What do we mean when we use the word temptation? More specifically, what does the Bible mean when it uses the word temptation?
In popular parlance, temptation frequently has to do with sex, with booze, or possibly with cheesecake. We often use the word temptation in the same way that we use words like decadent and sinful. While these words are officially negative modifiers we mean something more ambiguous when we use them. We use these words to talk about things that we love but that we feel kind of guilty about. Or, at a minimum, we use these words to describe our sense that there is someone out there, some school principal or straight-laced neighbour or humourless priest, who thinks that we ought to feel guilty.
We sand beside the dessert tray and we say:
O, these cookies are so decadent. They are sinfully good. I am tempted to have another.
And that’s fine. I am not troubled by using religious or moral language in a playful way.
I am a little more troubled when we start applying the language of temptation to sex. As I told you a few weeks back, Phoebe and I went to see Nadia Bolz-Weber speak at Trinity Cathedral. And it was important for me, as someone who has had overwhelmingly positive experiences in church, to witness just how many people have been profoundly wounded by screwed-up church teachings around sex. These teachings have left thousands if not millions of folks carrying around this bucket of shame and carrying as well as a thoroughly distorted picture of God. As Bolz-Weber puts it in the book that she was launching that evening at Trinity, our theology does not speak well of God if we imagine that God built this passive-aggressive test into human beings, so that God has given us sexual yearnings but God requires that they must be expressed absolutely nowhere other than in the context of heterosexual marriage.
Regardless of whether we use the language of temptation to mostly harmlessly talk about cookies (although I realise that there are folks who have shame around food) or to harmfully talk about sex, we are talking in a way that doesn’t have much to do with scripture. Yes, sexual temptation exists in the Bible – David murderous adultery is a cautionary tale about the combination of lust and power – but they are the exception to the rule. Notwithstanding the guilt-filled ideas that Augustine planted in our heads (I love Augustine, but when he was wrong he was really really wrong) the temptation that the snake in the garden tricks the first human beings into has nothing to do with sex. And the conversation that we hear today between Satan and Jesus has nothing to do with sex.
Jesus has just been baptised. And depending on which Gospel you are reading, he is then driven or, here in Luke, he is led into the wilderness by the Spirit. He eats nothing for forty days. And while he keeps this epic fast, there is with him in the wilderness another presence. This is the same presence that came to Adam and Eve, that the monks and the nuns and so many others will later write about, the one that will come to them in the middle of the night or, sometimes, in the lull of the noonday, and tell them that there is something better someone else, at a different monastery, in a different life, with a different spouse, in a different job, or with a new sportscar.
Today, when we speak of the devil or Satan, we picture a horned creature with a tail and a pitchfork, maybe red all over. But this picture of Satan has more to do with Dante and the tripped-out paintings of Bosch and Bruegel than it has to do with the Bible. Scholars tell us that, in the Ancient Near East, in Jesus’ time, Satan is something like a title, a role, a job description. Satan means the Accuser or the Tempter.
Much as he came to Adam and Eve, this Tempter comes to Jesus. And he offers Jesus the same temptations that, come the 20th and 21st centuries, the preachers of the prosperity gospel will offer to you and me. The Tempter says: Follow me, do what I say, and I will reward you beyond your dreams.
The specific temptations are threefold. The Tempter says to Jesus: If you are the Son of God (somehow, it is the demons, the spiritual forces of wickedness who are able to recognise Jesus with an immediacy and an accuracy that his friends can’t match) then take this rock and make it into bread. But Jesus, drawing on the Book of Deuteronomy, as he will throughout this conversation, replies:
One does not live by bread alone.
Then the Tempter shows Jesus the whole world. Maybe we can imagine the two of them standing on a towering mountaintop, the famished and exhausted Jesus shivering and the Tempter, comfortable and resplendent in a three-piece suit or a Mark Zuckerberg-esque black hoodie. Perhaps the Tempter’s magic bends the light in such a way that the whole round world is visible at once. And the Tempter says: worship me and I will make you the supreme dictator of all of this. Again Jesus draws on Deuteronomy:
Worship the Lord your God and serve only God.
The Tempter takes a final crack at things. He takes Jesus to another pinnacle, this time the top of the temple in Jerusalem. And there from these vertiginous heights, the Tempter decides to give Jesus a taste of his own medicine. He has notices that Jesus has been fending him off by quoting the Bible, and so like the people who will later defend slavery and withholding the vote from women and refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple by citing Bible verses, the Tempter cracks open his Bible to the Psalm 91, and he reads: The Lord will command his angels to protect you, they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.
Come on Jesus, the Tempter says, Why don’t you jump?
One last time, Jesus turns to Deuteronomy:
It is said, Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
And then the Tempter is gone. Gone, that is, until the cross, until what Luke calls an opportune time.
Let’s return to our opening question. What is temptation? More specifically, what is temptation as the Bible presents it? With what does the Tempter successfully tempt the first humans, Adam and Eve, and with what does the Tempter unsuccessfully tempt Jesus?
Well, in answering that question I’m going to draw on the work of the wonderful writer and preacher and theologian, Ron Rolheiser – I’m going to be paraphrasing him heavily in the next few paragraphs. Rolheiser argues that how the Tempter tricks the first humans is to show them something that God has offered them as a gift and to convince them that they have the right to take it.
God puts the first human beings into the garden. The garden and the people alike are God’s work of art. And God says to the human beings I am giving you life and I am giving it to you abundantly. But you must always receive this life. You must never take it. As long as you receive my gift, it will be full of joy and love and freedom. But on the day that you begin to take, rather than to receive, your actions will begin to sow death, distrust, alienation, and shame.
Rolheiser makes the amazing claim that this single command from God – receive, do not take – encapsulates all of morality. That each of the ten commandments are a variation on this theme.
Now Rolheiser anticipates an objection here: Why, we well may ask, is there a condition on the human beings in the garden? Why didn’t God create a paradise without conditions, why didn’t God allow the first humans to take the tree of knowledge of good and evil, to take everything? It’s a fair question. But in answering it we need to be careful that we don’t understand God’s condition as something capricious or arbitrary, some trap in the garden, something that God might or might not have set.
That’s because God is love. And the condition that God has set is inherent to love.
Love is something that can only be received, never taken by force, never claimed as a right, never owned.
I think we know that from our own lives. When we say to another person, in a marriage or in a deep friendship, I love you, we are giving the other a gift, we are giving the other light and life. The gift becomes fractured, however, when one of the partner attempts to take the love, to insist on it, to keep it locked up. A marriage or a friendship in which one of the partners is required by law or by force to love the other isn’t a marriage at all – that’s a hostage situation.
In a similar vein, I want you to come to church, I want this place that we call Grace Memorial to be vital, I want it to grow in love and service and discipleship and, yes, in numbers. And because I want that, I do not want to participate in any strategy whereby I or anyone else coerces you into coming to church, whereby you are here out of guilt or shame or fear that God will punish you if you do not. I want us to receive one another’s love and God’s love as the Body of Christ. I don’t want us to be taken or to take.
And so the Tempter, having successfully pulled off this temptation with Adam and Eve, reckons if it worked once it’s going to work again. He goes to the famished Jesus and, just like before, he starts with food – this time it is not fruit but bread that he offers. Use your magic, he says, take that rock and make it into food. When that doesn’t work, he moves onto power. Take the fidelity of the people of the world, make them kneel before you. And when that doesn’t work, when Jesus resists that as well, the Tempter moves on to the biggest temptation of all.
Because what does Jesus want, what do any of us want, more than to know that we are loved?
The Tempter says Take the love of the one whom you call Father. If the Father really loves you like you say he does, he will save you. (This reasoning, by the way, that has since showed up in a thousand and one broken relationships, so that one partner decides that they are going to set one test after another for their partner until they end up fracturing the love that the two of them shared.) If God loves you so much, then jump. You won’t even hurt your foot.
How tempted is Jesus? Is there a moment when he moves closer to the edge, when his toes curl around the edge of the precipice, when he says to himself, With one step I could prove that God loves me once and for all, by just shifting my weight I could get rid of all of my doubt and all of my fear. I could know. I could make God love me.
But then Jesus remembers. Jesus remembers that this would be a violation of the ancient command, that he would be taking something that the Father is giving him for free. And so he looks the Tempter in the eye and summoning whatever strength is left in his exhausted body, he shouts:
It is written:
Do not put the Lord your God to the test.
And with that, the Tempter is gone.