Summary: For Jesus, as for us, overcoming temptation was not a one-off fight. The temptation experience that we read of today was, if I might extend the boxing analogy, more like one...
It’s the first Sunday in Lent and we’re back in the wilderness with Jesus.Every year we make this journey - 40 days and 40 nights it lasts! - and every year it continues to be a painful trek (as I think it‘s expected to be).
And I’m conscious of the fact that a lot of ink (real and virtual) has been spilled over the years by the church’s theologians and academics, reflecting on this period of Jesus’ fasting and temptation, and I expect that this is partly due to the fact that we do indeed revisit this scene so often.
And so in my preparation yesterday I thought through again all the questions that have been raised for generations:
* Was this temptation experience a literal event in the life of Jesus or are we supposed to see it as a parable of sorts?
* Was it partly that Jesus was hallucinating after 40 days without food?
* Is Jesus deliberately being presented in these stories as an archetype for the people of Israel, who were themselves tempted in the wilderness for 40 years (and failed miserably).
* Are the forms of the temptations meant to reflect the temptations that were given to Israel (or perhaps even to Adam)?
These and other similar questions are the ones we tend to get caught up in when we ponder this text. But then it occurred to yesterday that by getting caught up in all these esoteric questions, we run the real risk of overlooking what is surely the most fundamental thrust of the whole passage: namely, that Jesus was tempted!
Whatever happened out there in the wilderness, and however we understand the actual nature of the experience, this is, I think, the one thing that the Gospel writers wanted to make abundantly clear - that Jesus was tempted - and I don’t think we want to underestimate the significance of this.
We struggle down here. We struggle with lust, with greed, with the desire to get ahead (or at least keep up with) the bastards living next door. We covet our neighbour’s car and his bank account, and quite possibly his wife and his ox and his ass as well, and I think we generally assume that God is somehow above all of this and yet we’re told here quite clearly, Jesus was tempted too!
Now you’re probably thinking, “well, I don’t think He was tempted with exactly the same things that tempt me”, but I do think that the temptations we are presented with are supposed to be sort of generic - that within these three temptations, all the temptations that are common to us are covered.
Jesus is tempted to satisfy the ‘lusts of the flesh’, even be it his basic physical hunger, as he is tempted to satisfy that all-too-human lust for power.
John Powell, the late Jesuit psychologist, was fond of pointing out that these two temptations of Jesus - that He satisfy his hunger with bread and that He take authority over all the kingdoms of the world - coincide rather neatly with the two most prominent psychological theories of human motivation.
Sigmund Freud said that all our actions are determined by ‘The Pleasure Principle’ - by our desire to pursue pleasure and run away from pain - and Jesus’ rejection of this first temptation is a rejection of a life determined by the pleasure principle (so says John Powell).
Similarly Jesus’ rejection of worldly authority is a rejection of a life that is driven by the lust for power and significance, which psychologist Alfred Adler (amongst others) suggested was the basic motivational factor behind all human behaviour.
By refusing to become either a consumer or a politician, Powell points out, Jesus defied these two basic human motivational principles. His life was not going to be determined by the pursuit of either pleasure or power.
The third temptation of course, where Jesus is tempted to throw Himself off the temple and let God take care of Him, is a little harder to make sense of in terms of these basic theories of human motivation, but it does strike me that if it’s a temptation to let go of your responsibilities and let God take care of everything, it does tap into something very basically human.
I’ve been working with young men in this parish for nearly 20 years now, and if there’s one problem I’ve found to be surprisingly common, it’s the temptation faced by young fathers-to-be, after they find out that their partners are pregnant, to let go of their responsibilities and run away.
Maybe it’s some genetic left-over (an unwanted remnant from an evolutionary past) where the male of the species no sooner knocks up one female than it’s time to move on to the next, but men struggle with this - lots of men, more than you think, I think. But very few ever talk about it, especially in church, because they feel guilty - not guilty because they’ve actually done a runner but guilty because they feel tempted. But hang on … Jesus was tempted!