Most faith communities, and especially those like us who are very much wedded to liturgical observances and traditions, have just entered the season of Lent; a time meant to seriously ponder on our very nature as finite beings and on our intended relationship with God, the very Source of our well being. This great penitential season was ushered in by the very humbling service called Ash Wednesday which, with the solemn ritual of the Imposition of Ashes, reminded us of our mortality and the need to rectify or amend any and all deviations from a closer relationship with God.
We have been invited to an observance of a holy Lent. As we begin to respond to it, we now have time for serious questionings; time to ask questions like “Who am I? What am I, really? What does my God want from me? How should I view life? What is my ultimate destiny and purpose in life and what does true happiness really mean? These are some of the serious questions that readily come up each time we purposely spend time for a deeper quest about what lies beyond what our human faculties tell us.
We find an example of such intentional time in today’s gospel lesson. Matthew tells us that “After Jesus was baptized, he was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (NRSV Matthew 4:1) It was the Holy Spirit that purposely led Jesus into a time and a place so he can have clarity on what he is all about and who he truly is. And the means chosen for this is temptation.
I know that we usually affix a negative connotation to temptation simply because it precedes the actual act of sinning. But I think temptation has its brighter side and it’s not altogether a bad thing. In fact, akin to Jesus’ temptation, it can also become for us an opportunity to find out more clearly who we are and who we’re not and to get clarity on what life is all about and what it’s not. Temptation does have a brighter side.
In our Gospel for today, we find Jesus entering into a purposeful period to have some clarity; into a time of finding out what God the Father really wants him to be and what his true purpose as the Messiah is. And it all happened in the wilderness. In its historical context, the term "wilderness" refers to areas in the unpopulated wilds of
which are often void of human distractions. Palestine
It is in such a place, away from distractions of humanity that some meaningful reflections often take place. We know fully well that when we search for resolutions to some of our overwhelming questions in life or when we ask for convincing explanations why our lives are not turning out the way we want them to be, that the first thing we want to do is to get rid of all the distractions in order to get clarity on the issues that seem to blur our faculty for sound judgment. Figuratively then, we enter into our virtual wilderness, away from all the distractions, so we can get the clarity we need.
Let us now listen to how the story about the Temptation of Jesus in the Wilderness starts to play out. Matthew says: “The tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’” (NRSV Matthew 4:3)
Our first impression is to regard this temptation as very basic, although, I think, there’s more to it than meets the eye. It seems quite basic yet it is very significant. And my reason for saying this is because I find Jesus’ first temptation of ‘turning stones into bread’ as running parallel to the temptation to regard material things as having more prominence in life rather than the will of God.
This first temptation is of the same genre, if you may, when we base our life on sensual pleasures and carnal desires of the body. Now, don’t be misled by this claim, though. The material things, the goods that satisfy the body and the sensual pleasures are not bad in themselves nor are they sinful by themselves. They are not. However, none of these goods is the Ultimate Good. God is! And so when our values in life are influenced mainly by the goods that satisfy the body then we are blinded from the truth of what God wants us to be and who we really are.
Jesus said: "It is written: ‘One does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (NRSV Matthew 4: 4)
In this temptation, Jesus makes it clear that our dependence ought not to be on worldly goods but on Him, the very Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. We ought to base our lives on the demands of Him whom we seek to follow rather than fashioning our lives according to the dictates of the passion and the flesh.
Consider now the second temptation. Matthew says: “Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'"(NRSV Matthew 4:5)
Notice how Jesus’ temptation is beginning to be more complex. It has now advanced into a temptation to glory, fame and the inflation of the Human Ego. This, again, is quite significant especially in the light of what we know about the
. Recall that in the cultural context of the time, everything in the Jewish culture and Jewish religion revolved around the Temple . The Temple was so central in Jewish life. Hence, by putting the temptation at the pinnacle of the Temple , it was so symbolic of a temptation to supplant dependence on God with the ecstasy of grandeur. Temple
Jesus said: “'Do not put the Lord your God to the test." (NRSV Matthew 4:7) Another moment of clarity. Indeed there was no need for Jesus to do it because he was clear about who he was, meaning, it was clear what his becoming man and his purpose was all about.
Here now is the third temptation as Matthew tells it. “Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." (NRSV Matthew 4:8-9)
Notice that the movement flows from a low context temptation; the basic temptation of succumbing to the desires of the flesh into a higher one as Jesus is subjected to the temptation to grandeur and honor and now to an even higher one, with the temptation to power.
Temptation to power and access to it has been played up and down the annals of history. There’s quite an extensive list of prominent political leaders who succumbed to the temptation to power as they led their countries in a dictatorial fashion. Again, I’m not saying that power is bad because, in itself, power is not. In fact one of the characteristics we apply to God is that He is Omni-potent; Almighty, Powerful. Power can be a “nice” thing to have; as in making things happen when you want it and how you want it to happen, It’s no wonder then that a great deal of those who have access to this kind of power have a hard time resisting this kind of temptation. However, power, especially in the worldly sense, is not the Ultimate Good.
Jesus had this to say: "'Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” (NRSV Matthew 4:10) Again, it was a time for clarity. Jesus was very clear about what God wanted from him. When he heard the voice of the Holy Spirit that came down like a dove affirming that he was God’s beloved Son, he had the clarity right in this temptation in the wilderness, in finding that he had no need to convince others of his divinity. As such, he had access to what real power is all about.
Our lives can indeed be a maze of things which we have no answers. At times, we avoid confronting them; we create diversions or distractions. Most of the times, however, we need to find the answers.
In order to have clarity on those seemingly unfathomable issues in our lives, we might find it helpful if we intentionally put ourselves in a virtual wilderness, in a place away from the distractions and then enter it. As Jesus stayed in the wilderness and found clarity upon resisting all three temptations, so can we stay in our virtual wilderness and find our own clarity on things that matter most to us.
Lent could be a time for us to confront those grand questions about God, about us and about this thing we call Life. If we decide to do it, we will then find out that our life is more about doing the will of God and less of heeding the will of the flesh; not a life that is dominated by a misuse of whatever earthly power we have temporary access to. Our life could include a surrendering to the promptings of God in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
May you have a good observance of a holy Lent!