Texts: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7; Matthew 4:1-11
Still wet from his baptism in the Jordan, “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted 40 days and 40 nights, and afterward he was hungry.” Fred Craddock writes, “With these words Matthew addresses those who gather for the first Sunday of Lent. What Matthew proceeds to tell us about Jesus’ wilderness tests is a multilayered story. At the deepest level lies the story of Adam and Eve and the serpent’s proposal that they become like God. Next are the accounts of Israel’s 40 years of wandering and being tested in the wilderness. Even closer to the experience of Jesus is that of Moses who was with the Lord for 40 days and nights during which time he neither ate nor drank but was taken to a high mountain and shown all the land as far as the eye could see.” Craddock concludes, “Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ desert struggles to highlight his relationship to our forebears in Eden, the history of Israel, and the prophecy that God would raise up among the people one like Moses.”
The impact of the story, however, lies not in its echoes of earlier biblical records. Most of us don’t need commentaries to resonate with what is going on in the life of Jesus. Nor is the story preserved to satisfy the historical curiosity of those who might wonder what happened to Jesus immediately after his baptism. Rather, the account directly spoke and speaks to a church and a people whose own faithfulness is forged again and again in the desert. Notice that Jesus is not tempted because he has departed from God’s will. Jesus is in the desert because he was led there by the spirit. And so, one could say, and I would suggest this morning, that the point of the Lenten journey that we embark upon beginning today is our own experience of going deep into the wilderness to find out who we really are, what we believe about who we are in relationship to a God, and what difference it makes in how we live our life.
In our gospel reading, Satan, the Great Deceiver, shows up to steer Jesus away from God’s call upon him and uses three of the greatest temptations for those who want to change this world: economics/money – turning stones to bread; religion – the brand of popular religion that will make the crowds want to follow you anywhere; and politics – to get the power to make things turn out the way you want. For the record, it’s not that Jesus was opposed to talking about economics, religion, and power. Even a cursory reading of the gospels will render that it is precisely these three topics that he spent much of his time teaching about. Rather, the point being made is that there is great temptation in defining ourselves—our identity—in terms of our economic status, our religion, or our power. Wilderness or desert experiences can offer us the opportunity to self-define—to be clear about who we are and what is important to us. That is precisely what Jesus did in the wilderness. He clarified who he was as God’s beloved son and what was significant to him about living out his calling as God’s beloved. This story has traditionally been interpreted as Jesus’ confrontation with the devil, or Satan. A more accurate interpretation might be that Jesus actually confronted himself—those places within his own soul where he was vulnerable. The temptations we face are rarely about some outside force. Almost always they are about some insecurity or vulnerability or fear that resides within us.
There may not be another story in the Bible that captures this notion any better than that of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—that is, the notion that our greatest tempter resides within us, not outside of us. The story of Adam, Eve, and the serpent in the Garden of Eden is for sure the most famous of all temptation stories. Ever since St. Augustine developed his doctrine of original sin in the early fifth century CE, Christians in the West have seen the story of Adam and Eve as a catastrophic fall from perfect innocence to chronic guilt. They have traditionally equated the serpent with Satan, the fallen angel who became a devil and lured or tempted humanity away from God, thus creating a profound divide between God and humanity. Building on Augustine’s doctrine of original sin, our spiritual quest in the West, as defined by church tradition, has been to bridge this great divide between God and humanity. And it is my belief and opinion that Augustine’s doctrine of original sin has been the single most destructive doctrine in all of Christian thought. It has perpetuated and encouraged a view of humanity that has been tremendously damaging to the human spirit and soul. It increases the feeling of alienation and a sense of unworthiness in many people—especially for those in minority groups such as women, African Americans, and homosexuals. If we start with the notion that we are born bad or broken, we will never be empowered to do something about the brokenness of life. And if we focus on the power of the serpent, this power that resides outside of us, then we fail to own the fullness of who we were created to be from the beginning, including the parts of us that are tempted, and the parts that fall to those temptations.
It may very well be that our greatest temptation has been to see the tempter as something outside of us rather than within us. But that is not all these two stories teach us about temptation. There are three myths hidden within these two stories that may very well prove to be our society’s new greatest temptations.
Myth number one: to know is to be like God. “Pagans believed that it was death which made human beings different from the gods. Only the gods enjoyed eternal life. For men and women, death was unavoidable, and they had to accept their mortality. In the Bible, however, knowledge, not death, was the distinguishing hallmark of the divine. In the story of Genesis chapter 3, it was the tree of knowledge, not the tree of life, that was at the center of the drama in Eden.” (Karen Armstrong, In the Beginning) If only we could know the mind of God then we could be like God. Knowledge in and of itself is not a bad thing. One could rightly argue that humanity’s desire to preserve and pass on knowledge from one generation to the next has made our world a better world for all. And yet, for all our knowledge, for all our advancements in the sciences and technology, we still long for something more when it comes to the mysteries of the Sacred and Holy. Knowledge may help us cure diseases and save our planet from global warming, but it does not nor will it ever explain the complexities and mysteries of faith, hope, love, and compassion. Knowledge in and of itself leaves us profoundly lacking when it comes to what gives our lives meaning and wholeness and blessing. The apostle Paul writes about this in that familiar passage in I Corinthians. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge… but do not have love, I am nothing.” The knowledge sought by Adam and Eve was not information. They were not seeking new facts, new truths, a new science. No, we have seen that in Genesis, human beings desired blessing before all else. Which brings me to myth number two.
Myth number two: knowledge brings wisdom. Someone once said, “Knowledge is when you know that tomatoes are fruit. Wisdom is to know not to put tomatoes in a fruit salad.” One thing is for certain: the search for knowledge has never been easier. With a device no bigger than the palm of our hand, we can now seek information on anything from legal cases to recipes in a matter of seconds and gain knowledge at an unprecedented rate. But are we any better as a society at making wise decisions as a result of our increased access to knowledge? We know—we have the knowledge—that there is enough food in the world that no one should die of hunger. And yet it is estimated that every four seconds someone dies of hunger. Knowledge doesn’t necessarily make one wise. The great deceiver in Matthew’s gospel, as well as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, discovered this truth.
With all of that said, it may be that the third and final myth is American’s greatest temptation: power gives you control. Today, the United States has the largest and most powerful military force in the world. Of the 1.5 trillion dollars spent on global military force, the US is responsible for 46.5% of the world total. And yet, as of March 2011, five states in the US are spending more on prisons than colleges. The US is also considered the wealthiest country in the world accounting for only 6% of the world population but 34% of the world’s resources. And yet, people die every day in this country from lack of the basic needs for survival. Does power really give us control?
Richard Rohr writes, “There are always two worlds. The world as it operates is power; the world as it should be is love. The secret of Kingdom life is how can you live in both—simultaneously. The world as it is will always be built on power, ego, and success. Yet we also must keep our eyes intently on the world as it should be—what Jesus calls the Reign of God. Power apart from love leads to brutality; but love that does not engage with power is mere sentimentality.”
To some degree, we all seek power and control. And like knowledge, neither are bad in and of themselves. But what we do with the power and control we possess makes all the difference in how we live in this world. We will always face temptations. Rarely will they come from some outside force. More likely, still reflecting the story of Adam and Eve, they will come from our own need to want to be like God and our need for power and control. These next 40 days invites us to reflect on who we want to be, what is important to us, and how we want to live in relationship to God and each other. May our journey bring us wisdom.