Text: Matthew 4:1-11
The similarities in the lives of Jesus and Buddha are as compelling as the parallels in their thought and in their faith journeys. In each of their traditions they are tempted by the devil while fasting during a lengthy retreat near a river. The devil challenges each of them to use his supernatural powers for worldly ends. Each refuses. Listen to these parallel narratives from the life of Jesus and Buddha.
The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world and the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only God.’”
Then Mara the evil one drew near to him, and said: “Let the Exalted One exercise governance, let the Blessed One rule.” “Now what, O evil one, do you have in view, that you speak this way to me?” “If the Exalted One were to wish the Himalayas, king of the mountains, to be gold, he might determine it to be so, and the mountains would become a mass of gold.” The Exalted One responded: “Were the mountains all of shimmering gold, it would still not be enough for one man’s wants. He that has seen suffering—how should that man succumb to desires?” Then Mara the evil one thought: “The Exalted One knows me! The Blessed One knows me!” And sad and sorrowful he vanished then and there.SAMYUTTA NIKAYA 4.2.10
As we can hear in these narratives, it is not only that Jesus and the Buddha are alike, the devils, too, are alike. They are lords of death who control earthly domains and attempt to lure everyone into their way of being and thinking. After defeating the devil, Jesus and Buddha have similar responses. Both give up their seclusion and defy social convention by teaching among people who struggle with the world’s temptations. Buddha dines in the house of a courtesan, angering the nobleman of the city, and Jesus is attacked for eating with sinners and whores.
As we read this narrative of Jesus being tempted in the desert, it is easy to get tripped up by this whole devil thing. I don’t know how many of you believe in a literal devil. And I guess it really doesn’t much matter. Because I would venture to guess that regardless of where we stand on a literal devil, most of us would affirm that there is evil in the world; and in the biblical narrative it seems that the “devil” best symbolizes or represents this evil.
Clarence Jordan, in his Cotton Patch version of Matthew has a different name for this one we commonly called the “devil.” He writes: “Then Jesus was taken by the Spirit into the country, to be given a test by the Confuser.” I like that word: confuser. It makes sense to me in the context of this story and more accurately describes what I think is at the heart of this temptation narrative. So, let me explain.
While the “content” of the devil’s temptations include the capacity to turn stones to bread, call upon angels for safety, and the promise of power and dominion, each temptation is primarily about identity. Notice that the devil begins by trying to undermine the identity Jesus had just been given at his baptism in the previous scene. “If” the confuser says, “you are the son of God, then turn these stones into bread.” “If you are the son of God, go ahead and jump because the angels will keep you safe.” The Confuser, as Clarence Jordan calls him, uses this simple two-letter word “if” to call Jesus’ identity into question. “If you are the son of God.” It is the same kind of exchange that occurred with Adam and Eve in the Garden. It’s an old storyline in the biblical text. The devil, the confuser, seeks to rob whomever he is dealing with of their God-given identity and replace it with a false one of their own making. And here, with Jesus, we see it being repeated. In truth, these temptations that Jesus faced in the desert have never really been about power, prestige or greed; but rather about identity. “If you are the son of God…” “If you are the daughter of God…”
You will notice that Jesus resists this temptation not through an act of brute force or sheer will, but rather by taking refuge in an identity founded and secured through his relationship with God, a relationship that implies absolute dependence on God and identification with all others. Jesus will be content to be hungry as others are hungry. He will be at risk and vulnerable as are all others, finding safety in the promises of God. And he will refuse to define himself or seek power apart from his relationship with God, giving his worship and loyalty only to the One who created and sustains him.
But I want to go back to that question of what you think about the devil. When we personify evil, and turn it into a character in a story, our modern ears find it laughable. But when we manifest evil as the confuser – that which confuses us in our very identify as children and beloved of God – the devil sounds much more real. Think about it. What is the great confuser of our time? What causes us to misidentify with power? With prestige? With being right and righteous? Some would say it is our very culture as Americans. Others would rightly point to our status as members of the predominant, and mostly state sanctioned religion of Christianity. Without being overly cynical, what I’m positing is that the stuff of our everyday lives as 21st century Americans is the confuser. What is it that leads us to believe that we are our jobs? That we can’t live without a college degree? That we need to make more money next year than we did this year? It is the simple expectation of the American dream of being a consumer, a haver, a doer, a winner. Can you see how this can confuse us? How it can root our identity in things that are temporary and easily shaken in difficult and challenging times—desert, wilderness times.
The confuser says to us, If you are a good lawyer, then you win all your cases. If you are a good teacher, all of your students will pass end of grade testing. If I pray the right way, then my daughter will get well. The confuser names our identity in ways that the world would define us. But if being a person of faith means anything, it means that before we are a lawyer or a teacher or a parent; before we are rich or poor, college educated or someone who never finished high school we start out first and foremost as a beloved child of God. That is our birthright. That is our identity and anything else that would define us is temporary. I know, it’s frustrating. But true. The confuser would have us live out of our ego—that false sense of self—in which power is about what we do; possessions are what we have; and prestige is what others think of us. But our faith calls us to live out of our soul—our true self—in which our power is found in who we are as God’s beloved. Our worthiness is not found in what we possess or how much prestige we have but rather in our desire to love God and love our neighbor.
Here is how one theologian said what I am trying to say. “It is not just the devil that seeks to steal our identity. Each day we are besieged by countless advertisements that seek to create in us a sense of lack, insecurity, and inadequacy, undermining our God-given gift of identity with the promise that if we buy this car or use that deodorant or make our teeth brighter we will be acceptable. The message of the consumer-consumption culture is simple: you are not enough. Not skinny enough, smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, rich enough to deserve respect, love, and acceptance. And here’s the thing: it’s a damned lie, a demonic attempt at a kind of identity theft far worse than the one we’ve been trained to fear. And Jesus offers us a way out, a way to safeguard our identity by lodging it in God’s good gift and promise.”
The message of this temptation narrative is that as Jesus faced the Confuser in the desert, he didn’t have to turn stone into bread or do any other kind of magic or jump through any manufactured hoops. All he had to do was remember that he was God’s beloved child. It sounds so simple and yet it is so profoundly difficult. That is why, every day when we wake up the first thing we need to say to ourselves is this: God has declared me worthy of love, dignity and respect and has promised to be with me and for me throughout all of my life.
As so, the next time you feel inadequate or unworthy; the next time you find yourself in the desert, remember: you are enough, more than enough because before you are anything else you are God’s beloved. There is no “if.” You are sons and daughters of God and you are enough. Don’t let the confuser tell you otherwise.