Matthew 4:1-11, First Sunday of Lent
The temptations in the desert reveal to us three very big powers at play in our lives and in the world today. As with many things diabolical, their pull to the dark side is quite subtle and surreptitious. On the surface, the promises offered by these temptations are not unreasonable nor are they necessarily bad.
The first temptation tempts us with the power to sustain and satisfy. The second seduces us with the power to tempt love. The third temptation lures us with the power to amplify power. Let me explain.
The first temptation arises from hunger and the dare of the devil to turn stones to bread. On the face of it, staving off hunger is salutary. Imagine the millions you could feed with that power of material magic. And once they are fed and indebted, imagine the power you could wield, the difference you could make.
Beyond hunger in the guts however, there are hungers that bread alone cannot satisfy. Even material hunger itself is a conflated mess of societal, ecological and spiritual symptoms and causes. The more tragic kind of hunger is found in those who have plenty, those who obsess about riches and in those who have been running their lives self-ward. Shop long enough, stuff yourself long enough and you will realize that there are hungers that can never be satisfied by material magic.
The response of Christ to the devil’s dare seems trite but it must have come after a long struggle: “One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” Now perhaps, in a world more infatuated with itself than ever, we have a better sense of what Bread of Life might mean, how it is that God could speak to the unspeakable hunger in our soul.
The second temptation enchants us with this notion that we can keep falling and falling because God (or love) anyway will just keep catching and catching. It feeds on the beloved’s sense of being titled and seduces us with the power wielded by all those who know they are loved: the power to tempt love.
Anyone who has ever tried love will know that you can never force the hand of love. Try as you might to test love, to see how far it can go, how deep it will go, and you will only end up estranged, in tears or alone. Out of a sense of entitlement and fairness, the beloved might expect reciprocity but love is never just a transaction and is always free. In love, one can only wait and yield control. Love cannot and will not be dazzled. We can place all kinds of conditions on love and preface it with all sorts of “ifs” (i.e. if you love me, if you are my friend, if you are the beloved one of God…), in the end, love will not be conditioned or constrained. At its strongest, love learns to surrender.
Christ’s response to this enchantment is to say, “you shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” Just as the Lord our God on the cross surrenders everything to us, so are we summoned to let go of our conditions on his love. Just as our Lord on the cross does not test our love, so should we not even dare test his love.
The third temptation is the most addictive and most adaptive of all. It lures us to sell our principles and allegiances the way sand shifts shape with the tides. And all this for the sake of power, for the sake of gaining “all the kingdoms of the world.” This third one is all about power and its own power to amplify itself and delude its wielder.
Of itself, power is good. In their broadest sense, politics and kingdoms are all about power being used for the community and the common good. But power itself is intoxicating. It does not help that power compounds itself, with pride and ego as the prime catalysts in this amplification of power. When the power tripper starts to play god with the truth or over the lives of others, the serpent scores its back-to-back win, counting all the way from Eden.
To this temptation to rule and lord it over others, Christ’s counter is to proclaim: “The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” True power rests in divesting ourselves of our idolatries and centering our lives on God again.
Three temptations, three big powers at play. And from Christ’s agony in the desert, three anti-powers to keep these temptations at bay: (a) the simplicity of hoping in God (vs obsessing about the power of riches to satisfy our hunger); (b) the humility of accepting God’s way of loving (vs imposing conditions on that love); and (c) the obedience of our faith in God alone (vs the delusion of our idolatries and addiction to power).
The cross of Christ (not the cross of capital punishment or the cross of scorn and hate) is where these anti-powers converge. In Him there is only the simplicity of hope, the humility of love, and the obedience of faith. And these are enough. It only takes these anti-powers to silence the serpent, to find our way back to Eden again.