Temptations Four Through Six

Scripture: Luke 4:1-13

This familiar passage from the gospels describes the three temptations that Jesus faced during his time in the wilderness. We traditionally spend some part of Lent thinking about those temptations. And biblical scholars have suggested ways that we might relate them to our own experience.

First, the devil tempts Jesus to turn a stone into bread. This must have made for an alluring suggestion, because the text tells us that Jesus had been fasting and was “famished.” Commentators have compared this to the temptations that come to us from basic needs like hunger, shelter, and survival. 

Second, the devil offers Jesus “authority” over “all the kingdoms of the world.” As with all such “opportunities,” there’s a catch: Jesus must bow down and worship Satan. Commentators have compared this to the temptations that come from our appetite for power—in all its forms.

Third, the devil tempts Jesus to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple in order to prove that He is the Son of God. We might have a tougher time associating this with the sort of temptations that you and I encounter. It seems like a temptation uniquely applicable to Jesus.

But the preacher and theologian Peter Gomes has a wonderful insight here. He writes: “This [temptation] appeals to the sense of identity and the need to prove who we are … No one likes to have his identity challenged or threatened; we are insecure enough without having someone demanding proof that we are who we say we are.” 

I agree with all of these observations, at least as far as they go. But they raise an intriguing question: Does this scripture still have anything to say to us if those three temptations are not our temptations? After all, they may not be.  

We might not know the temptations that come with crippling hunger, or with deep uncertainty about our shelter and safety. We may have always lived in a comfortable place with enough to eat. Or, if we did know times when resources were scarce, those days may be behind us. 

We also may not worry much about acquiring power. We may not value it. Or we may have done so once, but now reached an age or a state of mind where we see “power” for the imposter that it is.

There is a story about Edward Bennett Williams, the legendary trial lawyer, political insider, and confidant of the rich, famous, and infamous. One afternoon,  Williams’s son found his father lying down, chilled and nauseous from the cancer that was killing him. Williams tossed his son a copy of a magazine that he’d been reading, which described him as one of the most powerful men in Washington.

“They don’t realize what power really is,” Williams said to his son. “I’m about to see true power.”

As for proving ourselves, well, that may not be as big a deal for us as it once was, either. For many of us, growing older brings the grace of no longer feeling the irresistible impulse to establish our credentials with every poor soul who will sit still long enough to listen. 

Mark Twain observed that “Life would be infinitely happier if we could only be born at the age of eighty and gradually approach eighteen.” Certainly, this would save the pain and frustration that attends those early years when we are fashioning our identity and trying to get the world to take us seriously. 

So, we might look at this list of three temptations, shrug, and say to ourselves “eh, not so much” or “been there, done that.” We might question whether these particular temptations still bedevil us—pun intended—the way they used to. We might conclude that this passage does not have for us the same poignancy it may have had earlier in life. 

Well, I want to suggest to you that this text does not describe just three temptations. It describes many more, at least some of which remain with us throughout our time on earth, regardless of our place or age or station. I want to talk here about three of them, which I will call “temptations four through six.”

Temptation four is the temptation to do what is easy rather than what is right. If we look closely, we can see this temptation in this passage. Jesus can eat, know comfort, and have authority over all the kingdoms of the earth if he will only do what the devil asks. It certainly sounds simple enough. But Jesus instead chooses the hardest path imaginable, one that leads him through rejection, grief, betrayal, torture, suffering, and death.

Most of us struggle with the temptation to do the easy thing, rather than the right one, all our lives. The expedient always has tremendous seductive appeal. And, in the short term, the right can look like a heavy lift. As most of us discover, the long term is another story entirely.

Take, as an example, all those occasions when we hear the voice of cruelty or bigotry or hatred and don’t call it out for what it is and oppose it. We let it pass. We pretend it didn’t happen. It’s easy at the moment; but in the long term that choice may not sit well with us. It may not sit particularly well with the one who made us, either.   

Temptation five is the temptation to forget who we are and what we know. If we look closely we can find this temptation in the scripture as well. After all, there is a sense in which the devil is asking Jesus not to prove that He is the Son of God, but to forget that He is the Son of God.

Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He remembers who he is. He remembers what he knows. 

I think this is why Jesus responds to all three temptations by quoting passages from the Hebrew Bible. Jesus shows that He remembers what He was brought up to value; He remembers the texts He was taught to study in his youth; He remembers the ideas that He shared with his elders in the temple while Mary and Joseph were looking around for him. Memory preserves and sustains Jesus, as it preserves and sustains each and every one of us. 

And then there is temptation six. It’s a whopper. Temptation six is the temptation to elevate our physical being over our spiritual being. 

We find this temptation in this scripture as well. Jesus is invited to feed all of his appetites and to take all of the world’s pleasures under his command. In short, he is urged to define himself by his body, by what the poet Delmore Schwartz wonderfully and whimsically calls “the heavy bear who goes with me, clumsy and lumbering here and there, in love with candy, anger, and sleep.”

Our bodies do this to us. They knock incessantly at the door of our consciousness and plead for us to attend to them. They work hard and constantly to define us—and our culture happily conspires with them to that end.

The form this temptation takes may change as we get older, but the fundamental impulse remains the same. The stiffness in the neck, the soreness in the back, the clicking noises in the joints, the little pains that move around the body like a dog circling and circling before it lies down—these, too, are ways in which our bodies cry for our attention and claim preeminence. And as we age the cries get fussier and more frequent and more frustrating. 

In this passage, Jesus answers this temptation, too. And it may help us to remember that this text does not give us the strident voice of the strong carpenter’s son at the peak of his vigor. It gives us the voice of one who is worn down, tired, wanting for energy, yearning for comfort. 

Yet, in just that voice, Jesus offers us consolation that can bring “the peace that passes all understanding.” For, here, Jesus assures us that there is something else; something greater than the “heavy bear” that we tote along with us on our mortal journey; something beyond “bread alone.”

Teilhard de Chardin observed: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” In calling us to know the life that lies beyond the body, beyond the bear, beyond the bread alone, Jesus invites us into the great heart of that truth. And in the heart of that truth lies our transformation, and our salvation, and our greatest—indeed our only—final hope. 

Charles Baudelaire suggested that the greatest trick of the devil was to persuade us that he does not exist. I’m not so sure. I think that maybe his greatest trick is to persuade us that we are something less than what we are. 

For the overarching message of temptations four through six is this: You are a child of the living God; you are immortal in your spirit and boundless in your soul; and you were placed here to do the spacious and sacred work of Love Itself. 

Fear nothing in the wilderness of your life.

Except those things that tempt you to believe otherwise.


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