“After Jesus was baptized, he came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove coming upon him. And a voice came from the heavens, saying, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” Turn the page and we hear the opening verses of today’s gospel: “Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” This passage is famously known as the Temptation in the Desert (or the Wilderness)
It is a wonderful passage, rich in texture and there are so many ways to consider the meaning. I think most often in my life – in one way or the other – it is addresses as Jesus being tempted to abandon his mission and take the easy way out. Satan misuses Holy Scriptures to tempt Jesus, to seduce him to the ways of humanity, but Jesus counters with Holy Scripture rightly understood.
Physically, Jesus is at the end of his strength. Socially, he’s alone and friendless. Spiritually, he is struggling to hang onto his identity as the glow of his baptism encounter fades: “…my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” And it’s in this state of vulnerability that Satan comes. But Jesus vere Deus, vere homo; truly God and truly human. Is there any doubt that Jesus will win? I mean ok, truly human, but more truly divine. Weak, alone, spiritually struggling…how human are we willing to let Jesus be? If we are honest, we want our Jesus human, but not too human.
Another valid translation for the word “to tempt” is “to test.” What if the translators had given us the legacy of this narrative known as the “The Testing of Jesus?” Then this divinely-allowed test becomes an invitation for Jesus to confront his humanity. And for Satan it is a second opportunity. Where Satan tests Adam and Eve in the Garden with the shrewd invitation for them to taste the apple and be like God (Gen 3:5), he shrewdly invites/tests an exhausted Jesus with questions that essentially ask: “Can you be fully human? Can you relinquish power? Can you bear the vulnerability of what it means to be weak and mortal and human? Can you live and work in anonymity away from the glow of power and fame?
If we are hungry wouldn’t we want bread. If in danger, protection and from a legion of angels is all the better. And if only we were in charge of the world, wouldn’t we set things right? Seems reasonable. But this is a test, an invitation for Jesus to fully identify as fully human even as he is fully God.
Three invitations to do what no human could do and be not so much like us.
After all, it’s not right that God’s beloved should hunger. But being human means that unmet desires are part of life and not an aberration. Sure, Jesus can use divine powers to cheat hunger. He can take a stone that has its own created role, its own beauty and purpose and possess, convert and consume it to satisfy his hunger. But then he never learns what desires have to teach us. He never approaches the hunger beneath the hunger. He avoids the human questions: Can we can be loved and hungry at the same time? Desire and still flourish? Lack and still live generously, without exploiting the beauty and abundance all around us? Can Jesus learn what it means to be hungry in a world waiting for redemption.
Hunger in and of itself is not a virtue, it’s a classroom. To sit patiently with desire — to become its student — and still embrace our identity as God’s beloved – that is to be fully human.
The second temptation targets Jesus’s vulnerability. The implication is that if we are beloved of God, then God will keep us safe. Safe from physical and emotional harm, safe from frailty and disease, safe from accidents, safe from death. It’s such an enticing lie, because it targets our deepest fears about what it security in a broken world. We want to believe that we can leverage our belovedness into an impenetrable shield from which God guarantees us swift and lasting rescue … if we just believe hard enough.
We need only look to Good Friday and the cross to know that God’s beloved children still bleed, still ache, still die. We are loved in our vulnerability; not out of it. The ashes on out forehead are a reminder that we will surely die, that our bodies will fail us no matter how we attempt to preserve them with medicine, exercise, cosmetics, or mindfulness. To be fully human is to face vulnerability.
The third temptation targets Jesus’s ego. The whole world is offered for Jesus to take up what is rightfully his. He need not labor in anonymity at the farthest edge of the Roman empire. He is the Son of God and should be center stage, applauded, admired, and envied. He should live a life of significance not surrender. The subtle question is does Jesus think God sees or cares for him when the powers-that-be don’t even know he exists? These are human question and desire to be important, to be significant.
Three temptations. Three invitations. Each day we face the same three as did Jesus. What will we do with them? Jesus chose scarcity over comfort. Vulnerability over rescue. Obscurity over fame. Even as the words of his baptism faded, “…my beloved Son” in the classroom of humanity he learned how to still be beloved a lonely wilderness. To be and know love even while hungry with desires, lacking security, and striving in obscurity. To decide who and whose he is.
Lent is a time to again decide who whose we are. Lent is a time not to penance for being human. It’s a time to embrace all that it means to be human. Human and hungry. Human and vulnerable. Human and beloved.
May the God who loves us in our wildernesses, give us a holy Lent.
Central idea from Debbie Thomas at Journey to Jesus