FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
“Jesus … was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil.” Lk 4:1
Even the word itself is enticing, alluring.
It’s a reality we’re all familiar with – from the hunger we experience when we fight off the desire for the chocolate forbidden by our self-imposed diet, to the craving we get for a forbidden “fruit” that could so easily become an addiction, to the struggle to resist the impulse to cheat just a little on our income tax return – we all know what temptation is like.
It’s endemic to the human condition.
Mae West, the iconic movie vixen, used to say: “I generally avoid temptation … unless I can’t resist it.” The famous preacher, Billy Sunday, was known to pray: “Lord, lead me not into temptation. I’m quite capable of finding the way all by myself.” And then there are the celebrated words of arguably the greatest theologian in the western world, St. Augustine, in his quest to do battle with his fight against impurity: “Lord, grant me chastity, but not yet.”
It’s the “not yet” part that you and I understand so well!
But what about Jesus? Why would he be tempted? Why would this reading we heard today be so important that all three of the Synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke – begin their tales of who Jesus is with this same scene of temptation?
To answer these questions, we have to step back and consider the classic story of the Israelites being saved by God from the horrors of slavery.
It’s really a love story – the description of how God fell in love with a particular people, the Israelites. Or, to use the words found in the book of Deuteronomy, that we heard from in today’s first reading: “The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his own possession … because the Lord loves you.”
Sounds beautiful, doesn’t it?
But, as in all love relationships, there’s a testing process.
So, also from the book of Deuteronomy: “And you shall remember … the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments, or not.”
The key words are “testing to know what was in your heart.”
The whole idea of being tested, of being led by God, of a place of “wilderness,” of the number forty, and even of fasting, all come from this original story of God “testing” to see if these people God’s so in love with will be able to love him in return – testing to see “what was in [their] heart.”
On a human level, the very same is asked of Jesus. Why?
Because God is about to hand over to Jesus an enormous amount of power – the power of being God’s face in the world; the power of building something utterly unique in all of human history, a kingdom of love and peace and mercy; the power of being so united to the Father that the two become One.
On a purely human level, then, Jesus must be tested to see what is “in his heart.” Can Jesus, unlike the Israelites of so long ago who flunked the test, remain utterly faithful to Abba, his Father?
The test Jesus is given, of course, is essentially the same one that we all have to pass if we are to accept a position of power in our own lives: the power to be a husband or wife, to be a parent, to be a leader of any kind.
The test is this: Can you remain faithful? Can you keep your commitments? Can you be obedient to your life promises? Can you make God the Lord of your life?
What is in your heart?
If you look closely, you will see that each of the three tests given in this story is about the same thing: the misuse of power – for purposes other than God’s original intention.
The first test given Jesus, and, by extension, to each of us is about the misuse of practical everyday power – the power to obtain food and housing and meet family needs.
The questions we have to answer are: Will we, like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden story, be seduced into loving the gifts God gives us in life more than God Himself? Will we allow ourselves to be tricked into letting the everyday pleasures of life become the false gods that overtake our lives?
In other words, what is in your heart?
The second temptation Jesus, and each of us, is given has to do with the misuse of religious power – the lure to use my religious practices to abuse others. For example, will I be involved in shaming people for their particular religious practices, or involved in exploiting the less powerful in the name of religion? Will I always remember the call to humility before God?
What is in your heart?
The third temptation has to do with the misuse of political power. Instead of seeing ourselves as servants of the greater good, do we find ourselves using people for our own self-interests and our own personal gain?
What is in your heart?
These temptations, and so many others, are powerful, compelling.
So much so, that the Bible itself begins a tale of the creation of man and woman by depicting how Adam and Eve, who represent all of us, “saw that the tree was good … pleasing to the eyes, and desirable.”
Doesn’t that accurately describe all temptations? Good … pleasing to the eyes … desirable.
That is why temptations are so captivating and seductive. That’s also why we need a time of the year called Lent.
The whole purpose of Lent is to give full recognition to the power of temptation by asking each of us, in effect, to call time out on the field, go into a huddle, and look deep inside ourselves so that we can more clearly see what is truly “in our hearts.”
To help us do that, we do as Jesus did: we go into the “wilderness” for forty days; we pray; we fast; we open ourselves up to the needs of those in pain around us; and we then look deeply into ourselves and ask perhaps the most challenging question of all –
What is in my heart?
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.