Friday, March 3, 2017

The Anatomy of Temptation

First Sunday of Lent Year A

This First Sunday in Lent, we’re going to spend some time talking about temptation and about our old adversary, the devil. But even more importantly we’re going to think about Jesus’ own battle against temptation and how his response is such good news for the world and us. When it comes to the subject of temptation, we have a mother lode of riches, don’t we? Wasn’t it that proverbial Hollywood bad girl Mae West who said, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” Everybody faces temptation and everybody gives in to it occasionally. Some of it is pretty harmless (that extra slice of chocolate cake) and we can laugh about it. But some of it isn’t.

But that’s the supreme subtlety of the Devil. He has perfected the act of trivialising something quite serious and making sin not look like sin. In fact, his disguise is his best work. It was Dante’s Inferno back in the early Middle Ages that presented the world with an image of a nefarious, horned creature with a pitchfork. Disney added the red suit. Scripture does not give us such an image.  The Evil One is much too sly to present himself in such an obvious garb. In fact, his ancient name ‘Lucifer’, the Shining One, says it all. He is the most radiant and beautiful among the celestial beings. The Devil’s first accomplishment is to convince you that he doesn’t exist. And then he proceeds to insinuate doubts to make you believe that conscience is a figment, that prayer is a projection, and finally that God is only a defence mechanism.

In today’s gospel, we read about how Jesus was tempted by the Devil. As modern day sceptics, it is easy for us to dismiss this story of a real devil as the primitive musings of unsophisticated people. I am not here to debate with you the validity of personifying evil. I am here to tell you that evil is real, and whether it takes the form of a breathing creature who whispers in our ears or not, the power of this story resides in the deep Truth that it conveys.

As much as the story seems to cast the spotlight on our arch-villain, the Truth is that this is actually a story of faith and obedience to the authority of God. It is about singularity of purpose and an undivided heart. Our Lord is the main protagonist, not the devil. A parallel is drawn between the experience of Jesus and that of the Israelites during the Exodus. Both stories share a parallel in the wilderness setting. Notice that Jesus quotes exclusively from Deuteronomy, texts set against the backdrop of the Exodus. But Jesus’ response to the event is in sharp contrast with Israel’s. Because of their unfaithfulness, the Israelites had to wander in the wilderness for forty long years before they could enter the Promised Land. Where Israel failed, Jesus perfectly obeys and because He perfectly obeys, the Devil is defeated.

Of course we wonder what relevance this story about Jesus and the devil has in our lives. The common denominator is that of temptation – Christ in embracing our humanity, allowed Himself to be tempted as we have been tempted. No other gospel story allows us to identify so closely with Him. None of us can perform miracles, or raise the dead, but almost daily we are tempted to compromise our convictions, our morals, and our faith in a hundred different myriad ways. But there is a difference. The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us, “Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, yet did not sin.” (Heb. 4:15) He proves to us that sin need not be the only conclusion to every temptation. Thus, we are invited today to examine the modus operandi of the Devil but we also need to study the measured responses of the Lord in battling evil.

Let’s begin with the anatomy and dynamics of evil and temptation. We see the malignant perseverance of the Devil who refuses to let up as well as how he subtly window dresses temptations in the guise of affection. Intelligent and reasonable argumentation, woven into every temptation to make it seem like a good idea at that time.  This is what he does. The tempter offers up things that are eminently reasonable and seemingly rational. He comes across as being compassionate, understanding and reasonable. Shakespeare wrote, “The prince of darkness is a gentleman”  Sometimes evil is easily identified. But more often than not, evil presents itself in the guise of an apparent good. The devil is far too clever and subtle to be so obviously evil.

Just consider the temptations of Christ. The suggestions made are so reasonable. You don’t have to starve—just turn the stones to bread. You want the people to believe who you are—throw yourself off the temple, the angels will catch you, and the people will be dazzled. You want to be lord of creation, I will give it all to you. There’s truly nothing inherently wrong with any of these suggestions. On the surface, what’s suggested is not so bad. Which, of course, is the idea. But that’s on the surface. There is, however, something insidiously damning buried there in the fine print. Remember that the devil is in the details. Subtle, crafty, on the surface, quite logical, but the price exacted is the abandonment of God’s mission. The Devil is unable to create. But he has mastered the art of distraction. He has convinced so many of us that the end justifies the means. Achieving your goal by whatever means is ultimately what matters.

What is the common thread running through all three temptations and all other temptations which we face? It is basically this: to treat God as less than God. And ultimately, when men cease to trust God and worship Him, they end up worshipping the devil. We are constantly being tested in our trust that God sustains us, protects us and, in fact, delivers us. We would rather trust in our own strength, devices and resources than to trust in God and His Providence. I can’t turn stones into bread but I can doubt that God will provide what I need and proceed to work out a human solution. You will not see me leaping off the tower of this church building but I have often plunged ahead blindly, not sure if God would see me through a crisis. We don’t bow before idols of petty gods, but we engage in idolatry nevertheless when we behave as if God doesn’t exist. A modern term has been coined to describe this – practical atheism. It is no wonder how extraordinarily difficult it is to worship and serve only God and God alone.

But here is how Jesus responded to the three temptations of the devil: to the temptation to satisfy our wants, Jesus says focus on God and not the world.  Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and mind and soul.  To the temptation of seeking the approval of others, the Lord reminds us that it is far more important to please God than it is to please and impress men. And finally, to the temptation of power, Jesus reminds us that God alone is the source of all abundance and power in our lives.  We derive power not from autonomy but from faithful and humble obedience to God. Ultimately, the ultimate defence and cure to all forms of temptations is this, putting God first above all else.

Yes, no one is immune from being tempted, even the saints and Christ too. It would be hubris whenever we think that we can negotiate and out-manoeuvre the Devil. We can’t, at least not on our own. But, thank God, we have Jesus. Here we finally have someone who encountered temptation and emerged victorious. He did so through the most powerful weapon – obedience to the will of God. This Lent let’s tussle against temptation. If temptation comes our way, we’re probably doing something good that evil wishes to thwart. So let’s fight against temptation, but do so always trusting not in our resources nor in the strength of our own resolve or will power, but in the one who was and is faithful to us and all the world—Jesus the Christ, the One who defeated the Devil at his own game, and will be victorious at the End.

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