Tempting Conditions – Ulysses Cabayao, SJ

Luke 4:1-13 (First Sunday of Lent)

Some of us today would probably prefer a Valentine’s Day homily than endure another Lenten exhortation. But there is a pertinent theme in today’s Gospel that might resonate with the affairs of the heart.

In the Gospel, the Devil prefaces his attempts to beguile Jesus with a seemingly innocuous line: “If you are the Son of God”. A key word in that crafty phrase is the conditional Greek word, εἰ (translated as, “if”), which challenges the veracity of such a claim. One can easily overlook the deception behind it. By stating so, the tricky Tempter simultaneously teases, refutes the claim, and attempts to stroke Jesus’ ego. Likewise, a temptation does the same thing to us. It playfully teases our imagination. It eggs us to brush aside who we say we are. It inflates our sense of self into bloated proportions.

Our understanding of temptations, however, is often exaggerated by a narrative that tends to ascribe the blame solely on something external to us, absolving us of any culpability. Whilst it may be that the narrative of temptations serves to highlight the greater mystery of evil and the necessity of saving grace, such stories influence our cultural consciousness of what temptations are. Tukso, for example, may refer to another person or thing, but never to our own selves. We often excuse our transgressions by explaining how we were tempted (natukso, tinukso); never to acknowledge that we are as responsible and guilty. Retrieving our personal stake in how we are tempted, far from granting us the power to autonomously relieve ourselves of its affliction, can heighten our awareness of our enfeebled humanity.

Seen in this way, temptations are our way of bracketing off our existing realities. Oaths and vows become inconsequential. Spouses and children are neglected and conveniently forgotten. Morality and decency take a backseat to ambition and pride. The malleable “if” is bent and twisted to construct one’s own fantasy worlds, identities, and relationships until these alternate fictions blur our capacity to ground our self in the reality of commitments and consequences. Aside from the obvious draw of what we find irresistible, there is something inherently imperative in the conditionality of temptations. The prefatory “if” establishes a deceptive causal relationship between obtaining what one desires and the effect it will have on one’s self. It is further compounded by a sense of narrowness and urgency, that one must have it now or else…

One might think that temptations are no different from faith or hope, in the sense that these things also require the capacity to imagine other realities. Temptations, however, imagine possibilities that pander exclusively to one’s ego. To such a person, nothing could be sweeter than hearing that “it shall all be yours.”

Perhaps we can then counsel our easily tempted hearts: “I can’t have everything nor anyone I want.”

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