the greatest temptation…
March 5, 2017
Scripture: Matthew 4:1-11
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Lent. A forty day period of preparation that culminates with the celebration of our Lord’s resurrection on Easter. It is traditionally a time for reflection in which many individuals choose to deny themselves or to refrain from certain things or behaviors in order to be less distracted and better able to focus on the depth of meaning of our faith within the context of Jesus’ last days and weeks.
Our scripture passage today recounts the forty day period at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he went off alone in the desert to fast and to pray in preparation for his ministry. And it seems as though our scripture picks up towards the very end of Jesus’ time there when he was at his weakest and most vulnerable both physically and mentally. After fasting for forty days Matthew tells us that Jesus was ‘famished’. And it was at this time that he was approached by the one whose name means ‘tempter or adversary’. ‘Satan’, or ha-satan in Hebrew was never actually a proper noun as in someone’s actual name, but rather a common noun that meant ‘one who accuses or tests’, much as we see in the interaction between God and ha-satan in the Book of Job where God asks ha-satan to go for him and to test the faith and resolve of Job down on earth below.
Testing or tempting comes at us in many forms throughout our life. Situations arise or opportunities present themselves in which we are required to make a choice, to choose to stand on one side or another, to take an action or not to do so, to say, think, or do something that at the time seeks or seems to appear as better than another alternative.
And in our scripture passage today Jesus is being tempted with things that go very deep, issues that are often central to our identity and to how it is we view life and our own place in it…issues of provision, of personal security, and of how we are perceived by others around us. And in each of these Jesus responded by refusing to take the offer made to him by the tempter…refused to lose his absolute trust in and dependence upon God.
And similarly likewise, I think that one of the greatest temptations we may face is the belief that we also must find our way to being an independent self…one who does not need to rely on others, but rather is totally self-sufficient unto oneself. And I call this perhaps one of the ‘greatest temptations’ for two reasons. First, I believe that it is something which we are most pressured to do by the social and world system in which we live. And secondly I call it a ‘temptation’ because it very likely is the thing that most contradicts all that Jesus sought to teach his followers…standing in starkest contrast to his commandment to love one another as he loved us…seeking instead to allow us to be independent unto ourselves alone. For if we do not receive anything from others then we are not in a relationship of dependence…we do not ‘owe’ anything back…we are beholden to none and free to structure and control our own life without debt towards another.
Which may not seem like such a bad thing…not something that is out of order or counter to the commands of our faith. However that requires that we see community and society as a gathering of independent units and not as a whole that each one plays a part in contributing to. In fact, living unto one’s self alone may give us the impression that we are doing no harm to others and that others are in charge of their own lives and are responsible for their own choices. Which might be true I suppose, if in fact there were across the board equality of opportunity for all. As it is however, we know that this is not the case.
We know that our society is highly stratified and that there are those who are on the top and receive most if not all of the benefits…and those in other places who most often have to settle for less even as they work to provide for those on the top. And all too often we do not even realize that within this system we too are playing a role that might be inherently oppressive of others.
For it does not take active repression or abuse against the less fortunate, or in fact even knowledge that one’s actions cause hardship for others for one to qualify as a member of the Roman-like oppressor class which Jesus was arrayed against. Indeed much of what many people do on a daily basis, through what they eat or wear, through what they are able to ‘buy on sale’ somewhere is made available only through a system fully dependent on taking advantage of those less fortunate.
All throughout his ministry and teachings Jesus called us into community, into family, and into complete and total dependence upon God and upon each other…something far away from ‘independence’ and sufficiency totally unto self alone.
This call from the world, drawing us to a place of ‘independence’, this foundation of our modern culture usually finds its roots early on in one’s life. Indeed it seems that we are tempted from the very beginning of our conscious life…in the beginning of the creation of who we will eventually become…to carefully fashion a highly individual and personalized understanding of our own life…a firm and somewhat fixed picture of who we believe we actually are, complete with myriad ways to protect, to control, and to provide for it, as well as a tendency to box it up neatly in a tidy little package on occasion in order to be able to present it to others for comforting self-affirmation. In other words we are often frequently tempted to have our self-understanding approved and validated by those closest to us.
And in this process of becoming an individual self we come to see life as something we must grab a hold of and conquer, as something that has been given to us, belonging solely to ourselves and over which we must maintain close control. We seek to master our own particular life circumstances whatever they may include and to avoid anything that would intrude on this understanding of our own life and its purpose.
We are careful to act in ways that will assure that we can avoid pain and suffering at all costs, as well as to find ways in which the randomness and unpredictability of life can be minimized or even better yet pushed fully out of our conscious daily thought or fear.
Our self-created understanding of life is therefore highly personal and tends to be focused heavily on individual care and sufficiency. We seek to take care of ourselves and our own first. And as such we tend not to see ourselves as a responsible agent within the larger human community unless that responsibility is placed below self and family on the hierarchy of that which causes us to act, regardless of whatever individual or social need or request presents itself before us.
We may even find that we begin to allow ourselves the luxury of ignoring personal responsibility towards others unless we choose to engage, which is usually on a case by case basis. Residing more often instead within a self-constructed and safe ‘cocoon of denial’ that seeks foremost to insure our own comfort and survival while conveniently blinding us to the plight of those far less fortunate all around us.
And with time, a successfully independent person tends to become even more so. Far from denying ourselves at any turn, we seek rather to accumulate a full or perhaps even over-sufficiency of any potential article or understanding of future need. Truly denying ourselves as Jesus did there in the desert is quite far from our minds and if engaged in at all is usually on a carefully measured basis far from any degree in which it might actually prove personally costly.
Which begs the question today: How are we as Christians who are seeking to be faithful entering this season of Lent? What are we thinking of ‘denying ourselves’ or perhaps ‘giving up’? What are the ways in which we feel we might act to be more aware of the meaning of the times…more aware of Jesus’ march towards Jerusalem and of all that awaited him there?
How do we define ourselves? Are we comfortable even wondering about or considering these things? Are we simply very fortunate individuals in a drama called ‘life on planet earth’? A drama in which we know who we are, what we have, what we need, and how much we can afford to let go of? Is it that we are in fact truly blessed above and beyond the blessings of others? Are we somehow more deserving of the lifestyles and opportunities we have been given…or instead simply the beneficiaries of a system that has fore-ordained that we will continue to inhabit the top tier of a world system by virtue of our birthright alone?
It seems strange to talk at all disparagingly of independence in America…a land whose creeds and pledges, whose Declarations and Constitutions seem to enshrine that very concept. And yet, how many of them truly issue a call to love one another…how many of them have made sure to make room and provide for each child of God who walks on this earth? In truth, independence is not all it is cracked up to be. At least not when it is held up against the light of how God has called us into a relationship of full dependency upon Him. Jesus was able to tell the accuser to flee away, for he knew who he himself was. He knew that in and of himself he was not sufficient and that only in God and by God’s grace was he truly free and truly able to walk the pathway of holiness we too have been asked to tread. True freedom is not always the result of independence…rather it is only in learning to trust fully and lean completely on the providence of our Lord that we can come to know and to dwell in the truest of freedom…one with God…and one with another.
Let us give thanks for the grace which allows us to see our need for a relationship with God…and let us turn from the temptation to be ‘islands unto ourselves’…for it is in lifting one another up that the body of our Lord is also sustained…and it is in sustaining the body of our Lord that the Lord is glorified…and it is in glorifying our Lord that the resultant light of love can shine brightly into all those places where people have yet to learn that the yearnings deepest within them can only be fulfilled within the community of love that follows the Lord.