“I can resist everything except temptation,” Oscar Wilde quipped. Why? From the serpent in Eden to the devil in the desert, temptation always offers the most delicious fruit. When Jesus resists the bait, the devil lures again, quoting Scripture (Luke 4:10-11). Faithfulness can be so tricky.
The Gospel readings during Lent lead us into the tangled heart of life, with Jesus as our guide. We begin with three tests in the wilderness whose extremity can easily distract us from their subtlety. We marvel at Jesus’ ability to resist food on an empty stomach, absolute power and the solid reassurance of his identity.
These tests are also metaphors for common temptations that trip us up regularly. Stones into bread is instant gratification, not to mention pain relief. When showcasing the kingdoms of the world to Jesus, the devil mentions glory before authority. Who doesn’t want to be admired with a well-known brand? “Glory” can provide such influence and possibilities! Finally, the devil offers security that is both physical and spiritual: the protection of angels and proof of God’s reliability, reinforcing the holy promises of Scripture and baptism.
Instant gratification, name recognition, security—in every case, the devil makes it personal.
Instant gratification, name recognition, security—in every case, the devil makes it personal: “If you are the Son of God .…” By now the baptismal water has dried off and hunger has set in; maybe doubt as well. “Jesus, if you are who you say you are, and if God is faithful, there is nothing to fear,” the devil beckons. “Why would you say no?” Tricky indeed.
Variations of these temptations appear throughout our lives and this Lenten season. Helpful Pharisees warn Jesus about Herod, but he reasserts his unsafe commitment to people who later reject and kill him. The following week, when chatter and questions arise in the wake of tragedy, Jesus changes the conversation from those who perished to saving a fig tree for another year. The gardener resists efficiency and instant gratification to give life another chance. Finally, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, Jesus tells the outlandish story of the prodigal father who leaves his reputation in the dust and embraces the lost son who insulted, rejected and diminished him. He abandons all glory, power and sense in a flurry of love.
It all prepares us for the climax of Lent. Come Holy Week, the devil returns to tempt Judas Iscariot. His tests return too. Jesus is led to Jerusalem to be thrown down on the cross. Jesus turns his body into bread for those with hearts of stone. Jesus dies with no glory or power or sense, only love. Then he rises from the dead and ascends to absolute power. Surprisingly, the tempter’s wishes come true—in God’s time and on God’s terms.