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Once there was a small boy who wanted a pair of skates. His parents, hoping to teach him the value of money, informed him that he would have to save the required amount from his allowance. His mother overheard him in his room one afternoon shaking his bank and counting his money. Then she heard the bell on the ice cream wagon ringing loudly in the street outside. Mom waited to see what would happen. The boy wanted the skates, but he also liked ice cream. There was no sound from the room until the vehicle had gone, and the bell could no longer be heard. Then a childish voice was heard in prayer. "Dear Jesus, please don't let the ice cream wagon come down my street anymore."(2)
David Bersoff teaches Social Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and has a particular interest in why supposedly "good" people do bad things. An article appeared in newspapers around the country on Ash Wednesday several years ago(3) describing research exploring the kind of rationalizations used to justify such common trespasses as pilfering offices supplies or quietly pocketing a cashier's overpayment. People are more likely to give in to temptation when they can remain passive, the study finds, and when they feel no one is being harmed.
In his research published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Bersoff had University students take part in what they were led to believe was a product test. The participants were then overpaid $2.00 for their efforts.
The first group was told a big foreign company was sponsoring the test. The subjects were paid by an impersonal cashier. In that group, 80 percent kept the extra money. The next group were told the test was being run by a graduate student and being paid for out of his own funds. "Now the victim has a face. It's harder to deny harm," said Bersoff. Half of that group accepted the undeserved money.
In the next scenario, the cashier counted out the money on her desk, then asked, "Is that right?" The question made it necessary to tell a lie to get the undeserved $2.00. Forty percent did. In the final scenario, subjects were told a graduate student was paying for the test, and the cashier asked if the payment was right. So there was a victim to hurt and a lie required. Still 20 percent took the extra $2.00.
Bersoff said in all cases, it was the same $2.00, but one complication and then two made it harder and harder to "find in your mind a way to justify this." He went on, "I don't believe people are bad, but certain situations play on their weakness and lead them to do bad things. I think that is the whole nature of temptation."
Interesting. Temptation is all around us, isn't it? No doubt that is why every year, on this first Sunday in Lent, this unique period in the church year during which we are called to a rigorous self-examination, the church reads again the story of Christ's temptation in the wilderness.
Our story from Luke this morning is the classic New Testament account of temptation (the Old Testament classic being the serpent and Eve in the Garden of Eden). As the lesson has it, Jesus is "led by the Spirit" into the wilderness where he encounters the devil.
Immediately, modern readers have a problem. We try to picture the scene - no problem with the rocks and shrubs of the desert, no problem with Jesus (we see him more or less as portrayed in the pictures on Sunday School folders), but what to do with the devil? That little guy in the red outfit with horns and a pitchfork tail that we see on Halloween? Scary? Not really. "Show a picture of the devil in a red suit to a child and do they recoil in horror? No. Chances are, they might get him confused with Santa Claus."(4) In fact, the biblical picture is not definitive at all. The New Testament sometimes speaks of the devil with human analogies: he is a "ruler,"(5) a "murderer,"(6) "the evil one,"(7) the "enemy."(8) But we also find animal images - a roaring lion,(9) a serpent,(10) a dragon.(11) So how do we form our picture? Calvin warns that "it did not befit the Holy Spirit to feed our curiosity" and that we ought not to "linger over superfluous matters" in this area.(12) OK.
As one writer has noted, "Part of our problem with the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness is just this inability to picture the devil as anything that is all that menacing. Someone once wrote that this was perhaps his greatest triumph in our time: that no one believes in him."(13)
It may well be true that folks are less willing to believe in one supernatural source of evil than in generations past, but the fact that evil exists is beyond question. What is the source of that repressed rage, blood lust and violence deep within every one of us which ordinarily surfaces only in our dreams when we cannot control our innermost feelings and desires? Why is it that some decent people, some of them Bible-reading, church-going Christians, can become vicious beasts when they confront Jews or blacks or frightened women trying to make their way into an abortion clinic? Why do otherwise compassionate human beings stand aside and let fellow human beings suffer from the brutality of others? Why do good people and good governments allow the world to be divided into the affluent few and the starving many?(14) The answer is that there is EVIL out there that is beyond the action or inaction of individuals.
A biologist by the name of Lyall Watson has written a book called Dark Nature(15) in which he discusses an idea which suggests that just as genes are the units which transmit biological characteristics from one generation to the next, so also there may be "memes." The theory says memes are units of transmission of culture, and they are spread between us by being caught, by leaping from brain to brain. They are ideas. Memes are like cultural viruses which affect us all. They may be such things as catchy tunes which everybody finds themselves humming, or catchy phrases, or crazes in fashions, or ways of playing games, or following pop stars, or whatever.
The trouble is, successful memes do not have to be nice, they just have to be catchy. So religion could be a successful meme. We are told Christianity has to be caught rather than taught, so that sounds like it could be a meme. But Klan violence, or random mayhem in angry crowds, or anti-Semitism, or vandalism could be equally successful memes. Watson goes on to suggest there may be already enough bad news in the air to infect anyone, anywhere, at anytime.
The theological way of describing that phenomenon is called Original Sin. As the Council of Trent in 1546 said, the sin of Adam "is one in origin and is passed on by propagation not by imitation." In other words, we do not have to do anything. We are all infected by it, simply because we live.(16) So biology and theology agree. Isn't THAT good news?
In a way that might be handy. If evil is all around us, if it infects us like a vicious virus, if it's taint is unavoidable, then we have an excuse. We cannot help it. It is not our fault. "The DEVIL made me do it," to borrow the old Flip Wilson line. But suddenly we are confronted by these temptations of Jesus and are brought up short.
Look at them for a moment - not particularly awful, are they? There are no enticements to ill-gotten gains or incredible debauchery. No inducement to slaughter Romans or assassinate Caesar (or even to bomb Baghdad or kill Saddam, for that matter). No interns to be added to the band of disciples. If this devil were really evil, why not tempt Jesus to do some of the things we read and hear about every day?
Still, the three temptations presented are strong, and everyone of them is based on truth (which is a wonderful reminder about how the truth can be used for evil purposes). 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 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, an ever-so-slight division in your loyalties. 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 third temptation was equally enticing. Let folks know beyond the shadow of a doubt that YOU ARE 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 you. People will SURELY listen to your message when they hear what you have done. Would anyone legitimately reproach Jesus for deciding to take that course?
The three temptations of Christ. No doubt there were more. It is hard to imagine that almost 20 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. One Sunday, as the congregation was filing out after the 11:00 o'clock 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."(17)
I am intrigued at the way Jesus avoided giving in. Scripture. After each of the temptations was offered, he quoted scripture. Perhaps that should not be surprising. After all, spiritual maturity only comes when we have a deep relationship with the God of all the universe whom we meet and learn from in the pages of the Book.
Is that the answer to overcoming temptation? Know all the scripture you can? Well, that would not hurt, but... Unfortunately, a huge red flag is raised at the end of the lesson. Did you hear it? Verse 13: "When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time." In other words, this struggle with temptation is ongoing...for Jesus, and most certainly for you and me. Isn't THAT good news?
No. Of course not. But there IS good news here. As we begin our Lenten pilgrimage, this unique period during which we are called to self-examination, we can note that the temptations we encounter are not new. Indeed, they are common to us all. Memes, for lack of a better word. Yes, there WILL be wilderness journeys - times when we experience physical or emotional hunger, times when we are frustrated at not being able to make a difference in our own life or anyone else's, times when we are tired of being ignored and wish someone would notice us - the same temptations that Jesus felt. The message is BE CAREFUL ABOUT SETTLING FOR THE EASY WAY OUT. It may be nothing short of evil.
Yes, there is evil in the world, and yes, we are always in danger of being caught in its snare. But we know one thing more, and this one thing is the most important of all: "Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."(18)
1. James S. Hewett, Illustrations Unlimited (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc, 1988), p. 477
2. Dr. Eugene Brice quoted by Ken Waddell, "Sermonshop 1998 03 01," #21, 2/24/98
3. Mary Otto, "Temptation Science," Knight-Ridder Syndicate, 2/25/98
4. Rob Elder, "Biding His Time," The Clergy Journal, May/June 1997, p. 91
5. John 12:31
6. John 8:44
7. John 17:15
8. Matthew 12:39
9. I Peter 5:8
10. Revelation 12:17
11. Revelation 12:9
12. Institutes, 1.14.15
13. Elder, ibid.
14. "The Problem of a Personal Devil and Demons," Study Paper of the 115th General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (US)
15. Hodder & Stoughton, 1995. ISBN: 0-340-61787-X
16. Janice Scott, "The Nature of Temptation," www.eatonparish.com/lent1.htm
17. Hebrews 4:15
18. Romans 8:38-39