Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13
Oscar Wilde was a much-celebrated Anglo-Irish literary figure, very witty… and very worldly. He once wrote: “I can resist everything but temptation.” He lived in total self-indulgence, ridiculed Victorian moral norms and died in Paris of meningitis in the year 1900. His view of life aptly ushered in the 20th century, particularly the cultural rebellions of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
There are many today who live as Oscar Wilde lived. They regard temptations as irrelevant, things representing what they regard as hypocritical middle class moral norms, norms that constrict us and deny us our freedom. We are to live, many claim, with only one self-indulgent moral norm: “If it feels good, do it. Anything is all right so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”
We could spend hours talking about questions dealing with the nature of evil. What is evil? What is the essence of evil? Why is there evil, anyway? My summary view is that evil is the corruption of what is good.
A temptation always presents something to us as good – it comes to us wearing the disguise of good. Few people choose to do something simply because it is evil. To be sure, there are a few in our world who choose evil simply because it is evil. It’s their form of rebellion; it’s their declaration of independence from the rest of us. Most people, however, choose a course of action that appears to be good. And some people have no moral problem in using evil means to achieve a good end. For them, the end justifies the means.
Some think that God tempts us just to see which way we will choose. It’s God’s way of testing us, they think. As for myself, I can’t imagine an infinitely good and loving God doing that to us. I believe rather what St. James tells us in his epistle: No one experiencing temptation should say, "I am being tempted by God"; for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one. Rather, each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. (James 1:13-14)
We are now entering Lent. It seems to me that we should be thinking more about how to deal with temptations rather than where they come from. It helps us to recognize the nature of temptations because, as I said, they always present themselves to us as something good. We should not choose what only appears to be good – we should choose only that which is actually good. Choosing something that is bad is not the way to achieve what is good.
Let’s now look at the three temptations the devil put to Christ.
“Turn these stones into bread,” the devil suggested. The Evil One wasn’t talking about the starving people of our world. Rather he was tempting us all by suggesting that all of our appetites should be satisfied. Why settle for any hunger at all? Isn’t life all about making sure that we lack nothing, want for nothing? “If you have a need, an urge, a desire, or if you have any bodily hunger, satisfy it, he tells us. You have the power to do so. Find heaven on earth; lack for nothing. Forget about that hunger you feel in your soul. Ignore the fact your spiritual hunger for meaning and purpose; ignore your hunger for God’s love. As a matter of fact, why even bother with God. Deal only with what is here and now.
The second temptation is to simply give up on the struggle to be good and surrender to the world as it is. In the gospel account you just heard, the devil boasted: “It is all mine, and I give it to anyone I choose.” The world, he arrogantly asserts, is his – it belongs to him. That, of course, is a great lie. This beautiful world is God’s… and He has given it to us.
Nevertheless, the devil’s temptation is to despair of goodness and to simply declare that people are people and they will never change. Meanness, hatefulness, and hard-heartedness are everywhere in this dog-eat-dog world, so why fight it? Just grab what you can, get what is yours, and let everyone else fend for himself or herself. The world will never change. And as for God? Well, why bother? He’s not here.
You can have whatever you want, the devil tells us, whenever you want, and as long as you want. Be a self-authenticating and self-affirming; be a self-determining person and let the chips fall where they may. All of this religious talk is nothing more than fanaticism, a running of guilt trips on others. And when anything bad happens to you? Well, make someone pay for it! Get a lawyer and make the person or the institution nearest to the event pay for what has happened to you even if what happened to you was the result of your own carelessness. Take care of your self and leave others to taking care of themselves.
The third temptation is to turn your religion into something that you do to make God act. Prayer? Well, prayer is so you can tell God what He needs to do for you. It’s informing God that He hasn’t made a perfect world and that He needs to fix it up here and now. Go to church, the devil suggests, so you earn redemption points, and then when you die tell God He’s obliged to give you a death benefit; remind Him that He owes you a place in heaven. The third temptation is to make God act -- not you. In other words, don’t put yourself to the test, instead put God to the test. Make God responsible for what happens to you. Force God’s hand. Then, of course, you won’t even have to bother with belief.
The temptations the devil put to Christ, and the temptations the devil puts to you and me, all deal with putting self first and ignoring what God wants us to do in order to be the persons He wants us to be.
Lent is a time to combat all of these ancient and yet very modern temptations. Lent is a time to fast from food so we can feed our spirits and join ourselves into the life of Christ. Lent is dying to our own selfish self-centeredness in order to bring life into our lives and into our souls, the life God intends us to live not only here in this world but on into the next. Lent is about sharing life, and the good things of life, with others. Fasting and self-restraint allow us to be share with others and be available to them, to put others first instead of our selves first.
May your Lenten life and devotions strengthen you in God’s great and good Holy Spirit. May your humanity be more fully joined into Christ’s humanity, His Spirit-filled, risen humanity in which He lives victorious over all that would diminish, degrade and demean us – victorious over all that would tear us away from all that God dreams we can be. Lent is a time when we voluntarily restrain our own desires so we can better be at God’s disposal. To do that we need to take more time to pray and made more time to be with Jesus in Holy Communion, to be nourished with the Bread of Life instead of food for our bellies.