Temptation Reimagined

First Sunday of Lent Scripture Readings

I think that, if those who call themselves “Christian” really understood today’s gospel and the words of the other evangelists who told this story, we might be living in a very different world. In my experience, I find that people—including many famous and revered Christian writers of the past—misunderstand the message that Jesus’s temptation was meant to convey. Let’s begin with the gospel passage from Saint Mark that we’ve been given to consider today, but then we may have to cheat a little and take a peek at what Matthew and Luke have to say on the subject, just to round out our understanding.

If we want to appreciate deeply what our gospel passage is telling us, we’re going to have to set aside the idea that it’s telling us something only about Jesus. As often happens, when we make the mistake of limiting our appreciation of the text to a description of an event in Jesus’s life, we’re left with a quaint story, and not much else. I’ll repeat what I’ve often said: the gospels are prophetic writings. That means that their application is timeless. The story is about Jesus, of course, but it’s also about the early Christian community and the reality we call “Church” from that time right down to the present day—to you and me. What happens to Jesus in our gospels applies also to us. It’s talking about us as much as it is about Jesus. We are the Body of Christ.

That being said, we read that “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert.” What did the desert mean to the gospel writers, and what does it mean to us today? First of all, we can hear the echoes of the forty years that the people of Israel, freed from slavery, spent wandering in the desert wilderness. The forty days we find in the gospel and the forty days of our Lenten observance remind us of that Exodus event and force us to confront the reality of the desert. Even here in Southern California, the appreciation of the isolation of the desert is pretty much lost because, unless you’re hiking alone in the wilderness, everything you need is only a short distance away.

The desert wilderness of the Scriptures is something else. It’s a place of deprivation. Wandering in the desert leaves those who undertake it in the most terrifying situation possible: that is, being alone with themselves. Look around you to see just how terrifying it is. We can’t go anywhere without seeing people on their phones, or at least with buds in their ears, listening to their “tunes.” We can’t go anywhere—restaurants, bars, hotels, doctors’ offices, hospitals, some shops, and maybe even our own living rooms and bedrooms—without having a television on to distract us. Distract us from what? From the terror of being alone with ourselves.

The Spirit drove Jesus—and therefore us—out into the desert. When was the last time you felt compelled to go out into the desert of solitude? When was the last time you were forced to go there? When we don’t seek solitude willingly, we’ll eventually find ourselves driven into it as Jesus was. And what do we find when the Spirit drives us into the wilderness of solitude? What makes it so terrifying? It’s that there we encounter the Satan.

Do you recall who the Satan is? He’s the prosecuting attorney in the court of the Last Judgment. The Satan is your accuser. He’s the one who accuses you of being bad, of being incapable, of being “less than,” of being unlovable. He’s the one who tells you that you’re so worthless that even God couldn’t love you. It’s that Satan that Jesus encountered in the desert, and it’s the possibility of our encountering him that keeps us denying the Spirit’s invitation to wander in the wilderness of solitude voluntarily. We keep ourselves distracted so that we won’t have to hear the Spirit’s voice, at least until we’re driven into solitude against our will.

What are the temptations that both Jesus and we find when we’re driven into that wilderness? They’re certainly not the usual kinds of temptations that we think of when we hear that word—temptations to commit the seven deadly sins of pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. No, those are not the temptations that come to us in solitude where we’re deprived of all external distractions. There’s nothing to be greedy for, envious of, or lust after. What then are the temptations of solitude?

Look back at the gospels. Remember the three temptations that Matthew and Luke wrote about? They were the temptation to turn stones into bread for personal comfort, to worship Satan in order to rule over kingdoms, and to throw himself down off the top of the temple so God would save him. Yes, but what does all that mean? The three temptations are related. They’re the temptation to seek self-satisfaction, the temptation to exercise power and authority over others—especially political power, and the temptation to self-reliance. In other words, the real temptations we face are all about becoming self-sufficient through wealth, power, and prestige. For Jesus and for us, the greatest temptation that stands in the way of our living lives of loving service to God and to one another is the temptation to self-reliance.

When we’re in the wilderness of solitude and feeling like we don’t matter, our temptation is to escape by saying to ourselves, “Don’t worry, I’ve got this. I’ll just do whatever’s necessary to pull myself up by the bootstraps and make something of myself. I’ll show them!” Notice that, in that attitude, there’s no room for God. If we’re self-reliant, then God becomes redundant, and, as God loses his importance, so do other people. If it’s all about me, there’s no room for them, either.

It’s only by rejecting the temptation toward self-reliance and surrendering to God’s will that Jesus was able to embark on his ministry of service to humankind. And it’s that ministry that we, as members of his Body, have inherited. Listen to his proclamation: “This is the time of fulfillment,” he said. “The reign of God is here. Change your minds and hearts and believe in the good news” that God is crazy about you and will raise you up. You have infinite worth because you are loved by God, and you are called both to accept that love and to give it away. You are important. Let go and let God and even unbeknownst to you, you will make a difference in your world.

This is our accepted time. This is our salvation. In this Lent, the Spirit beckons us into the wilderness of solitude where, so long as we ignore the discouraging voices of temptation that tell us we have to do everything on our own, we’ll encounter the loving presence and power of God as we exclaim, “I can’t … God can … I think I’ll let him.”

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