Why be concerned with the temptations of Christ in the desert? Christians have listened to this passage from the Gospel of Luke for countless generations, but few have taken it to heart. The context of this passage is the beginning of Christ’s public ministry. These three temptations have to do with his life as a public figure rather than his private life, although, as we shall see, the two can’t easily be separated. As always, when we consider the gospel texts, people want to know whether this was an historical event or not. Did the temptations really happen as they’re described? The answer depends on what we mean when we say, “really happen.” Obviously, no reporter accompanied Jesus into the desert. So, did Jesus spend time in the wilderness at some time in his life and later share his experiences with his disciples? There’s a strong probability that he did.
At the same time, the events themselves are not important to the gospel writers, nor to those who heard them read. It’s always the meaning of the events that’s important. So, what did Jesus’s time in the desert mean? All the evangelists who report this event—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—see Jesus as a recapitulation of Moses and the people of Israel wandering in the desert for forty years. The forty days of Jesus’s sojourn are deliberately symbolic. As Israel was tempted in the wilderness to abandon God, and failed, so Jesus is tempted during his time in the desert to turn from reliance on his heavenly Father. Unlike the people of Israel, he succeeded in overcoming them. For Luke, at the end, the devil—the sower of discord—departs from Jesus and his ministry, only to return at the passion narrative, entering into Judas [Luke 22:3] and the arresting crowd [Luke 22:53]. The devil is still powerless to separate Jesus from the Father.
Now, let’s take a look at each of the three temptations. Please keep in mind that the Christ we find in the gospels is not limited to the physical, historical Jesus. The Body of Christ is not confined to any particular place, time, or even individual person. The temptations of Jesus are our temptations, for we are the Body of Christ. The Spirit leads us into the wilderness where our human faculties fail us. We find ourselves lost and hungry. In our discomfort and fear, we look for quick and easy ways out.
The first temptation is self-reliance. We want our needs met. We want a safe and comfortable existence. We try to turn our stones into bread so that we can get what we want. But the voice of the Spirit, quoting the Book of Deuteronomy [8:3], reminds us that getting what we want is not the most important aspect of life. It’s reliance on the grace and power of God that will see us through.
The second temptation for Jesus and for us is the temptation to use power—particularly political power—and influence to gain control over others, to make them do what we want. When we try to become powers unto ourselves, we deny who we really are—God’s little ones, his anawim—as we pretend that we’re the general managers of the universe. We try to convince ourselves that we know better, that “we’ve got this,” and we can handle everything by ourselves. Once again, the Spirit, using the words from Deuteronomy [6:13], reminds us that we are not masters, but servants of Almighty God.
Our final temptation is the subtlest and perhaps the most deadly. It’s the temptation to see ourselves as somehow special, more intelligent or talented than others, particularly blessed. It’s the temptation to arrogance, especially when we’re capable of greatness. We so easily succumb to our own hype. I don’t need to explain how doing exceptional things can destroy a person. We see it constantly in the lives of those who’ve had great accomplishments: the “stars” of stage, screen, the media, and sports. The Spirit replies, again from the Book of Deuteronomy [6:16], “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
A man once was standing outside his house when a policeman drove up and warned him, “A flood is coming. You need to evacuate.”
“No,” he replied. “I’m fine. God will care for me.” Hours later, the water was up to his second floor.
A man in a rowboat came up to his window and shouted, “Get in! You’ll drown.”
The householder stuck his head outside the window and thanked him, saying, “I’m fine. God will take care of me.” Eventually, the water rose up to the roof, and the man climbed out and was sitting there when a rescue helicopter came along.
Someone dropped a rope ladder to him and called down, “Climb up here. You’ll be safe.
The man on the roof shouted back, “Thanks, but God cares for those who love him. I’ll be fine.” At last, the man drowned. He came before God angry and said, “I trusted you. Why did you let me die?”
God answered, “I sent you a policeman, a rowboat, and a helicopter. What more did you want?”
We have scientists, masks, and vaccines and still people are dying. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
One last point about today’s gospel story… When we talk about temptation, aren’t we talking about the temptation to sin? We just covered the three temptations of Christ and Christians in some detail. Yet absolutely nothing was mentioned about lying, stealing, killing, or sexual behavior. Those are all sins according to the Law of Moses—the so-called “Ten Commandments.” Sin in the New Testament is something very different. It’s what arises out of self-reliance, expediency, arrogance, and a sense of superiority. These things are not primarily sins of behavior, but sins of attitude.
No need to change our behavior this Lent. What we need is a change of heart, a change of attitude. That’s all. Change that, and our behavior will take care of itself.