Monday, February 27, 2023

Temptation as Assault on Identity & Purpose


Matthew 4:1-11

Lent 1 / Year A

We began the season of Epiphany (as we always do) hearing the story of Jesus’ baptism.  There, in the cool waters of the Jordon River, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove and God’s voice is heard saying, “You are my Son, the beloved.  With you I am well pleased.”  We are told in today’s reading soon after this the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness where he fasts and prays for forty days.  Then the temper comes.

Notice how the first two temptations are introduced by questioning Jesus’ identity: “If you are the Son of God…  Prove it to me and prove it to yourself by making bread out of stones!  Prove it to the world by throwing yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple!  When God’s angels catch you your identity will be confirmed before everyone.”  The proposition to bow before Satan in order to inherit all the kingdoms of the world is a temptation for Jesus get what is rightfully his but to do it in all the wrong ways.  And, it must be said, Jesus is tempted by each of these or else they would be little more than verbal jousting.  The temptations are attacks on Jesus’ God-given identity as well as an assault on how he is to live into his unique purpose and mission.

Our first reading from the Book of Genesis is one of the best known and most discussed stories in all of Scripture.  Adam and Eve receive a calling, which is to be the foundation of their identity.  God puts them in the garden “to till it and to keep it.”  Who are they?  Custodians of God’s creation.  And it is a lush creation teeming with everything they can possibly need.  God invites Adam to eat freely of every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Adam then transmits this instruction to Eve, but their conversation is not contained in the biblical record. 

The serpent questions Eve: “Did God really say you cannot eat the fruit of any tree in the garden?”  She corrects the serpent, “We can eat of any tree, only not the one in the middle.  We cannot eat it or touch it.”  Notice she does not seem to know the tree’s name, only its location.  And notice she adds “We cannot touch it,” when God made no such declaration.  Did Adam not pass along God’s words with fidelity or did Eve not hear accurately or did she add in these new things on her own?  Or, perhaps all three things happened.  No matter what, the damage is done.  The seeds of doubt take root and the question of identity and purpose is challenged.  “Maybe I can be more than a tiller and a keeper.  Maybe I can be like God.  Maybe I can become my own god with the ability to determine who I am and what I want to do.”

The bible never describes what the evil one looks like, but the names it gives this presence tell us much about his work.  Tempter means “cause to fall.”  Think of all the things in life you trip over and how they harm your sense of who God has created you to be and what God has called you to do.  Satan means “accuser.”  I have encountered several accusers in my life.  Most are narcissists whose woundedness has rendered them incapable of acknowledging any personal responsibility for any of the things going wrong in their life.  It is always someone else’s fault and they have no problem letting you know it.  Devil means “to divide.”  Pitting one person against another, one group against another, one nation against another, one race or religion against another.  The Holy Trinity is the embodiment of unity and has brought about all creation in order to share in its relational harmony.  The devil/divider works to bring about the opposite: hatred, alienation, brokenness, strife.

St. Paul writes about how Adam’s inability to live with fidelity into his God-given identity and purpose becomes something we all inherit.  We share in his fall and failure.  And this is not to say God punishes Adam and then us for being sinners.  It means we suffer the consequences of failing to embrace our God-given identity and don’t experience the blessings of living into our calling and purpose. 

As we watch Jesus in the wilderness we see him overcome temptation.  He does not fall.  We see him stand tall and faithful in the face of accusation.  We see him whole, not divided, in his relationship with the Father.  And throughout his life we see him remain faithful to his personal calling and mission; even to the point of offering himself to die on the cross for the sins of the whole world. 

In today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans, Paul sums up the impact of Christ’s life in this way:

Therefore, just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.  For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

Through Adam we have inherited a broken sense of self and purpose.  We are unsure of who we are, we don’t know whose we are, and we struggle to discern why we are here and what we are supposed to do.  In Christ we have discovered anew we are children of God and heirs of God’s eternal kingdom.  In Christ we hear again we are called to be caretakers of all creation; partners with God and kindly affectioned to one another, living no longer for self alone.