“If you are God’s Son, order this stone to turn into bread.” Luke 4, 1-13
Last year, Pope Francis startled lots of Catholics when he suggested that there was need to change one of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. He stated that this is really a poor translation of the original, pointing out that a loving God does not lead people into temptation just to see how they will cope. In making his comments, he referred to the opening verses of chapter 4 of both Matthew and Luke. This coming Sunday, the first of Lent, the gospel reading we hear starts with: “Jesus, filled with the Holy Spirit…was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted.” Matthew’s Gospel has something similar: “Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the desert to be put to the test by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was hungry.” I am encouraged by Pope Francis’ comments, because I find both of these translations troublesome. I just don’t believe that God puts temptation in anybody’s way. Pope Francis went on to say that he would prefer a translation like: “Do not allow us to be led into temptation.” Scripture scholars have joined the discussion with alternatives like: “Do not let us give into temptation when we are tested” and “When Satan leads us into temptation, please, God, give us a hand”.
So now, let’s look a little more closely at the context of today’s gospel reading. Jesus had just been baptized by John in the Jordan and, as preparation for what he saw was his unfolding mission, he decided to spend time in prayer and reflection in the solitude of the desert, to work out for himself how he was going to go about doing the preaching and teaching he felt inspired to do. Luke and Matthew present him as doing much the same as two other giants of the Jewish tradition had done. In their encounters with God, both Moses and Elijah went without food and water for forty days. Moses spent forty days in the presence of God when the Ten Commandments were inscribed on stone tablets on Mt Sinai (Exodus 34, 28). Elijah also fasted for forty days and nights before journeying to Mt Horeb (another name for Mt Sinai) where he encountered God in a cave in the form of a gentle breeze (1Kings 19). However, consolation for Jesus arrived only after he had battled his way for forty days and nights through temptations to take shortcuts to reach quick and easy ways to achieve his goals. He was tempted to dodge the kind of struggles that the rest of humanity also has to deal with as they set out to be true to themselves and to live with integrity.
Having taken on the human condition, Jesus was tempted to avoid having to do things the normal human way. Luke is really saying that, just beneath the surface, Jesus was being tempted to expect God to collude with such a plan. And if God wouldn’t agree to doing things by magic, then Jesus just wouldn’t cooperate and would refuse to accept the limitations of being fully human. That was the nature of his temptation. Underlying all three temptations is the question as to whether a way of living and acting built on faith in God is really worth spending a life on. Jesus realized that he had been invited to take on the role of being the Messiah for his people, and here he was being tempted to win people over with magic, razzle dazzle and impressive, superman tactics.
Yet, the temptations that Jesus faced were, in essence, the very same things that tempt us. There are times in our lives when we catch ourselves wanting to control God. Some of us want God to work it so that we get the winning lotto ticket, a perfect husband for our favourite niece or a top grade in our university exams, even though we don’t do the necessary work.
The first temptation Jesus experienced is presented in terms of bread. In contemporary English slang, bread is the equivalent of money or a stockpile of material and intellectual capital to be used as an insurance policy just in case the kingdom of God doesn’t work out. Jesus was struggling with the temptation to base his appeal to the people he encountered on what in the way of security and material well-being he could offer them. We, too, can get so involved in accumulating money, security and gadgets that we erode our ability to trust in God as one who is both competent and willing to care for us. There are times when we can even slip into giving God advice and directions: “Be a bit gentler here; be more sensitive there. Watch that trouble looming up in the distance. Do you think you’ll be able to negotiate the sharp turn coming up?” At other times we try bargaining.
As for Jesus, he did overcome the first temptation by deciding that he would himself be bread and nourishment for people instead of trying to base his public ministry on hand-outs. He proceeded to nourish people with his presence, his encouragement, his wisdom, his concern, his fidelity and the challenges he put to them. He came to know that we all grow through affirmation, encouragement and healthy challenge. He did not set out to win the support of people through promises of material goods or by offering them shortcuts to success. In order to proceed along the path he chose, he knew that he had to place his trust first, foremost and entirely in God. I ask myself if I will ever grow to the point of trusting God to that extent.
The next two temptations were further attempts at undermining the trust Jesus had grown to place in God. While they are presented as offers by the devil, they were more likely considerations by Jesus in his mind about the benefits that might flow from doing deals with the corrupt and the powerful of his day. After all, they would get things done more speedily and effectively than those who might respond to Jesus’ appeal to base their actions on love, kindness, compassion and justice.
I find the third temptation a little more difficult to grasp. Jesus was invited to test out whether God really cared for him or would let him die if he were to throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus probably knew nothing about gravity. But he knew enough to appreciate that jumping from a great height onto stone would be fatal, and that God was not in the business of letting down gently anyone stupid enough to jump off the roof of the Temple. However, I want to suggest that Jesus struggled with something more subtle than that. Preaching about what he understood as the kingdom of God - about justice, mercy, forgiving one’s enemies - was not something that would easily win him friends and supporters, especially in a very conservative and narrow-minded religious community that was the Jewish world of his time. Jesus must have been tempted to doubt whether God would really support him when the going got tough, when religious leaders might think of having him removed. And we know from the description of his arrest, torture and execution that such doubts plagued him right up to the time of his death.
I want to suggest that these are the kinds of doubts and temptations with which Jesus struggled in the solitude of the wilderness and at other times in his life. Moreover, I am convinced that we would be wrong to conclude that Jesus easily brushed aside these temptations. They hung around in his consciousness for forty days and nights. Trusting God was not something that came to him spontaneously and automatically. If that were the case, he would not have been tempted in the first place. So, when we find ourselves struggling with our faith and trust in God, we might get some consolation and comfort from knowing that Jesus has been there before us. And when we are tempted to be less than our true selves, we might think of praying: “Please, God, give us a hand.”