THE HEART OF THE MATTER (A)
The story of the temptation of Christ touches the heart of the matter of our relationship to God. It touches the point at which we are the most real, the most engaged.
You know the story. Jesus is fasting in the dessert and tempted by the devil to 1) turn stones to bread, 2) jump off a high place and let the angels catch him and 3) seize power over all the kingdoms of the world. Jesus replies 1) “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” 2) “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” and 3) “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.”
In the Gospel of Mark we are only told that Jesus was tempted. It is in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew that we have the temptations elaborated. This is a type of story seldom found in the Gospels. It is apocalyptic and fanciful. The story lacks the usual down to earth plodding of the parables or the Birth or Passion narratives where bits of everyday life stick out from a manger or the road. Whereas most of the stories in the Gospels are not of a form found much in other literature, this story would fit right in with an Arabian tale or even a Hindu story. Hence it is tempting to say that the story is not “real.”
There is, however, a sense in which the story has a high degree of “realism.” If you saw the film, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” you saw a film that strove for grainy realism. It was filmed in Morocco. Jesus walked grubby narrow streets and the Palm Sunday march looked like a Cub Scout parade. Because of the diminution of scale and the attempt for “naturalism” the film failed to convey that what was happening was of extraordinary importance. It changed the world. Big events require appropriate big tellings. You can’t say, “The Patriots won the supper bowl!!” in a whisper and have it make sense. You have to say it boldly.
So it seems to me that the conversation in the wilderness between the devil and Jesus is quite real in its dramatic presentation. In Jesus God meets mankind right where it hurts, right at the point of temptation. Ever since Adam and Eve there has been the desire to “want to do things my way,” to see ourselves as the center of the universe and to measure all things over against our own needs. It is this tension, this conflict, that has dogged mankind, the Jewish people and people like you and me today.
This tension between being homeocentric and theocentric, self-centered or God centered, was dramatically spelled out in The Book of Job. Many of us are familiar with that story from Archibald MacLeish’s play J.B., which I’ve seen several times. Historically the story of Job arose out of the Deuteronomic theory in the Old Testament that if a person were devout and morally good, then he would prosper. If a nation obeyed God, then it would prosper. Hence prosperity was seen as a sign of God’s favor. Wisdom literature, of which Job is a part, on the other hand, said that unfortunately the good often suffer and bad people prosper. Why then do the good suffer? Why does God let good people suffer? Job is tempted to “curse God and die.” Job goes through horrendous loses and pain but refuses to curse God. The resolution of this conflict appears to be the answer that the nature of God in the universe and in life is to a large extent unknowable - beyond our comprehension. What we do know is that we continue to survive and to find new life and new beginnings and new hope. Part of the profundity of God, of the mysterium tremendum, is love. His never giving up on us and our renewal is a sign of God’s love. The love that we have for one another, for husband and wife, parent and child, for friends, although inexplicable, is a sign of the love God has for us. In the end, as MacLeish tells it, the answer is that there is incomprehensible, irrefutable love. The story of Job tells us that while you and I are tempted to renounce God, God does not renounce you or me.
So temptation is the issue that touches us right on the psychic nerve. Now, I want to tell you a story. Twenty-some years ago I was celebrating the Eucharist at Courtland Gardens nursing home. Thirty patients were lined up in front of me in their wheel chairs and their walkers. They were in decrepit condition. Most slumped, some slept and a few gazed vacantly around the room. When it came time for my homily I discovered that the Gospel passage was about temptation. “How am I ever going to make the issue of temptation real to these old people?” In a moment of inspiration I remembered that during the early 1940s there was a song called, “Temptation.” Hoping to use that as a way of getting into various areas of temptation in life, I started singing. “You came. I was alone. I should have known…” At that moment thirty patients snapped bolt upright and with gesture completed the refrain with, “YOU WERE TEMPTATION.” I was stunned. I tried to talk about temptation, but they all flopped over back to sleep or whatever catatonic state they were previously in.
Upon reflection I realized that when I sang that song I brought them back to the 1940’s. That was when they were the most active, most engaged and most alive. Now they were in their late 70’s and 80’s. But back when they were in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s there were lots of temptations. Obviously there were the temptations of the appetites. There was the desire for gratification. Food or bread is of course one of those means of gratification. There is also the desire to feed the appetites of others. Surely that can be seen as a good thing. A chicken in every pot may be the slogan for a politician, but it is also the dream of millions of people worldwide. In our youth there are the temptations to do the impossible – to be a rock star, to be famous, to find the cure for various dysfunctions, to set a record in sports, academics or business. All of us dream of doing things that would test the ingenuity of angels. Most insidiously there are the temptations for power. Simply put, we all like to control things. In each of us there is an “I want to do it myself” DNA computer chip. You and I like to fix things. Sometimes we even want to fix others!
The truth of the matter is that temptation greets us at all stages of life. We are tempted to feel sorry for our selves, to feel jealousy and resentment, to nourish grudges and hurts, to control our lives by being mean to others. When my mother-in- law was in Courtland Gardens, I used to watch the dynamics of the old ladies at the dinner table, as they would cajole, maneuver and bully one another. It was subtle, but clear and often cruel. The devil and temptation were very much at the table.
Where there are the sparks of life and of choice, where there are those basic elements that constitute life in us, that is where the essence of our individual life resides. It is there, at the heart of the matter of life, the life of our lives, that the conflict with temptation exists.
On the one hand, the story of the temptation of Christ tells us that Jesus was both human and divine. It is illuminated by our knowledge of the Passion and Resurrection stories. It continues the tradition of Job in which the most faithful servant of God is tempted and refuses to give in. At the same time the story goes beyond the theology of Job and points to a unique messiahship, which eventually includes the Kingdom of God and eternal life. By stating that man is sustained not only by bread but also by the word of God, Jesus reminds His audience that life is more than material possessions and earthly appetites. Moreover, by refusing to allow Himself to be born by angels after a jump into space, Jesus maintains that toying with God for magical relief violates the importance of faith. To seek spectacular, wondrous acts is to appeal to “do it yourself” magic and quick fix gimmicks. Finally, by refusing to seize power over the kingdoms of this world, Jesus rejects the dream of a messianic kingship and a new kingdom of bricks, mortar, blood and conquest. So on the one hand, the story of the temptation tells us that Jesus was both human and divine.
On the other hand, the story tells us something else. It tells us that in Jesus Christ God has entered into the heart of the matter. He has entered into that place where there is the struggle in our hearts between choice and fatalism, where there is the tension between doing things homeocentrically or theocentrically – man and woman centered or God centered. By being tempted and refusing, Jesus breaks the power of the Tempter. You and I are not doomed always to choose bread over the word of God, to choose the material over the spiritual. By God’s acting in Jesus, the spell is broken. The power of the extravagant exhibitionism of narcissism is stifled. It is by resisting the earthly crown of control, the desire to make small kingdoms in life and big kingdoms in the world, that the influence and appeal of earthly power is diminished and shown to be hollow.
The story of the temptation of Christ in the end shows us a God who speaks to the heart of the matter, to the heart of our hearts, and reveals Himself as one who enters right into the area where things are determined to be done and left undone. The story foreshadows the Passion and Resurrection narratives. Here we see Christ’ victory over self-centeredness (being homeocentric,) over materialism, over grandiosity, over narcissism and over the seductive power of control. Having defeated those temptations, Christ achieved victory for you and me over the stifling power of the temptations of self-centeredness, materialism, grandiosity and control. This story is a prelude. Later in the gospel story Jesus by His death and resurrection will break the grip of and emerge victorious over sin, evil and death.
This lent do not despair. Do not feel captive to the temptations of self-centeredness, materialism, grandiosity and control. Their grip has been broken. You and I are called to work with God, valuing things spiritual as well as earthly, engaging in dreams and visions without tempting or mocking God, and enjoying the freedom found in being loved and in loving. In Christ you and I are offered the liberty of feeling safe and assured of meaning and purpose in the cosmos, in the world, in life and in our lives. This Lent be both honest with yourself and thorough in your self-examination. At the same time, relax. Like the old ladies in the chapel at Courtland Gardens, push your temptations to the past and sing, “You came. I was alone. I should have known. You were temptation.” The difference is, of course that you are not alone. Your old battles with temptation have already been won by Jesus Christ. Reach out and take God’s hand. Better yet, reach out and allow God to take your hand. Amen. – Fr. Gage-