Trust and Temptation

The readings for the First Sunday in Lent include an account of Jesus’ temptations and time in the desert. Each time Satan tempts Jesus, he uses Scripture. Jesus responds with his own scriptural passages. Among other things, it reminds us that Biblical passages need interpretation for how to apply them to our own lives. Scripture means something in the context of a larger interpretive tradition, and also in the context of our own relationships to God. Jesus knows that the devil’s use of the passages is “off” because of his closeness to the Father.

A theme that runs through all three of the temptations is power. The tempter asks Jesus to turn stone into bread to solve his own hunger, to thrown himself off the temple parapet to prove that he really is the Messiah, and to bow down and worship Satan in exchange for political power. In every case, Jesus denies that such shows of power are part of his mission. Instead, he emphasizes an everyday reliance on God. Listening to God’s word, not tempting God, and worshipping God alone–these simple kinds of acts of reliance on God all come down to a deepened trust that God is present in Jesus’ mission.

Jesus is about to embark on his ministry, and he refuses the temptation to look at his ministry in any way that detracts from its ordinary human aspects or that emphasize his own control as a divine being. As Christians, we believe that Jesus is divine and human. But he never lives out his ministry in a way that denies his humanity. He lives a fully human life that is humble: he gets hungry, is often rejected, and never possesses anything that looks like political power. Jesus stays grounded.

Interestingly enough, the three kinds of actions that Satan names come back in new and different form for Jesus: he doesn’t turn stones into bread but he does multiply loaves so that others who are hungry can eat. He doesn’t throw himself off the top of a tower to show he is the Messiah, but instead is hung high on a cross with the sign “King of the Jews” to mock him. He doesn’t bow down to worship Satan, but does kneel to pray to God in the garden at Gethsemane. In every case, Jesus relies on God while remaining fully human. He trusts in God and his ministry is not thrown too far off course in moments where it seems like there is not enough in the way of resources, or where he is rejected, or even where his ministry is interrupted by arrest, torture, and death. He knows God will transform the stones into bread, if he just continues to listen to what God asks him to do.

I think this, too, is our own challenge: to trust that God works through all the circumstances of our lives. Places of  vulnerability, resourcelessness, rejection, suffering, dying, or “desert places” can seem like spaces that need to be avoided. In an effort to escape these spaces, we can turn to forms of idolatry: trusting in our own power and not in God. But it is God’s power that multiplies bread and God’s power that heals, and not our own alone. Do we trust in that power so that we can participate in the work of the world that needs to be done? How much does trust rather than control guide our relationships and ministries?

We can each ask ourselves as part of our Lenten practice: what spaces in my life are the difficult “human” places from which I try to escape? Where in my life might I instead of relying on my own power to control, hand over the situation to God and trust that God can transform it into life giving bread?