Every Lent begins with the story of Christ’s temptation in the desert. But it is a strange story. We know in advance that Jesus will pass these tests. Indeed, he barely breaks a sweat. If he failed, this religion wouldn’t exist. So why not just say, Jesus faced some tests, passed them, and was ready to preach? In fact, that is exactly how the Gospel of Mark presents this scene, with no details at all. So why does Matthew feel the need to expand it into this strange encounter with Satan?
Today I would like to suggest that each of these temptations are meant to be teachable moments, for us. On our behalf. Jesus is providing advice about how to resist various kinds of temptation. So, let’s take a look at each test, and see what it has to teach us about temptation in our lives.
When Satan first appears, he doesn’t identify himself. Jesus may not know who he is. The first thing Satan suggests is: if you’re so great, why not use your powers to satisfy your hunger? Turn these stones into bread. Give in to your cravings.
We all know that voice. Eat some bread; fall off the wagon and have a drink. One bet won’t hurt, you won’t start gambling all the time again. Go for it. You won’t start smoking again if you have one puff. A little bit of porn is fine, you won’t go back to watching it all the time. Come on, satisfy your craving right now.
Jesus doesn’t fall for this, despite his very real hunger. He replies, “ ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Now, that sounds like Jesus being high and mighty. It sounds like He’s saying that we should be able to live by high ethical principles, by the words of God in the Bible. That’s hard advice to take when you really, really want to give in to a craving.
So why does Jesus say this? Jesus is quoting from a section in the Hebrew Scriptures called Deuteronomy (Deut 8:3). It is story of the Exodus, the 40 years the Israelites spent in the desert. During that time, they feared they would starve to death. So, God sent the food of angels, manna from heaven to feed them. It dropped from the sky. This is what Jesus is speaking of when he speaks of the words of God. The full line is:
3 God humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
This was of course utterly unexpected. And that is Jesus’ point. When we are gripped by cravings, for a drink, for a pill, for another bet, those cravings want us to just act, give in. They are a kind of malevolent mindfulness. Give in right now. But Jesus is reminding us that there is always another possible future. Every sober alcoholic is someone who resisted the temptation to take that last drink. They resisted because they wanted a different kind of future. The only way out of destructive cravings is to believe that there is some kind of manna for you, a good future that your cravings cannot imagine. Alcoholics Anonymous. Methadone. Detox. Sex Therapy. Gamblers Anonymous. The living word of God Jesus is speaking of is that sober future which seems so impossible but is the only way to escape from harmful cravings. So, Jesus tells Satan – I can live without giving into my cravings. There is another way. God offers protection in ways it can be hard to imagine.
Satan hears about this offer of protection, so he decides to test it. He whisks Jesus to the top of the temple in Jerusalem, the highest point in town. If you’re so great, thrown yourself off this peak, let’s see if God will protect you. Satan’s first temptation was about physical cravings, now it is directed at Christ’s ego. Show me what a big shot you are. Show me that you can get God to help you anytime you call.
Once again, Jesus responds by quoting from Deuteronomy: you should not put your God to the test (Deut 6:16). He’s referring to a specific episode when the Israelites were in the desert. This time, they are desperately thirsty. God tells Moses what to do: go to a particular rock, speak to it, and water will gush out of it. But Moses gets ahead of himself. He shows off by tapping the rock with his staff, as though it was his own power that made the water flow. The people are ecstatic, and of course they are impressed by Moses. He seems to have miraculous powers. But God is not happy. God is angry at Moses because he made it seem like he was acting on his own, as if he personally possessed this power. As a result, God decides Moses will not enter the Promised Land. ( Numbers 20) It is critical that Israel’s leaders are clear about where their power comes from.
When Satan tells Jesus to throw himself off the temple, he wants Jesus to show off, prove that he can get God to rescue him on demand. He wants Jesus to act as though he’s got the power to order God around. That’s a problem many leaders experience. They are given power by the people who elect them, but they often mistake that power for their own. In China and Russia, the leaders have become convinced that they own the state and they should always be in charge. They have changed their laws so they can stay in power for the rest of their lives. They believe the people serve them, not the other way around. What Putin wants, Putin gets, even if Russia is destroyed in the process.
That contempt for the public interest can be found all over the world among politicians. Leaders can become so blinded by ego that they equate their ideas with the public interest. In some cases, leaders may even run for re-election to impose their vision of society , even when they harbour secrets that could ruin their careers. They mistake their own priorities for the priorities of the people. This is not evil, but it does cause a lot of grief.
The second temptation of Christ suggests that leaders need to be aware of where their power comes from, and not to believe that what is good for them is good for everyone else. When we know that we are serving another, we will do a better job of serving their interests and our own.
Of course, this makes no sense to Satan at all. So, he tries something different. Satan takes Jesus to the top of a tall mountain, where he can see all the kingdoms of the world. All of this can be yours, Satan says, if you will just worship me.
Have you ever been offered the world? Been promised a future of ease and comfort? Lotteries are like that. Every week or so the news has a picture of someone with a big smile holding a cheque for millions of dollars. Their problems appear to be over, they’ve won the world, a life on easy street. Yet studies have found that most lottery winners don’t end up happier, and they have higher bankruptcy rates than other people.
Their wealth often poisons relationships with family and friends who either want gifts, or can’t relate to the new jet setting lifestyle. In fact, one study found that the neighbours of people who win lotteries also start overspending to try to keep up, and their bankruptcy rates rise, too. Lotteries aren’t really about making people happy. They are a way for states to make money, and they have the effect of promoting the idea that money can solve all our problems. We’re encouraged to worship money. What happens to people after they win rarely hits the news.
Abusive partners also often promise the world. When they court a new partner, they pour on the charm, wining and dining them, promising a wonderful relationship that can start right now. They often seem to be the perfect partner at first, doting and loving. It is only later that their partners discover that what they really want is to be all controlling, to be worshiped, not loved. To control every move their partner makes, to keep them away from friends and family. The abusive partner has lied when they promised the world. That was a con to get what they really wanted, a personal slave.
Christ’s final temptation reminds us to beware of people who offer us the world. No one can promise happily ever after. It sounds nice, but it never works that way. Jesus rebuffs Satan, quoting again from Deuteronomy: You shall only worship the Lord your God (Deut 6:13). This line comes from a section in scripture when the Israelites are reminded that they were slaves in Egypt until God rescued them. They are warned: don’t become slaves again by worshipping false idols who promise everything but deliver lies. Instead, God offers a more practical way to achieve the good life. The Israelites are promised a land of milk and honey – but not right away. They are not taken from the Red Sea to Israel instantly. They aren’t ready for that. They have lived as slaves for centuries.
They haven’t a clue how to govern themselves. So, God takes it slow. They are given ethical training: the ten commandments. And God gives them lots of time to work on their relationships – with each other and God. 40 years. Only then will they be ready to enter the Promised Land.
God does not give them a quick fix. Good relationships, happy lives, take time and work. Beware of anyone who says otherwise. They can’t guarantee the future, no one can. What we need are the tools to live well, come what may. Christ’s three temptations are for us, to help us spot temptation and learn how to resist it. In each case, Jesus reminds us of God’s loving bounty: manna from heaven, water from a rock, a promised land for an enslaved people. God is the God of possibility, of better, unexpected outcomes.
Temptations ask us to act now, take what is right in front of us. God offers a richer way to be human. One we may often find hard to imagine. God offers us a way through the deserts of our lives, a promise that things can get better. That you are not alone. You live in God’s world, who has created and is creating. And who is always waiting to help.
 “Why Do So Many Lottery Winners Go Bankrupt?” International Business Times (U.S. ed.), Aug. 11, 2019  https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2012/11/28/winner-lottery-bankrupt/1731367/  https://money.com/powerball-jackpot-lottery-winner-neighbors-bankrupt/  https://www.domesticshelters.org/articles/identifying-abuse/profile-of-an-abuser  https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/domestic-violence/art-20048397