not going to fail, and through this victory, humanity is going to be redeemed.
The obvious parallel to Jesus being tested for forty days is the Israelites being tested and punished for 40 years in the wilderness. So wilderness would be the next key symbol. And this is consistent with the comparison between Jesus and Moses that is a feature of Luke. Moses’ leadership was tested in the wilderness; Jesus’s fitness to be the true Messiah will be tested. Here the wilderness is where you can not only meet God but meet Satan. John lived and preached in the wilderness. So the wilderness is a place of trial—and temptation.
All 3 synoptic gospels record this temptation—it is found in Matthew 4:1-1, Mark 1:12-13, and even Hebrews 4:15. In the gospel stories, the temptations all occur at the start of Jesus’ public ministry, which makes sense. You wouldn’t sell a prototype aircraft unless there had been testing to make sure it is safe and performs according to expectation. What makes Luke’s account different? Luke begins and ends the action of his gospel in the Temple, and that is also where Jesus’ temptations ends up, after Satan whisks him away to the top of the Temple. There are no angels ministering to Jesus here. Also Luke does not have Jesus taken up to a mountain to see all the kingdoms—in Luke, mountains are where one meets God, not Satan.
So why were each of these things so tempting? A temptation only works if it is something we would actually be able to do. Jesus COULD turn stones into bread. Jesus COULD have seized power as an earthly ruler—and in fact, that’s what many of his disciples, including possibly Judas, expected him to do—and they were gravely disappointed when he refused the role of political revolutionary against Rome. Jesus COULD have done tricks with the expectation that God would save him from harm.
Those three temptations the devil is going to present Jesus with are three alternative histories or paths, shortcuts 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 the temptation drawn 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 today’s Psalm, 91:11-12, the very words that ancient Jews inscribed on magic amulets used by people in danger, particularly pregnant women—“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 the people murmured against God, and God had Moses make water flow by striking a rock with his staff.
The devil gives up temporarily here, but not for good. As we enter Lent, we have to remember that temptation is all around, and seduces by offering the easy way, the shortcut. It’s not the big things that usually tempt us—it’s the little ones. We are tempted most when we rationalize taking a shortcut as a way to make things easier for ourselves, even if others would be hurt. All it costs us is a little piece of our integrity. All it costs us is deciding that we know better what is good for us in the short-term versus sacrificing now for the sake of the long-term. Lent calls us to trust God to be God—and to know that God is with us through trials and temptations. Deliver us from shortcuts; save us from the time of testing.
(This was first published on Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul for February 14, 2016.)