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To be honest, I doubt that any of us have ever been confronted with those particular enticements anyway. Ours are more in line with the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden - the temptation to do something that kicks over the traces. A zillion generations have heard the tale, ever since some ancient Hebrew child asked a grandfather or grandmother why people can be so bad sometimes and got the response, "Well, let me tell you a story." Adam and Eve had it good. All they had to do was a little light gardening, no big deal. They were young and healthy. Interpreters of the story tell us that Adam and Eve walked around naked because they were innocent. One of my cyberfriends adds that they also walked around naked because they both had the kind of metabolism that burns calories like a bonfire. Which was a good thing, because just around the corner from the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was the tree of chocolate. Milk chocolate, white chocolate, dark chocolate, chocolate mint truffles with pecan and caramel innards - yep! Paradise. Adam and Eve had it all. They were in Eden.(2)
But they blew it. God said, "Don't eat the fruit"; they ate the fruit, and the rest is history. They might have been immortal. They might have stayed in the garden forever, but no. Their curiosity got the best of them. God gave them a test and they flunked. "You are dust, and to dust you shall return." That is the sentence God pronounced on them that day, and we have inherited it from them, along with their curiosity and a few other things.
But Adam and Eve are not our only ancestors. There is someone else who has claimed us as his kin, and it is his story that we focus on today. I am certain that the gospel writer was intentional in placing the story of the temptations immediately after Jesus' baptism and the voice from heaven declaring, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased." It is certainly true that no one has so far to fall as the one who is on top of the world. Ironically, we are most vulnerable when we feel most strong.
The story begins with Jesus being led to the wilderness to be tested by the devil. An aside here about the devil. In the New Testament, this evil cosmic being who opposes God is sometimes called "the devil" (diabolo, 37 times), other times "Satan" (satana, 36 times), and twice "the tempter" (peirazon); all three of these names are used in Matthew's version of the temptation scene. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew noun satan, which is best translated "adversary" (or sometimes "slanderer"), can be used of cosmic beings OR humans. By the time the New Testament was written, however, it usually refers to a single supernatural being who is at cross-purposes with God in the world.(3) In our generation, we are less likely to personalize evil and thus to excuse ourselves from wrong-doing by saying "the devil made me do it," than to recognize the existence of evil in the world and realize our complicity in maintaining it.
Back to the story. Jesus is out in the boonies for some rest and reflection. As part of his spiritual discipline he does without food. The Bible says it is a fast of 40 days and 40 nights (in scripture, 40 is not necessarily always literal - it can simply mean a long time). He is hungry and the temptation is offered to turn stones to bread. Jesus, you are incredibly powerful; use that power to meet your own needs. If you do not take care of yourself, you will not be able to take care of anyone else. On top of that, if word gets around that you turn stones into bread, think how many folks would follow you. Everyone can use a little extra bread. Who could have blamed Jesus for doing something like that?
The second temptation was equally enticing. "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [from the highest point of the Jerusalem Temple]. For it is written: "'He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'" How about that? The devil quotes scripture like a preacher (and let that be a lesson - just because someone knows the Bible chapter- and-verse does not mean that person is up to any good). The temptation for Jesus is to let folks know beyond the shadow of a doubt that he is THE MESSIAH, the Chosen One of God. What a spectacular stunt to leap from the Pinnacle of the Temple, drop the 450 feet straight down into the Kidron Valley, and land unharmed. God's angels will protect. People will SURELY listen to the message when they hear this. Would anyone legitimately reproach Jesus for deciding to take that course?
The third temptation was enormous - unchallenged political power to right all the wrongs...all the kingdoms of the world. How incredibly simple, Jesus: you can ORDER folks to listen. You can ORDER justice and an end to all oppression. What a wonderful opportunity! All it will take is a tiny compromise. You do not have to stop worshiping the God of heaven, just spread that worship around a bit. Jesus, this is the offer you cannot refuse. Who could have blamed him for accepting?
The three temptations of Christ. No doubt there were more. It is hard to imagine that more than fifteen years have gone by since Martin Scorcese's film The Last Temptation of Christ was released. The furor was incredible. People were horrified that the camera would suggest that Jesus had sexual thoughts or could harbor notions of abandoning his mission or have fantasies about marrying Mary Magdelene and settling down. There were marches and demonstrations. Remember?
One Sunday, as the congregation I was serving at the time was filing out after the service, a well-dressed young man came to the church door obviously looking to speak with me. In his hand he held a petition and a plan of action for me to use to help prevent the distribution or showing of The Last Temptation of Christ. I said, "Thanks, but no thanks." I had not seen the film and would not condemn it on the basis of hearsay evidence. I would make my OWN decision after seeing it. He asked, "Do you want to SEE it?" I said, "Of course." I finally did see it (after it came out on video - I'm cheap). For the most part the movie struck me as silly, but, in it's own silly way, it did reaffirm the truth of scripture where we read, "He was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin."(4)
What tempts you? I doubt that turning stones to bread or jumping off a cliff have ever been issues. Certainly not for me. Generally, I find myself tempted by GOOD things, not evil. It is no struggle for me to not do the things that we would all agree are wrong. No, my struggle is between the GOOD and the BEST. I find it SO tempting to be satisfied with the status quo, which for me is pretty good. But then I am reminded of the famous line attributed to Edmund Burke two centuries ago: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
As you know, this past week President Bush announced his proposed budget for 2006. He said it "is a budget that sets priorities," and that is what every budget should do, including yours and mine. But in examining those announced priorities there are some disturbing notes. For example, one of the proposed spending cuts would make it harder for working families with children to receive food stamps, ending aid for about 300,000 people. Another would deny child care assistance to about 300,000 children, again in low-income working families. That would be problem enough for me considering all that scripture has to say about our responsibilities to the poor.
Meanwhile, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities informs us that even as the administration demands spending cuts, it will proceed with the phase-out of two little-known tax provisions - originally put in place under the first President Bush - that limit deductions and exemptions for high-income households. More than half of the benefits from this backdoor tax cut would go to people with incomes of more than a million dollars; 97 percent would go to people with incomes exceeding $200,000. Well, it just so happens that the number of taxpayers with more than $1-million in annual income is about the same as the number of people who would have their food stamps cut off under the Bush proposal. But it costs a lot more to give a millionaire a break than to put food on a low-income family's table: eliminating those limits on deductions and exemptions would give taxpayers with incomes over $1-million an average tax cut of more than $19,000.(5) Hmm.
Now, I know scripture well enough to know that budget priorities like these would cause the prophets of old to go ballistic and rise up in righteous indignation. Our nation deserves better. I know how wrong this is, but the temptation that haunts me is the one that says, "Let it alone, David; somebody else can raise the issue - don't get involved." Then Edmund Burke shouts in my ear again: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
Should I or shouldn't I? I know scripture perhaps TOO well in this case. The letters to Congressional representatives and Senators and the White House will go out this week. I do not know what good they will do, but I cannot in good conscience keep silent.
By the way, did you notice Jesus' defense against his temptations? Scripture. After each of the temptations was offered, he quoted scripture. Was it a case of simply finding the right scriptural weapon and lobbing it at the devil like some sort of biblical bomb? Was it like, "Okay, here comes the pride temptation; where is that Bible verse that conquers pride?" Oops, here is anger; what's the memory verse to overcome anger? You have seen lists like that. But scripture verses are not magic formulas. They did not "work" for Jesus like some magic charm. Nor will they for you or me either.
So then where is the power? Did you notice that Jesus was in the wilderness for a long time - 40 days and 40 nights - in prayer and meditation before this confrontation began. News flash. You spend 40 days and 40 nights praying, meditating, studying, and spending time with God, and dollars to donuts, you will be in fairly good shape to handle whatever life throws at you.
Should I or shouldn't I? It is a question that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, this unique period during which we are called to self-examination, we can note that temptation is common to us all. Yes, and even in our pretty good lives, there WILL be wilderness journeys - times when we experience physical or emotional hunger, times when we are tired of being ignored and wish someone would notice us, times when we are frustrated at not being able to make a difference in our own life or anyone else's - the same temptations that Jesus felt. The answer is as simple as the Boy Scout motto: "Be Prepared." Jesus was.
Yes, there is evil in the world, and yes, we are always in danger of being caught in its snare, even if our only temptation is to do nothing. But we know one thing more, and this one thing is the most important of all: we are not alone in our struggle. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that, "nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable - absolutely NOTHING can get between us and God's love" in Christ Jesus our Lord."(6) And that is good news indeed.
1. Brian Stoffregen, via Ecunet, "Gospel Notes for Next Sunday," #10927, 2/6/05
2. Barbara Bundick, via Ecunet, "Sermonshop Sermons," #4850, 2/11/05
4. Hebrews 4:15
5. Paul Krugman, "Bush's Class-War Budget," New York Times, 2/11/05
6. Romans 8:38-39 in Eugene Peterson's paraphrase, The Message, (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1995)