Above: Temptations of Christ, a Byzantine Mosaic which Resides at St. Mark’s, Venice, Italy, because Knights of the Fourth Crusade Stole It from Constantinople (But Who Is Keeping Track?)
Interpreting the Temptations of Jesus
MARCH 5, 2017
Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7 (New Revised Standard Version):
The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man,
You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman,
Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?
The woman said to the serpent,
We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”
But the serpent said to the woman,
You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
Psalm 32 (New Revised Standard Version):
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom the LORD imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me,;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not teach them.
You are a hiding place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the LORD.
Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
Romans 5:12-19 (New Revised Standard Version):
As sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned– sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.
But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.
Matthew 4:1-11 (New Revised Standard Version):
After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him,
If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.
But he answered,
It is written, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him,
If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”
Jesus said to him,
Again it is written, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him,
All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.
Jesus said to him,
Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
It is appropriate to have this Gospel reading on the First Sunday in Lent, for the number “40” for days of this season comes partially from the 40 days the Gospels say Jesus spent in the wilderness.
There is something mythic about a great religious leader having to face three temptations at the hand of an evil spiritual figure as a rite of passage. At least one Buddhist version of this tale says that Siddhartha faced down fear, lust, and ego before the became the Enlightened One. And we read that Jesus faced three temptations, also. I suspect that this story is part of mythology, just as much as are the early chapters of Genesis. (All the Bible is true, and some of it happened.)
As I write this devotional nine months early, in the energy-sapping heart of Summer 2010 (with the weather certain to become worse before it improves), I turn to the late Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Roman Catholic priest and wonderful spiritual writer for his cogent interpretation of Christ’s temptations. In The Way of the Heart (1981), Father Nouwen wrote of harried, compulsive ministers:
Just look for a moment at our daily routine. In general we are very busy people. We have many meetings to attend, many visits to make, many services to lead. (Our calendars are filled with appointments, our days and weeks filled with engagements, and our years filled with plans and projects. There is seldom a period in which we do not know what to do, and we move through life in such a distracted way that we do not even take the time to rest to wonder if any of the things we think, say, or do are worth thinking, saying, or doing. We simply go along with the many “musts” and “oughts” that have been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord. People must be motivated to come to church, youth must be entertained, money must be raised, and above all everyone must be happy. Moreover, we ought to be on good terms with the church and civil authorities; we ought to be liked or at least respected by a fair majority of our parishioners; we ought to move up in the ranks according to schedule; and we ought to have enough vacation and salary to live a comfortable life. Thus we are busy people just like all other busy people, rewarded with the rewards which are rewarded to busy people! (page 12 from the 2003 reprint)
Then Nouwen defined the false self, or secular self, which, Thomas Merton explained, social compulsions have manufactured. Instead, Nouwen wrote, one’s true self, which is spiritual, requires solitude for the purpose of transformation. Solitude, he wrote, is “the solitude of transformation.” Then Nouwen continued:
Jesus himself entered into this furnace. There he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world: to be relevant (“turn stones into loaves”), to be spectacular (“throw yourself down”), and to be powerful (“I will give you all these kingdoms”. There affirmed God as the only source of his identity (“You must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone.”) Solitude is the place of the great struggle and the great encounter–the struggle against the compulsions of the false self, and the encounter with the loving God who offers himself as the substance of the new self. (page 16 from the 2003 reprint)
That is one truth we can take from this mythic story and apply in our lives.