Scripture: Genesis 2-3; Matthew 4: 1-11
We usually read the account of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness on the first Sunday of Lent. The susceptibility to temptation is present within each of us. It is part of our human make-up. But humanity has eaten the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We know the difference between good and evil; right and wrong.
The Temptation of Jesus in the Gospels
This year we are taking the Gospel story in chronological order. This makes it plain that Jesus spent a period of time on his own, after his baptism, but before taking up his public ministry. It was not to prepare himself for what awaited him in Jerusalem in Holy Week. It was a post-baptism, pre-ministry retreat. It was a time for reflection about what was likely to be ahead of him. As God’s Beloved Son, as we heard last week, how was Jesus to carry out his ministry?
Many scholars think that this story, which is common to Matthew, Mark, and Luke, has little historical basis. They view it as a theological meditation. The heavenly voice had proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God. Now a challenge. “If – or Since – you are the Son of God, why don’t you prove it?
The Devil made me do it
People often excuse bad behaviour by saying “The Devil made me do it.” They personify the Devil (Satan), just as today’s Gospel story does. It is similar to the story of Job. His troubles began when God allowed Satan to test Job’s faithfulness. Job didn’t know about the deal between God and Satan. When we read the story, we blame Satan for Job’s troubles. In the same way, the serpent is the instigating agent in the story of the Fall that we read from this morning. The man blames the woman; the woman blames the serpent. In today’s Gospel, we blame Satan for putting Jesus to the test.
To my mind, this is all very convenient. It’s not my fault that I did such and such a wrong. It was the Devil’s fault. The Devil was too powerful for poor little me to resist.
The Temptation of Jesus is really about taking short-cuts
I have no idea whether Jesus had the power to change stones to bread, to throw himself off the Temple roof without harm, or to become the ruler of the world. However, I will assume that he did. Because the story of the Temptations isn’t about the specific enticements. It’s about taking short cuts – saying that the ends justify the means. The real temptation was for Jesus to make some extravagant gesture so that people would immediately become convinced that he was the Messiah. Then everyone would immediately become disciples and follow his orders.
Therefore, why not change a few stones into bread, and save himself the hassle of trying to get other people to understand his teachings? But in reality, it would have looked like a party trick. Or why not show off his immortality by jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple? But that would have been a nine days wonder if he had survived, like going over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Another idea. Why not just become the ruler of the world and order everyone to follow him? That way, he could have saved himself the agony of getting crucified. That would have put him in the role of the Roman Emperor. However, earthly empires do not last. Not the Roman Empire, the British Empire, or the thousand year Third Reich that lasted just twelve. Remember, “Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane, but the Church of Jesus constant will remain”? Lord Curzon banned this verse of “Onward Christian soldiers” from being sung at King Edward VII’s coronation celebration in colonial India! Christianity has outlasted all those earthly empires.
Why the ends do not justify the means
For me, the real lesson from the Temptation of Jesus in the wilderness concerns the wider issue of why the ends do not justify the means. I have told the following story before. It was before there was talk of ‘alternative facts’ (= lies). I watched a PBS documentary in which a black US army regiment in WW II helped to liberate Jewish prisoners from Auschwitz.
Some months later, the documentary was exposed as a hoax. The director had ‘cut and pasted’ news clips of the army regiment into the liberation of Auschwitz. He argued that he wanted to foster better relationships between Blacks and Jews in America. For him, the ends justified the means. But for me, the result is whenever I watch documentaries or read news articles I wonder whether what I am seeing is really true.
What we say and do is our own responsibility
It’s always nice to blame our temptations on something outside ourselves. Because then, we are not really to blame. The writer of Genesis personified the serpent as the source of temptation for Adam and Eve. Matthew personified the source of Jesus’ temptations as the Devil.
This is bad news. Scripture is wrong to posit external agencies for sin. Our temptations come from inside. Sorry Adam; sorry Eve. No serpent. Likewise, no Devil.
Paul took the same approach in what he wrote in Romans 7: 19-20. “I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want. Since I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Paul called this agency ‘sin’; Matthew called it ‘the Devil’. But both writers posit an external power that’s too strong for poor little me to resist.
Good good news in the Garden of Eden story
God told Adam and Eve that they could eat the fruit of all the trees in the Garden, but not the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. You can say, if you like, that their behaviour was typical of humanity – tell us not to do something, and immediately we are tempted to try it! But was their decision to eat the fruit of that tree really so bad? To have eaten, figuratively, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human. Knowing right from wrong is a key attribute that distinguishes humanity from other species.
When I was very young, my aunt had a cat, called (most inappropriately) Cutie. Cutie tended to scratch people. One day, Cutie scratched my baby sister. That made my mother very angry at my aunt. The Devil didn’t make Cutie scratch my sister. Unlike us, Cutie had not eaten the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. She couldn’t know right from wrong. She just wasn’t a very nice cat.
God gave humanity free will
All the members of the human family have eaten from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. We lost our innocence, but we have free will to choose between right and wrong. My theology is that I must take responsibility for my actions. The Devil did not “make me do it”. But conversely, I should get the credit for my good actions. God’s role in this was to create me with the knowledge of good and evil. As Pelagius wrote, God gave humanity free will to choose which path to take. Otherwise, we would just be puppets, with God pulling our strings.
To sum up
Whether we read the story of the temptations in the wilderness as historical or as a parable is not the point. The source of temptation was within Jesus himself. The story tells us that Jesus, the Son of God, had the internal strength or compass to resist the temptations. He did not evade responsibility by saying, “The Devil made me do it.” Likewise, susceptibility to temptation is also within each of us. It is part of our human make-up. But unlike Cutie the cat, we have eaten the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. We know the difference between good and evil; right and wrong. And that is God’s blessing to us all.