Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7, Psalm 32, Matt 4:1-11

By Tad Mitsui, February 25, 1996

Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness. This begs some questions, because our sense of Jesus being a divine "son of God" is stronger that of him being a human "son of Mary". In other words, we don”t think of him as human like us. Somehow in our imagination Jesus was a god most of the time, who didn”t even go to bathroom. But the story of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness brings us back to reality of his humanity. Yes, he was tempted like we often are.

First of all, Jesus went into the wilderness and fasted for forty days. Forty was in Hebrew language a symbolic figure for a long testing period. Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years before they went into Palestine. Jesus was tested in the wilderness for a number of days for his suitability in God”s mission. The wilderness is an unfamiliar place, where nothing resembles what you have known. When we face a new situation in our life, we are led into a wilderness. A new job, unemployment or retirement, a new baby, a political change, or even death are all wilderness for us. It is an uncomfortable and unpleasant place, but it can be a gateway for a new future and opportunity. The wilderness is a metaphor for a place to learn God”s plan.

Some of us have to learn that there is no easy way to learn the art of living. We can be seduced into believing that there is a cheap way to learn. I don”t know how much money I wasted buying "How to" packages, "French in one week", or "Learn to drive a car with a book, and save money on Driving Lessons", etc. Learning is always hard, it is a wilderness experience. Jesus had to go through that to switch his career from a carpenter to the messiah. And it wasn”t easy.

After forty days of fasting, Jesus became hungry. I suppose one does after forty days. Satan asked him if he wanted to turn stones into bread. This first question was about choosing a priority, between material and spiritual goals. Of course, it is important to feed the hungry. But is it more important to solve the problem of hunger than it is to know the will of God? Which is more important? Jesus chose spirituality. To use religion to turn a stone into bread shows lopsided values, said Jesus. It is the word of God that has to come first. Then desire to solve the problem of hunger comes naturally out of obedience to God”s will. It is a warning to the United Church of Canada, in which one tends to overemphasize the importance of social action. Some of us do it at the expense of spiritual life. What suffers sometimes in our church is the knowledge of the Bible. Jesus clearly chose knowledge of God”s plan as a matter of priority. He believed that acts of charity would follow when we learn the will of God.

Without spiritual resources, our good works and social action are like a journey without destination. It can be a total waste. Many times I saw the cost of unwise acts of charity, when I was working on the famine relief in Africa. People can lose self-respect, for example, if they are treated without due dignity. Persons without self-respect do not have the will to support themselves. The word of God is like a water tap. Without a water tap, you can waste water, because there is no adequate control which can adjust to the need. By the time there is a genuine need, there may not be any water left. The word of God tells you what is needed, and when and where it is needed. The word of God comes first.

Then Jesus was taken to the top of a temple tower. Satan said, "Throw yourself down. Angels will catch you and bring you down to the ground level without any harm." Jesus said, "No thank you. I don”t have to test God." This second test was about the nature of his relationship with God. Jesus refused to use God to promote himself and save himself. You can make money and win a fame if you jump off a tall tower without a safety net and live. But by doing so, you turn God into a mere tool. If we believe in God merely to pray for success, God is only a means to achieve our goal. If we come to have something else more reliable, then we don”t need God. There are unfortunately many so-called Christians who perform healing for fame and money. This was not the way Jesus chose. He performed many miracles, but he always told those who were healed to keep quiet about what happened. And most importantly, he did not save himself on the cross by a miracle. Many people taunted him saying, "If you are the son of God, call on Moses and Elijah to save yourself." But he didn”t.

For Jesus, God was not a means to a goal. God was his goal. He obeyed God”s commandment to love, and thus healed the sick. But he never used God for his own purposes. There is something drastically wrong in a relationship, if a child says to the parents, "Now I am educated, have a job, a family, and a house. I don”t need you any more." In an authentic relationship, no one is a tool.

Finally, Jesus was taken to the mountain top and shown all the riches and splendour of the Kingdom of the world. Satan said, "All you see will be yours to take, if you worship me." To this, Jesus simply said, "Go away, I only worship God." This final test was about compromise. Jesus was offered the whole world on a plate, if he would combine two opposing views of life. He could conquer the whole world, if he would combine a little bit of evil in the God”s work. What a temptation! There have been so many people in this world who could not resist it. It is a very strong temptation. Imagine. What if I promise that the whole of Canada would turn into United Church members, filling the churches every Sunday, if we adopt the "right" strategies. You just have to promise not to ask questions about the morality of such a strategy.

Wouldn”t this be wonderful – we could be a powerful lobby group with such a large membership – pressuring the government to deal with child poverty, the homeless, etc? We would just have to ignore the initial compromise – the one that would give us power over so many people, rather than respecting religious diversity and the individual”s right to freedom of belief.

Power corrupts unless one refuses to compromise. I can offer one example where someone refused to compromise. As soon as Nelson Mandela was elected President of South Africa, Archbishop Tutu accused him of taking too big a salary. Mr. Mandela did not increase his own salary. He simple adopted what was normal for all presidents at the time. But Tutu said that if Mandela won the election with a promise to create a more just society, he should begin clean. So Mandela, to his credit, cut his salary by 30%.

If Jesus compromised a little in his journey to Jerusalem, he might not have had to be hung on a tree and killed. But he didn”t. Therein was his power. It was power of integrity, even thought he seemed powerless in the normal sense of the word.

As we begin Lent, we begin an intense period of reflection and learning. We are called into the wilderness. Today”s Gospel offers us 3 essential lessons to carry with us. The story reminds us of the importance of spirituality over material needs; of having to choose a relationship with God as our goal rather than just as a means to an end; and of integrity over compromise.

It is a sign of Jesus” humanity that he faced the temptations that he did. It is a sign of his divinity that he made the right choice. But above all, it is a sign of his closeness to us in love that he took the steps through the wilderness which now offer us a path to follow.

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