The words used in our gospel reading for today can be translated as “to test” or “to tempt.” They can be either positive or negative. Sometimes testing is good, it allows us to know what we are capable of. Other times it is bad, as when someone or something is trying to deliberately cause us to sin, to lead us into being someone different from the person we really are.
The story of Jesus’ temptation occurs in Mark and Luke as well as Matthew, where we are given the kinder, gentler version – Jesus is “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness,” unlike Mark’s version where Jesus is driven out into the wilderness. After forty days and nights of fasting, just when he is weak and vulnerable, the devil begins to test Jesus, to see if he will remain obedient to God or if he can be tempted to use his divine power to suit his own purposes. This is not to establish if Jesus is the Son of God. The devil knows exactly who Jesus is. All the temptations are within Jesus’ power and except for the last temptation, they don’t seem as though they would cause anyone else any harm.
Have you ever noticed that we aren’t usually tested with things that are beyond our capability, but rather we are tempted to do things that are well within our ability, in fact, sometimes they are even easier to accomplish than doing the right thing? Sometimes it’s something that seems inconsequential, like playing a computer game instead of doing our homework, texting while in class or during a meeting instead of paying attention, watching the evening news instead of cooking dinner, checking our e-mail instead of doing that load of laundry, taking out our cranky mood on the wrong person instead of making an effort to be pleasant.
Even things that appear to be minor can have consequences – when the homework doesn’t get done on time, when we have our phone taken away by the teacher or miss something important at the meeting, when dinner isn’t ready and we have somewhere we need to be, when the shirt we need wasn’t washed, or the person we were rude to now has a poor opinion of us. We are tempted to take the easy way out but that often turns out to cause more complications and requires more time and effort in the end. Worst of all, it makes us into a different kind of person than the one we want to be.
Then there are more serious temptations like infidelity. The first thing we think of when we hear that word is being unfaithful to our spouse or partner, but there are many ways of being unfaithful. We can lack fidelity to our job, our responsibilities, our family, our friends, or our faith. The devil urged Jesus to be unfaithful to God. Infidelity usually hurts more than just the individuals directly involved. If we are unfaithful in our marriage, all those connected – children (if there are any,) other family members and friends – are hurt as well. When we lack fidelity to our job, it can affect our coworkers as well as our ability to get our work accomplished. When we shirk our responsibilities, we can hurt those who depend on us. When we are unfaithful to God, it causes that relationship to be strained or sometimes broken – by us, never by God.
There are plenty of examples throughout history about people who gave in to the temptation of wealth and power and created elaborate Ponzi schemes that inevitably collapse in the end. The outcome of these schemes is the loss of all that the victims have invested, sometimes all their savings for retirement. In the infamous case of Bernie Madoff, not only does he seem to be remarkably lacking in remorse for his actions, but his son took his own life because he couldn’t handle the stress and shame. Even though Madoff lived a highly visible and luxurious life for many years, one has to wonder if giving in to that temptation was worth the shame, the separation from family, spending the rest of his life in prison and, worst of all, the loss of his son, who was also a husband and a father. Is that the kind of person he has always been, or did giving in to the temptations of wealth and prestige make him a different person?
Although we may not be in a position to be tempted as Madoff was, there are other everyday temptations that can have serious, even deadly consequences. Every time we get behind the wheel of a car we are surrounded by temptation – talking on a handheld cell phone or even worse, texting. Driving when we’ve had one drink too many, when we’re tired or when we allow our anger to get the best of us in road rage. Being distracted by any number of things, or insisting on driving even when our physical capabilities are diminished or compromised. Statistics tell us that we give in to those temptations on a regular basis, even though they have the potential for disaster. We think that we can safely take just that one chance, because we aren’t really the kind of person who would deliberately hurt someone, but giving in to that kind of temptation just once can damage or destroy lives.
In our society, many of us are often tempted to live beyond our means and spend beyond our budget. It’s easy to have debt mount up and possibly cause financial disaster. Those who are in recovery from any kind of addiction, be it substance abuse, gambling, shoplifting or any other activity that becomes a habit detrimental to our well-being, fight temptation every day. Giving in even once can lead to resumption of a lifestyle that is detrimental, possibly life-threatening. Addicts have to make the choice to resist temptation and be a person in recovery every single day.
The story of Jesus’ temptation is all about tempting him to be someone he is not. He is not the kind of Messiah that the Jewish people were expecting, and in many ways, he isn’t the kind of Messiah that we would look for given the choice. Like the people of first century Israel, we would expect a Messiah to come down from the cross and use all the superpowers at his disposal. A messiah wouldn’t do a seemingly unbelievable and complicated thing like rising from the dead; a messiah would do the smart thing by not dying in the first place.
How does learning about Jesus’ ability to withstand testing and to resist temptation help us? After all, we are merely human and without the divine power that Jesus possessed. Yet Jesus’ responses to the devil are more from the point of view of his humanity. He refuses to exploit his divine power for his own personal benefit or to gain political power. He teaches us to face our temptations and stand up to the tests that may be put before us. He shows us how to resist the temptation to manipulate God, or to sell out to the power and authority of this world and become someone we are not.
Whether it is choosing to do our homework or get our work done instead of slacking off, deciding to keep within our budget, not becoming a potential danger while driving, fighting our addictions or choosing to remain faithful in our relationships with other people and with God, we can be inspired and empowered to resist those temptations by Jesus’ example. We know we are not alone, that God has given us what we need to resist and is standing with us as we meet the tests put before us. Should we fail, God and the angels are there to care for us, lift us up and encourage us to try again. Amen.