As the gospel text that inaugurates our observance of Lent, the Temptation of Jesus reminds us that deciding what to give up, if we fast at all, is only part of the equation. During this season, we prepare for Easter by recommitting our lives to following Christ. The “giving up” associated with fasting is, of course, the important spiritual practice of forgoing what suits us in order to focus more faithfully on what serves God. This is the sort of discipline that nurtures our capacity to confidently subordinate our wills to God’s will. But Lent is more than learning how to yield our wills to God’s. It also corresponds to the concern of strengthening our wills to withstand forces that would weaken our commitment to the sacred. The Temptation of Jesus teaches that along with deciding what to give up for Lent, we should also be determining ways to gird up. Accordingly, through the example of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, Luke 4:1-13 delineates who we are up against, what we are up against and how we can stand against the one who would enlist us in countermanding the will of God. Who we are up against is the devil, whose stock in trade is false accusation and slander. By definition, is one who intends to overthrow others by the hostile means of full-on verbal assault. Modern-day approaches to the devil often explain away more than actually explain this figure. Underplaying or oversy
mbolizing doesn’t do justice to the gospel’s portrayal of the devil as the one who most means business in seeking to thwart the reign of God that Jesus is ready to announce and enact. What we’re up against is the way the devil mounts his verbal assault on Jesus. We tend to think of temptation in terms of being lured or seduced. But this only scratches the surface of what the devil is up to with Jesus. The deeper meaning of “to tempt” involves testing character. In the case of the devil’s approach, the test is designed to trip up Jesus. This is reinforced in three respects. First, carries the connotation of testing — more literally, piercing — that comes from an opposing direction, such as by the action of an opponent or adversary (note: Satan means “adversary”). Second, the devil’s tone with Jesus is provocative, even taunting, throughout the passage. This is especially evident in the opening of the first and third temptations where, in both cases, a more accurate translation isn’t “if” but “because,” so the phrase should read “Because you are the Son of God ....” Wasting no energy quibbling over Jesus’ title, the devil moves directly to the deeper challenge of calling into question and demanding palpable proof whether Jesus has authority and power sufficient to back up that title. Third, the devil is desperate enough to try taking on Jesus via proof texting quoting Psalm 91:11-12). The devil opposes Jesus from the get-go. He goads Jesus, appeals to Jesus’ pride, even resorts to the sophistry of selective use of Scripture — all to no avail. A common thread in this testing is how the devil tries to play on Jesus’ sense of worth. In the first test, Jesus is tempted to take care of his rightful needs. Next, Jesus is tempted with all earthly glory and authority just as he’s poised to launch an earthly ministry that will crown him with thorns and enthrone him on the cross. Then Jesus is tempted to flaunt his importance to God. In each case, Jesus demonstrates that his sense of worth is inextricably connected to the priority of trusting God and serving God’s purposes. Jesus’ sense of worth is crucial to a consideration of how we can stand against the one who would enlist us in countermanding the will of God. For with each retort to the devil’s temptations, Jesus shows how placing our deepest trust in God and giving our most faithful service to God’s purposes leads us to comprehend more fully that God’s providence surpasses our physical need, that ultimate glory and authority are God’s and that God’s trustworthiness is a covenant of grace, not a commodity at our disposal. Trusting God and serving God’s purposes also wear the devil down. Notice how Jesus gives concise responses to which the devil has no comeback, other than to shift to another temptation. Granted, the series of three temptations isn’t a lengthy sample. Nevertheless, by the time we reach the third one, it feels as though the devil is running out of steam and flailing a bit. Moreover, as Jesus dispenses with each temptation, further reflection suggests what the devil has to offer by way of enticement is very small potatoes after all. For starters, in the first and third temptations, the devil doesn’t actually offer anything other than trying to get Jesus to perform one miracle and then to prompt God to perform another. With the second temptation regarding all the kingdoms of the world, because Jesus already is the Son of God, no measure of earthly glory and authority is upward mobility for him. In light of Luke 4:1-13, perhaps the key to our giving up and girding up during Lent is to make and renew our commitment to giving over — giving over ourselves to the priority of trusting God and serving God’s purposes. Because in doing so, we connect ourselves to holiness that equips us with the spiritual wherewithal to better focus both on what suits God and on how to withstand any assault designed to weaken that focus. The devil is a worthy adversary but no match for the advocacy of Jesus. Jesus is connected to the one from whom all blessings flow. In the long run, all the devil can offer is nothing worth having in the first place, no matter how tempting. To whom and to what is our sense of worth most faithfully connected?