This morning’s gospel lesson is a familiar one – the temptations of Jesus. We might think of those silly cartoons with a little devil sitting on someone’s shoulder offering those bad choices – and a little angel sitting on the other encouraging better choices.
It’s always a challenge to hear a familiar story and let it speak in new ways. Furthermore, three gospels tell us that Jesus went into the desert and was tempted. Yet, each gospel, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, tells the story differently.
“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.” I learned this week that our translations that speak of temptation are probably misleading or inaccurate. The Greek word is used elsewhere in the gospels when people were trying to test Jesus. Luke’s gospel is also unique in that he speaks of Jesus as “full of the Holy Spirit.” The temptation stories follow the accounts of Jesus’ baptism. Luke’s story emphasizes that the gift of the Spirit was more than an external gift. The Spirit had descended from heaven and become an indwelling presence in Jesus.
“If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” “If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here.”
Now the author of the gospel tells us that Jesus faced “temptation” or “tests” the entire forty days that he was in the wilderness. Yet, it was at the end of the forty days when, perhaps, he was most vulnerable, that he faced these three particular attempts to test him. So, what was the test that the devil was trying to accomplish?
Scholars suggest that the devil was trying to trick Jesus to embrace a different version of who the Messiah was to be. The devil encourages Jesus to embrace a vision of privilege, power, and self-protection. “Command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” The Messiah should have all his needs and wants satisfied. “Worship me and I will give you all these kingdoms.” The Messiah should be able to exercise his agenda from a position of power. “Throw yourself off – and the angels will bear you up.” How could God’s will be accomplished without keeping the Messiah safe? When Jesus resisted the previous tests by quoting scripture, the devil, himself, turned to scripture to bolster his argument. It is a reminder that scripture can easily be used or misused.
I always think that this story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness and Jerusalem tells us not about a once and for all conflict, but about conflict that will continue to arise during his ministry. He was constantly challenged by those around him, including those who loved him, to embrace a different understanding of who he was. He was asked to be the powerful deliverer who would drive out the hated Romans. He was asked to be the miracle worker who would heal and feed on command. The competing images of who he was expected to be never left. They persisted until his very death.
A fresh, for me, interpretation of this story suggested that we are to read ourselves into the story not as Jesus, but as the devil who tries to trick him into embracing a different understanding of who the Messiah was to be. We continue to ask God and Jesus to be molded according to our expectations and our desires rather than being informed by the God’s own revelation in scripture, the witness of the church throughout the ages, and the indwelling of the Spirit in our own lives. Of course, this isn’t necessarily an easy thing! The devil used scripture itself to present an alternative vision or understanding of what the Messiah was to be about. We know that scripture is continually used to present to our own world visions of God that injure, harm, belittle, threaten, and engender fear in the hearers. The church, too, throughout the ages, has often presented to the world a vision of God and a vision of Jesus that is bound up with the violence and the prejudices of the world.
We treat God like Satan treats God, the scholars suggested. “I’ll believe in God if I win the powerball.” “If I win the powerball, then I will give away 50% of my winnings.” Or there is the perennial question, “If God exists, why is there suffering? You should be able to pray and God will take care of the suffering. God will wipe it out.” “I’m a good person. God will take care of me!”
We could say that Jesus, the Messiah, is impervious to these misunderstandings, to these unrealistic prayers. But we’re speaking of the one who loves us. We know that sometimes, out of love, we make the wrong decisions when it comes to our loved ones. Parents indulge their children in ways that aren’t helpful. People stay in broken and abusive relationships because of love. Churches get caught up in destructive patterns because it is feared that speaking the truth will break the fragile fabric of community. At the training session I attended a week ago, we talked about churches that are held hostage by particular people who force their agenda on the entire body. “If we don’t act in accordance with their wishes,” the churches often say, “they will leave.” So the churches, like some families, persist in destructive brokenness.
A Lenten journey can be a journey of discernment. We need to discern who the Messiah is – apart from all the voices that would lead us astray, even the voices within our very selves. The disciples battled with their own expectations and hopes. At times those expectations and hopes prevented them from seeing and understanding who Jesus was.
The Lenten journey can also be one of discernment about who we are in relationship to God. Now, I said earlier, that we are not to read ourselves into the story as Jesus. We are more likely to be the devil. I had a seminary friend who, when we gathered, would often declare, “Get behind me, Satan!” when he was struggling with a choice or an attitude. It seemed to those of us who were his friends that he was too willing to externalize the threat, the conflict. Satan wasn’t some devil sitting on his shoulder, but his own inner self that was finding it hard to live as God’s child.
We may not be Jesus, but we can understand that, like Jesus, we are to live into a more complete way of being God’s beloved children. A scholar noted that this passage can teach us something about what sin is. When we refer to the story as the story of the temptations, we’re set up to understand sin as “sins,” particular acts or deeds. But sin is broader. Jesus was being tricked into embracing an identity that was not God given. We live in a world that bombards us with ways that we are to judge who we are. People are judged by their income, their appearance, their jobs, their race, their sexual orientation, their relationships, their education, their nationality …. the list can go on and on. They are told they matter – or that they don’t matter. They’re told they have worth – or that they’re worthless.
Sin could be understood as our unwillingness or inability to see ourselves through God’s eyes. “Who is it that God has called us to be?” is a good question for Lent. (It’s actually always a good question for those who call themselves Christian!) But in Lent we might ask what tests our sense of identity as committed Christians. What gets in the way of seeing ourselves as God’s beloved children? What competing claims do we allow to shape who it is we understand ourselves to be?
Jesus, throughout his ministry, was shaped by God’s call. He resisted every test that invited him to embrace a different vision, every test that competed with God’s naming of him as the Beloved child. His testing reminds us that he lived in a world with competing images – just as we do. His faithfulness has opened the door for us to live according to the way God sees us – as beloved children, made in the very image of God.