Matthew 4:1-11; First Sunday of Lent
In physics, we explain attraction by assigning certain qualities to objects that make them move toward each other. Usually these properties are binary or polar in nature. Thus in electricity, plus attracts minus, and vice versa. In magnetism, north and south. In the nucleus of an atom, protons that are positive do not fly apart because of things called gluons that, well, glue them together. Gravity is stranger. But that’s another story, and perhaps for another homily.
In life, we explain attraction analogously. We assign certain qualities to objects of desire that make us move toward them. For example, prettiness, which is not binary and can be on a scale of 1 to 10. Another is security, again not binary but on a spectrum. Usually, we gravitate towards what we think we do not have or what we want to have more of or something that is never enough.
In the Gospel today, the devil dangles three temptations to our Lord, which to this day continue to pull at us. We tend to want the plentiful, the phenomenal, and the powerful. Three P’s. We tend to gravitate toward them even if they can pull us apart.
The first. We gravitate towards the plentiful. It can be food when we’re hungry. Plus and minus. Plenty and empty. Stones turned to bread can be tempting when we’re running on empty. As there are likely more stones than bread to go around, imagine how full and satisfied we can become. Plenty can also be about possessions. Stones changed into money or houses or land can be as delicious as bread. Imagine how less worrisome our life can be with all that plenty.
The only concern is knowing when to stop converting stones to possessions before they start possessing you. It never seems to be enough. Greed or avarice can masquerade as security or legacy. Plenty leads on to more plenty and on to more, until you wonder how it is that despite all the plenty, you are still running on empty.
The second. We gravitate towards the phenomenal. It can be any spectacle that enchants and lifts us from the dullness of everyday. Plus and minus. Special and ordinary. We worship those who fall unscathed, those who can defy gravity or walk on water. Imagine how less boring and less confusing our faith can be with a touch of magic from the one we believe.
The only concern is we hang on to the incredible (literally, the hard to believe) to make us believe. And so we make excuses for our unbelief, especially when we do not get what we expect. Does faith happen only when our expectations of the magical are met? Even our faith in each other is not premised on the magic we can deliver. Besides, those who look for magic forget that everything is already incredible. The universe, life itself, is a miracle. Some might say, angels coming down from heaven to take Jesus away from the cross would have been incredible. In truth, Jesus staying on that cross and dying our death is the one that is hard to believe.
Third and last. We gravitate towards power. It can come from any of the little kingdoms we build to exercise dominion or control over others. Plus and minus. Power and weakness. We can be like minions looking for a boss, or we can be that boss on the lookout for minions to lord over. Imagine all the wonderful things you can do with the power you’ve been given to wield.
The thing is, power can be intoxicating and beguiling. Power has always been the temptation of the serpent in the garden: “You certainly will not die! No, God knows well that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods….” Like gods. Now we know where that lie got us. Power can make us forget who we are not.
We are not God. Hopefully this Lent, we will gravitate toward God who is our true center. On our way, the serpent will surely be there to deflect us. But no worry. As Christ does in the desert, so can we tell the tempter off with these words: it is written, we do not live on bread or possessions alone; it is not our place to force or test the hand of God with our pettiness for the phenomenal; it is God alone who has power over our lives, in the cross of Christ true power is found.
To silence the serpent for good, we can tell him off with these words from the Psalm: The Lord is my shepherd, nothing else is more important, nothing more shall I want.
*image from the Internet