|James Tissot's rendition of the Temptation of Christ|
Facing temptation is a big part of life nowadays. Wanting what we do not have, desiring that which is just out of reach and struggling with the feelings of envy, want and resentment that roil up in us when we face temptation is perhaps an essential part of the human condition. Jesus, just after his Baptism in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) is driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness to face temptation as he struggles to integrate his awareness of himself as a human being and his amplified awareness of himself as the Son, incarnate.
Matthew and Luke have expanded versions of the temptation, while Mark simply tells us that Jesus was in the wastes for 40 days, tempted by Satan and while there he was "with the wild beasts." Matthew's and Luke's telling of the tale is more explicit, with Jesus being challenged with three distinct questions that really serve to define him as a remarkable human being, and one particularly suited to face the things that tempt us all while also finding a clarity of vision that will direct our experience of him as be prepares to begin his earthly ministry.
What are the temptations?
- Make bread (to assuage your hunger) from these stones
- Test God (by throwing yourself from a great height)
- Forsake God for earthly power (choose dominance over authority)
We sit on the sidelines, and for the most part see these events as slightly unearthly, with the players usually acting in a stilted, arch way. Lines are recited, responses made and it all might seem a little scripted....unless?
Unless we take the words of the evangelists and understand that it is after the fast of 40 days, the isolation of more than a month in solitude and the weight of a weakening, extended period of suffering are all hitting Jesus hard at this every moment. He is weak, truly weak. His will is a faded, shimmering mirage that his sanity is desperately attempting to cling to even as he hallucinates for want of water, food and respite from the heat and cold of un-sheltered living. We assume that the Satan is trying to break him down, when in reality he is already, likely shattered.
Make bread comes the challenge, and his mouth goes moist while his stomach shouts out "DO IT! WE'RE DYING!!!!" Throw yourself off this height, and his knees go weak, "Will He care enough to catch me?" All the world is laid at his feet, and he realizes that he could rule, control and make people live in the right way by might alone, and by his mind reels with the surety that he could finally FIX this broken mess IN HIS LIFETIME!
We struggle with these temptations every day. If someone came along and told you that they could make sure your never had to worry about food, comfort or the ability to control the world around you, would you waver, falter, and do you think you would have the strength and resolve to turn away as Jesus did in his day?
Walk out into the wastes, right out your front door and spend 40 days without supplies and shelter (save for what you might gather with your own two hands). Now, ask yourself those same questions. Would you be able to resist?
The challenge of temptation is two-fold: we face temptation when we are strong and have space and time to make healthy choices....and we face temptation when there is little strength, much less resistance as well.
Lent is a season when we take the time to step down from our self-erected seats of judgment (of others and of self) and allow this moment of Jesus' facing his temptation to remind us that we (as he did) have a long way to go in this life and that all along that way we are going to have to face the temptation to attempt to do it on our own, put God to the test and struggle with the impulse to dominate and control rather than lead and serve.
...and then the angels came and ministered to him (Matthew)
....and then the devil departed from him until another time. (Luke).