Christ Tempted in the Wilderness

Derek McCormack
Sunday, 17 April 2011



Christ Tempted in the Wilderness (Matt 4. 1-11)

By Derek McCormack, April 2011


We are in the season of Lent and one of the things Christians traditionally remember at this time is that Christ, after he was baptized and named by the Holy Spirit as the Son of God, went into the wilderness where He fasted for forty days and was tempted by Satan.


I think it was Oscar Wilde who said: I can resist anything but temptation.


Mark Twain claimed he mainly dealt with temptation by yielding to it.


And, of course, the Bible agrees that there is certain incapability to resist temptation with humans.


We see this first in the other great temptation scene set near the beginning of the Old Testament – just as the one we have read today is set near the beginning of the New Testament.


The other one is staged in a paradise, a garden of plenty, The Garden of Eden, not a wilderness of desolation. But to both there comes a tempter who has similar conversations with the tempted.


I think it’s interesting that to the medieval mind, and the Apostle Paul’s, the story of the Garden of Eden proved that woman was the weaker sex because she succumbed to temptation first.


Somehow the Medievals missed the point. It took the Devil to convince Eve to sin, but for Adam only a woman was required.


Adam and Eve – our progenitors – our archetypes – if you like the prototypes of humanity show us the propensities and performance limits of our race.


And from their drama we learn that it is not possible for woman or man – which means the whole of humanity - to resist all temptations.


We might say it is not in our nature.


C.S. Lewis has this to say: "No one knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. But only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of an army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness. They have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because he was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means--the only complete realist.”


So now we see Christ tempted and unlike Eve or Adam or all humanity following them Christ can and does resist temptation.


Now according to the New Bible Dictionary the biblical idea of temptation is not of seduction as in modern usage – it isn’t restricted to what we might most readily think of as temptation: lustful desires, gluttony, greed, or covetousness.


In the Bible, temptation is about making a trial of a person, putting people to the test. It might be for the benevolent reason of proving and improving their quality; or with the alternative aim of exposing their frailties and inadequacies. And in the Bible one agent of this testing is Satan.


In fact, Satan, in Hebrew originally meant the tester or even the trial itself. It is only later, in the New Testament, that Satan becomes interchangeable with the Devil as the supreme evil one.


In the wilderness, the Tempter, Satan, comes with an important job to do: to test, to prove the goodness, the commitment, the faithfulness, the robustness of character and resolve of Christ.


And so he questions Him to test Him, and he does so at the time of Christ’s greatest weakness – after He has fasted for forty days.


First the Tempter asks: Why don’t you turn these stones into bread and eat?

Rather like in the Eden when the tempter said to Eve: why don’t you eat of the fruit of the tree?


Then the Tempter asks Christ: Why don’t you cast yourself down from this high place for it is written that the Angels will save you, if you really are who you think you are, and you will not die? You won’t even bruise your foot.

Again, it’s similar in Eden when the tempter says to Eve: No. You will not die if you eat the fruit.


Last the Tempter asks Christ: Why don’t you succumb to me, give in to me, bow to me and to my proposal and then you will have dominion over all the kingdoms of the world?

Just as in Eden the tempter says to Eve: You will become like God.


But we believe, as we take from the Bible, that Christ IS God incarnate. What can this mean? Is it that God might be tempted? And if so what is God’s test in the world? What is God tempted to do in the world?


According to this story there are three things set before Him:


The first is the temptation to satisfy human needs and end human struggles – symbolised in proposal to turn stones into bread.


The second is the temptation to suspend the natural laws of the Creation so that harm might be averted – referred to in the dare to jump down from a high place.


The last is the temptation to take over human affairs – seen in the offer of dominion over all the kingdoms of the Earth.


These are the things that would take away our freedom as persons to be - to be who we are, to live in a world that we can understand, a world where our decisions can mean something, where we can chose and act and live with our consequences, and ultimately where each one of us can join with God by our own free choice as ourselves.


It is interesting that our prayers are so often for God to do the very things that must take that freedom away – the very things that God in Christ is tempted with.


By praying in that way are we are testing God’s faithfulness to His plan, and His faithfulness to us as His free creatures? We might then think of ourselves as being in the place of the Tempter of God, as Saint Peter was when Christ rebuked Him with the famous words: ‘get thee behind me Satan’.


In Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov there is a parable in which it is imagined that Christ comes back to earth in Spain at the time of the Inquisition. The people recognize Him and adore him, but he is arrested by Inquisition leaders and sentenced to be burnt to death. The night before the execution the Grand Inquisitor visits Christ and explains that the Church no longer needs Him.


The Inquisitor bases his denunciation on Jesus’ answers to the three questions of Satan during the Temptation. He argues that Jesus rejected the three temptations in favour of freedom. Jesus has misjudged human nature, argues the Inquisitor, because the vast majority of humanity can’t handle the freedom that Jesus would give them. Instead, the Inquisitor says, under him all mankind will live and die happily in ignorance with few choices. They may only be going to "death and destruction," but they will be happy along the way.


Jesus makes no answer but instead kisses the Inquisitor, whereupon the Inquisitor releases Him asking Him never to return. Jesus goes out into "the dark alleys of the city." The parable ends, with the words: "The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man [the Inquisitor] sticks to his own idea."


So at the end of the parable we see that the Inquisitor, enemy of freedom that he is, still exercises his own freedom.


In our own society, at least officially, we shrink from those things that take away the free choice of another; whatever reduces another to a thing or a means to someone else’s end. We seek to allow the dignity of autonomy to each person.


That is why we abhor slavery, and the torturer, why we condemn violence like rape, because these things take away a person’s free choice and they despise another’s will.


That is why we want patients in medical care to be able to make their own informed decisions about their treatments, why we want our societies to give people the freedom to speak – even if we hate what they say - and the freedom of belief - even if we think they’re dead wrong.


We think of taking away another’s freedom as a great evil.


In countries across the world today we see people demanding to be recognised – wanting to have the acknowledgement, that we in our nation and others like it already have, of participating as free individuals in choosing the government that establishes their laws.


Freedom is a deep human yearning – as Martin Luther King articulated in his dream, that one day he and his brothers and sisters might shout: Free! Free at last.


Within the human heart that freedom is known as a great good.


Within the human mind that freedom is thought to be a great good.


Philosophers thinking about human problems have come back to the same idea through their analysis. The great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, held that all ethical and moral actions arise from the respect of the autonomy of the other.


English philosopher John Stuart Mill, concluded that society should be so governed that people are free to the greatest extent to do what they would – the only exception being those actions that would prevent others from having the same freedom. The organisation of such a society is a complex and huge challenge, almost impossibility, but it is the direction that most perceive as progression towards a good society.


Why do we perceive it as good? The religious, the spiritual, might say because it is God’s idea.


But often we would want to go against that direction – to make people do what is better for them – to force them to do things for their own good.


Sometimes this is just a cover for what might be my good rather than theirs – but often the desire to take over springs from genuine caring and compassion.


We might want to be like the parent who misguidedly does the homework for his child, the piano teacher who nudges aside the pupil to play the hard part, the boss who takes over the employee’s work at the first sign of error, the charity giver who insists on good changes in the poor in return for a gift, or the benevolent dictator who takes over everything for the good of his people.


You might want God to be like that – many say they do. The devout and the atheist, the believer and the denier. For one it is the hope of God’s takeover. For the other it is the prime complaint against God: that God failed to take over when needed. The takeover sought is often of nature or of other people’s freedom. Sometimes it is even of the freedoms of self.


But we see in Christ that God resists that temptation.


Twentieth century Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton, observed that, “The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves”.


We know that our challenge in all relationships is to recognise not just the ‘I’ that speaks from within us, but also the ‘Other’ that yearns just as fervently to be present and known and acknowledged.


And maybe that is also the challenge and anguish of God that we see in Christ – God who loves the world and who created it to allow us to be present and known and acknowledged as ourselves.


Can we imagine that God comes to us in the reality of our lives without seeking to takeover, but to sustain us with His presence and love as we pursue our paths - often enough difficult paths – chosen from whatever options, however inadequate, however terrible, that were there for us.


When we participate in the Communion, some say that we take Christ bodily into ourselves, and that in a mysterious way we become Christ in the world.


Equally, you could think that in the same act Christ becomes you entering fully into your being, partaking in the unique humanity that only you represent.


In this season of Lent you might fast or deny other pleasures and comforts to prepare yourself in imitation of Christ who prepared Himself for the passion and pain of His ministry.


We should also remember that Christ came to be with us in imitation – in full participation - of human life, as God has created it. He shared our pain and passion.


As you put on Christ, Christ puts on you to release within you the best of your hopes and dreams of what you might be and more, of whom you might become, yourself unique and free as God created you.


Christ comes to be with you in the wilderness of your struggle and to take a part with you, without taking you apart from the challenge you face to be true and pass your test whatever that is.