The Temptation of Jesus (Lent 1, 2023)

Lent has begun for us, and tomorrow it will begin for the Orthodox church. Christians around the world will be giving up some daily comforts to mirror Jesus’ own fast that he undertook immediately following his baptism. What is potentially confusing, however, is that in 6 weeks, we will arrive with Jesus on Golgotha; whereas according to the synoptic gospels, Jesus still had years of ministry left. As such, it might help to think of Lent as the period of time when we deliberately try to recreate Jesus’ general stance of self-giving, rather than his specific desert experience. It is, indeed, this self-emptying, sacrificial love that the narratives of miracles and passion, birth and crucifixion, capture from different perspectives, and present to us at that power which will save the world. 

Having said this, on the first Sunday in Lent, we do reflect specifically on Jesus’ time in the desert. It helps us empathize both with Jesus and those among us who spend their entire lives in such conditions. It reminds us that God knows of our suffering and empathizes with us. And, drawing some parallels with the Jewish narratives – the 40 years of desert wandering, 40 days of Moses on Mt Sinai, 40 days of Noah in the arc, and the 300+ times the word “wilderness/desert” occurs in the Bible – it indicates that Jesus was not immune to doubt, temptation, and desire for the belonging and meaning that characterizes our lives. Yes, in his mind, Jesus heard the same voice that we, from time to time, hear quite tangibly whispering in our own ears, and which prompts us to act inconsistently with who we are. Artists and writers have provided us with plentiful personifications of such psychodynamics: a rebellious angel called Lucifer and a snake in the garden; but also Loki, Hades, Mephistopheles, Voland, Screwtape, and in the words of Fyodor Dostoevsky, “the spirit of self-destruction and NON-being.” 

Dostoyevsky’s novel “Brothers Karamazov” is, among other things, a fascinating collection of expositions of Gospel passages. One such “story within a story” leads us through an imaginary conversation between Jesus and someone called the Grand Inquisitor. This person does not represent the devil, but he questions Jesus about his desert experience and insinuates that Jesus was all wrong in hoping that people would follow him based on his choice to refute Satan’s advances, rather than performing the mirales to impress us. He insists that in doing so, Jesus expected too much of us: “Respecting man less, you would have asked less of him. That would have been more like love, for his burden would have been lighter.” Recall that according to the gospels, Jesus faced three temptations: 1) turn stones into bread to satisfy hunger, 2) jump from the roof of the Jerusalem temple to show off the army of angels coming to his aid, and 3) worship the devil to rescue the world from the devil’s implied control. In Dostoevsky’s interpretation, however, the three temptations are only versions of the same one: that is, to make the world better for us by taking away our freedom of choice. This temptation he faced all through his life, as well as in its final moments when he prayed for the cup to pass him by, and on the cross, resisted the provocations to call on God to save him. 

Quite possibly, the Russian preoccupation with the dialectics of moral freedom simply comes from the context of rarely having a political one. As such, the Grand Inquisitor is Dostoevsky’s response to any dictatorial institution that controls under the pretext of helping. But really, wouldn’t it be so much better if God gave unlimited bread to all, sent troops of his angels into every war, and prevented all diseases and disasters? What would we do with all these gifts though? Likely, the same things we are currently doing; that is, misuse and distort whatever is good in our lives – abilities, skills, traits, resources and opportunities. That’s what sin is. Unless, God took away our freedom of choice  – but that wouldn’t be consistent with who s/he is, and wants us to be. 

And that is how I would define temptation: it prompts us to do what’s quicker, easier, and at odds with who we truly are. If for God it meant fixing the world at the expense of freeing it, then for us it means to behave as though we don’t have a will. Most of us by default are kind, patient, truthful, creative, etc. But under stress, we act too quickly, choose the path of least resistance, fall into the habits we wish we didn’t have, and fall prey to our emotional “reptilian” brain. It is then that our traits that are all inherently good become evil: persistence becomes stubbornness, appreciation – envy, perceptiveness – judgment, intensity – anger, etc. As such, all our weaknesses are actually our strengths that are waiting to be expressed in the stance of self-giving.

So, what would you say – has Jesus overestimated the goodness of our nature and our capacity to choose? Maybe, now is the time for us to begin to believe in ourselves. Believe that we are capable of choosing integrity over convenience, patience over knee-jerk reaction, listening over having the last word. I have recently come across “the 3 Rs” that might help us in moments of temptation: reflect, resist, replace. Whenever we’re angered, annoyed, or defensive, consider pausing for one breath before responding (maybe even say a quick prayer like “Lord, help”), give yourself 4 seconds to resist doing what you know is unproductive (say, yelling or making excuses), and then replace it with another action (e.g., explicitly acknowledging another person’s feelings). In fact, Jesus responded quite similarly to “the spirit of self-destruction”: before launching into active ministry, he took a pause to fast, resisted the lies with prayerful reflection, and replaced the distortions of truth with the scriptures that he knew to be genuine. Let us continue to use these and other ways to “reflect, resist, replace”; perhaps more intentionally over the next few weeks, and possibly beyond. Amen.

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