Index

Sundays
2nd Quarter
2020

 

J Nichols Adams et al

March 1, 2020, 1st Sunday of Lent

 

 

LectionAid 2nd Quarter 2020

March 1, 2020, 1st Sunday of Lent

Pick a Temptation

Psalm 32, Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7, Romans 5:12-19, Matt 4:1-11

Theme: Temptation

Top of Page ILLUMINATING AND THINKING ABOUT THE SERMON

Starting Thoughts

There are over one-dozen temptation outlets within walking distance of my office. Am I tempted with gluttony? I can visit Arby’s, Taco Bell, A&W Root Beer, Bill’s Bar-B-Q, and Hot Dog Shak. Do I want my ‘ride’ to have cool wheels and great sound? Auto Audio Shop completes with Rockford Sound. Dent Doctor offers pin striping in addition to repairing the nicks and bumps that come from urban driving. What about lust? No problem! I can slink into Pricilla’s or Taboo! (advertises ‘Naked Mondays’). Perhaps what I really need to feel powerful and successful is a new suit with a snazzy bow tie. S&K Clothing is still within walking distance.
Of course, since I don’t want to put any of these purchases on my credit card, I’ll pay cash. PayDay Cash (Se habla espanol!) is open 24/7. How convenient! Even if I decide to work extra hours there is always a way to hide my weaknesses from myself. Since my credit cards are all maxed out by these purchases, I’ve retained a lawyer to help me sue the owners of these businesses for exploiting my Impulse Control Disorder. Given the culture’s climate, I estimate I can make an easy $5M.
If you believe this is humorous hyperbole, come and spend a day at any counseling office as people try to suture their lives back together. Here’s just a morning’s worth of pain and the after-effects of giving in to temptation. Her husband has just found out about the private affair; the telephone calls from his creditors begin at 8:30 a.m. and do not stop until 9:00 p.m.; a child has looked Mom in the eye and unflinchingly said ‘I was just holding the pot for a friend.’ With a wife who says ‘after forty years of marriage I am tired of being lonely while he talks with Jim Beam,’ there are two questions any reasonable pastor or counselor might ask in the privacy of our heart: ‘did you think he would change after the first decade?’ and ‘what happened in this last week to make you finally get tired?’
Of course, these are external temptations. The kind where the Adversary shows up in somewhat recognizable garb. I need only look within my own heart to find ample opportunities to be unkind, cruel, prideful, impatient, self-hating, envious and angry.
‘The Adversary always comes when we’re vulnerable,’ we tell ourselves. While this is true in a certain sense and this is certainly the reason it is ‘not good that the human to be alone,’ (Genesis 2:18), the real truth is this: we are always vulnerable. This is the reason for that first Prime Directive: “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (v 17b). All of our post-modern fawning that celebrates Adam and Eve’s original sin as some type of liberating coming-of-age shatters once the salty tears of our bondage fall on our self-inflicted wounds and our fingers struggle to untie the hangman’s noose we’ve slipped around our own neck.
Nevertheless, we can lessen our vulnerability. The Adversary does come straight at us and we are especially vulnerable to temptation when we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired. After being ‘driven’ into the desert by the Spirit and at the end of forty days, Jesus meets every one of these criteria. For starters, this action by the Spirit lends a new level of realism to the insipid counsel we so easily dispense to people wrestling with temptation. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” we tell them. Too often when we offer this counsel the struggling person hears our ‘wisdom’ as dismissive of their anguish rather that as succor in the private desert of their soul. Temptation does, indeed provide ‘an occasion to do the right thing as it is to do the wrong thing,’ as Rick Warren contends in The Purpose-Driven Life. But doing the next right thing is an occasion that calls for courage and resolve; otherwise it is not temptation.
The three temptations Jesus faced comprise an indefatigable triumvirate of threat. There is the temptation to make something into what it is not, the temptation to make God do your bidding and the temptation to make yourself into something you are not. It is noteworthy that while St. Luke alters the order of the temptations, these three temptations remain as virulent viruses to our post-modern souls as they did to Jesus regardless of the order in which they assault our hearts and lives.
“If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” This is a two-pronged temptation. A full statement of this temptation would read thusly: “prove your identity according to my criteria rather than your own self-understanding and pervert the identity of something (these stones) so that they become something that will fulfill your need (bread).” Much of our advertising dangles this temptation in front of us. Especially advertising directed toward our children contains the first clause of this temptation: ‘if you are (cool, hip, pretty, handsome, successful, etc.), you need this (video, cell phone, car, shoes, ear piercing etc.).’ Our relationships fail when we try to find in our mates or friends or co-workers a quality of existence of which they are incapable.
“If you are the Son of God, through yourself down. For it is written:” This temptation begins with the same demand that Jesus prove himself, only this time the temptation is to bind God to a promise. How many times have we lamented that God didn’t meet our need on our timetable? How frequently do we regale those around us with their failure to keep their promises in the way we think they ought to have kept them? When was the last time you or I quoted the words of a spouse back to them? Of course, we did this to insure their ‘accountability!’ But if we are honest, we probably felt a bit of self-righteousness in the latest scene in the long-running play Gotcha! (coming to a dinner table near yours soon!).
“All of this I will give you if you bow down and worship me.” This temptation appeals to our still-adolescent perception that our life as given to us by God ‘sucks.’ This temptation appeals to our immature sense of entitlement: we deserve ‘all of this.’ Sadly, the only thing we get ‘all’ of is a plateful of heartache accompanied by a garnish of alienation when we commit the sin of idolatry. Unfortunately, we begin to recognize the depth of our enmeshment with some aspect of ‘all of this’ only in the depths of some life-threatening crisis where duress makes brings us to the brink of life-changing choices. When we wind up in our own personal Sahara Desert. When our stomachs are truly empty. When our rage-filled hurt has destroyed the life we were building. When our irrepressible habits have driven away those who have tried to love us. When our rush to excel has depleted our physical resources (hunger, anger, loneliness, tired).
So how are we to stare down the Adversary? Rick Warren gives us excellent counsel in pithy one-liners. Refuse to be intimidated. Recognize your pattern of temptation. Be prepared for your familiar temptation, and request God’s help. Warren quotes Luther’s insight on temptation, “You cannot keep birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” The pre-condition to these steps being effective comes from another series of steps offered by friends in Alcoholics Anonymous (AKA The Church that Meets In Our Basement): admit your life is unmanageable; come to believe that a Power greater than yourself can restore your sanity; make the decision to turn your will and lives over to the care of God as you understand Him. Now you’re in a position to follow that advice of Rick Warren–and discover that in your vulnerability there is an ability to resist temptation.

Exegetical Comments

Jennifer went for a long walk in the woods. It had been an exhausting six months, and she needed time to think.
She had concentrated on the campaign. Ever since her local party had told her, to her surprise, that they wanted her to be their candidate, she had been overwhelmed by the honor both of running for Parliament and of serving her people, her country, the world. All her noble ideals had been smiling at her, beckoning her, telling her that she was now going to be able to achieve them. Her one thought had been: get elected, and at last you’ll be able to change the world! To make things better. To turn things around.
Then the last frantic days of the campaign. Touring the area, shaking hands, making speeches, late-night sessions with party workers, snatched sleep, too much coffee, more speeches, more handshakes. And finally the election. She still couldn’t believe it. Victory by 10,000 votes. They had wanted her. They had chosen her. This was her day, and it was sweet.
But she needed space to think, to reflect, to work it all through. Hence the long walk in the woods by herself.
She was shocked at what she discovered. The ideals were still there—the dreams of service, of changing the world. But what were these other voices?
‘Now at last,’ they whispered, ‘you’ve got a chance to make some real money. Lots of businesses will want you on their board, to lobby ministers for them. You can name your price.’
‘This is just the first rung on the ladder,’ said the voices. ‘If you play your cards well, if you don’t make a fuss about too many things, and get to know the right people, you could be a government minister … in the Cabinet … fame and popularity … press conferences, TV appearances …’
What was happening? Where were these voices coming from?
But there was more.
‘Think what you could do now,’ the voices whispered. ‘That party activist you’ve never liked—you could get rid of him. You’ve got power. And you’ll have more. The world is your chessboard. Go ahead and play the game your way!’
One early Christian writer tells us that Jesus was tempted like other humans in every possible way (Hebrews 4:15). We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that after his great moment of vision, when his sense of God’s calling and love was so dramatically confirmed at his baptism, he had to face the whispering voices and recognize them for what they were. These suggestions are all ways of distorting the true vocation: the vocation to be a truly human being, to be God’s person, to be a servant to the world and to other people. Jesus must face these temptations now and win at least an initial victory over them. If he doesn’t, they will meet him suddenly, in the middle of his work, and they may overwhelm him.
The first two temptations play on the very strength he has just received. ‘You are my son, my beloved one!’, God had said to him. Very well, whispers the demonic voice; if you really are God’s son, surely he can’t want you to go hungry when you have the power to get food for yourself? Surely you want people to see who you are? Why not do something really spectacular? And then, dropping the apparent logic, the enemy comes out boldly: forget your heavenly father. Just worship me and I’ll give you power, greatness like no one else ever had.
Jesus sees through the trap. He answers, each time, with the Bible and with God. He is committed to living off God’s word; to trusting God completely, without setting up trick tests to put God on the spot. He is committed to loving and serving God alone. The flesh may scream for satisfaction; the world may beckon seductively; the devil himself may offer undreamed-of power; but Israel’s loving God, the one Jesus knew as father, offered the reality of what it meant to be human, to be a true Israelite, to be Messiah.
The biblical texts Jesus used as his key weapons help us to see how this remarkable story fits into Matthew’s gospel at this point. They are all taken from the story of Israel in the wilderness. Jesus had come through the waters of baptism, like Israel crossing the Red Sea. He now had to face, in forty days and nights, the equivalent of Israel’s forty years in the desert. But, where Israel failed again and again, Jesus succeeded. Here at last is a true Israelite, Matthew is saying. He has come to do what God always wanted Israel to do—to bring light to the world (see verse 16).
Behind that again is the even deeper story of Adam and Eve in the garden. A single command; a single temptation; a single, devastating, result. Jesus kept his eyes on his father, and so launched the mission to undo the age-old effects of human rebellion. He would meet the tempter again in various guises: protesting to him, through his closest associate, that he should change his mind about going to the cross (16:23); mocking him, through the priests and bystanders, as he hung on the cross (27:39–43, again with the words ‘if you are God’s son’). This is no accident. When Jesus refused to go the way of the tempter he was embracing the way of the cross. The enticing whispers that echoed around his head were designed to distract him from his central vocation, the road to which his baptism had committed him, the path of servanthood that would lead to suffering and death. They were meant to stop him from carrying out God’s calling, to redeem Israel and the world.
The temptations we all face, day by day and at critical moments of decision and vocation in our lives, may be very different from those of Jesus, but they have exactly the same point. They are not simply trying to entice us into committing this or that sin. They are trying to distract us, to turn us aside, from the path of servanthood to which our baptism has commissioned us. God has a costly but wonderfully glorious vocation for each one of us. The enemy will do everything possible to distract us and thwart God’s purpose. If we have heard God’s voice welcoming us as his children, we will also hear the whispered suggestions of the enemy.
But, as God’s children, we are entitled to use the same defence as the son of God himself. Store scripture in your heart, and know how to use it. Keep your eyes on God, and trust him for everything. Remember your calling, to bring God’s light into the world. And say a firm ‘no’ to the voices that lure you back into the darkness.
(Wright, T. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 [2004, London] pp. 23–27)
Theologically, the temptation of Jesus is rich in meaning. The whole point of temptation by the tempter (the descriptive term for Satan used only in Matt. 4:3 and 1 Thess. 3:5) is to drive a wedge between Jesus and God. The heart of sin, as the three temptation episodes make clear, is to draw Jesus away from holy reliance upon the Father to an unholy independence. Our Lord expanded upon that truth in the warning discourses to the disciples (Matt. 24:10–12, 24). Furthermore, temptation does not limit its range to obvious evils, but invades the good creation (“turn these stones into bread”), the holy place (“leap from the temple pinnacle”), and worship itself (“all these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me”). The common association of temptation with the Seven Deadly Sins has its place, for those sins are indeed deadly. But the real essence of temptation attacks where humans expect the best: daily bread, sacred spaces, the devotion of the heart. Learning this from the text of Matthew 4:1–11 brings an end to prideful finger-pointing at others whose transgressions are headline news and brings about a reflective examining of the inner places of the soul, where the real and daily struggle becomes absolutely personal.
As people who live in the most affluent time of the most affluent nation on earth, the first temptation cries out for understanding and response. The tempter shifts the focus to bread and all bread symbolizes for what is essential to the good life. In assaulting Jesus at the very point of his deepest vulnerability following a forty-day fast, the tempter raises the stakes of the encounter by invoking the name “Son of God” with a question mark after it. It is the “if-then” ploy. If Son of God, then prove it by producing bread from stones. The assumption is subtly thrown in with the proposal; surely the first need of life is to eat. What is more elemental than the nourishing of a body famished by hunger? And the thoughtful hearer must extrapolate from that subtle question all the rest that has come to be taken for granted as essential for daily existence in our time and place—the astonishing array of possessions that feed, clothe, shelter, sustain, transport, amuse, and distract us from giving first place in the heart to God. But Jesus, obedient to the certainty that life is more than bread and all that goes with it (6:25), speaks not only for himself but for all in using the generic “One [‘Man,’ RSV] does not live by bread alone.…” Every being worthy of the name “human” cannot be reduced to what is visible and edible, tangible and collectible, bankable and investable. The core of being human rests upon response to the speaking of God, who first spoke human life and all things into existence. In this direct reply Jesus does not even flatter the enemy by cleverness or originality. He simply quotes Scripture (Deut. 8:3) in the spirit of submission and trust. Notice that each of the responses to each temptation Jesus draws from the eighth and sixth chapters of Deuteronomy, which describes how Israel was taught how to withstand temptation.
The second temptation shifts the scene to the holy city, a name Matthew interestingly applies to Jerusalem (repeated in 27:53), since that city had more than its share of unholy plots and trumped-up charges and was the very center of opposition to Jesus by those who were in charge of the city’s most holy place—the temple. The temple architecture is not the main thing. Rather, “the pinnacle of the temple” suggests the reminders of God’s promises and providential protection. It is in that setting that the devil pressures Jesus for a public display of power that is about trust: leaping from the highest turret into thin air. Again Jesus quotes Scripture with trust in its efficacy, countering the devil’s readiness to misuse the Word (Ps. 91, offered as a formula for spectacle) with the Word faithfully used to establish that real trust needs no spurious proofs of God’s care: “You shall not tempt the LORD your God” (Deut. 6:16).
Once more the scene shifts in the third temptation, now to a very high mountain affording a view of the kingdoms of the world and their glory. All this is promised—without suffering. In the background of this temptation is the view of Psalm 2 whereby the anointed ruler would have universal dominion, with the nations of the earth as his inheritance and the ends of the earth as his realm. Buttressing this boast is the claim that all these are the possessions of the devil to give away.
The deception of the proposal is again pierced by the Word on Jesus’ lips, the great call to fear the Lord your God and serve him alone (Deut. 6:13). As Jesus will soon teach his disciples and others, no one can serve two masters (Matt. 6:24), so the lethal temptation to split the soul into divergent loyalties before God is exposed. Wholeness of response is the basis of integrity. Jesus shall walk the way of suffering and death in order to claim his crown of universal rule. His is the kingdom of grace, which is not won by bribery or manipulation, but by way of unswerving love and undiluted obedience to the Father.
Here again is teaching regarding sin. Whatever sways the people of God from the path of trust, obedience, and the service of God is satanic and idolatrous. Jesus says to the tempter what he will say to Peter, who also had visions of sovereignty without suffering and kingship without a cross: “Begone, Satan!” (cf. 16:23; 25:41).
Jesus is the only human being in this narrative. The wilderness has only earth and sky to offer, and the sinister enemy who invades the scene. The devil fails to gain the foothold and is forced to leave the field. Surrounding Jesus and every struggling child of God (6:13) are the everlasting arms of the heavenly Father. In the beginning the Spirit led Jesus out to the battleground. In the end angels come and minister to him, as they will do again for him—and for us (18:10; 26:53).
(Lueking, F. D. The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis For Sunday’s Texts [2001, Grand Rapids, MI] Vol 3 pp. 20–22)
1. Is Satan language passé? The interpreter’s first question today may be whether there is still a place in our thinking for images of Satan, especially since such images can be abused by a literalism that uses “the devil made me do it” as an escape from personal responsibility and that brands its opponents as tools of the devil. Yet, language and imagery of the demonic played an important theological role for Matthew, and it can continue to do so for us. Such imagery provides a way of acknowledging the reality of an evil greater than our own individual inclinations to evil, a supra-personal power often called “systemic evil” today. Another valuable aspect of such language is that it can prevent us from regarding our human opponents as the ultimate enemy, allowing us to see both them and ourselves as being victimized by the power of evil. From this perspective, Matthew’s portrayal of the struggle between Jesus and the Jewish leaders as a cosmic conflict between God and Satan can be viewed as not only anti-Jewish but also as a theological move with some positive aspects.
2. How should Jesus’ encounter with Satan be interpreted? The story of the temptation of Jesus has been interpreted in basically three ways.
The biographical/psychological interpretation understands the story as a reflection of Jesus’ own inner turmoil after his baptism, as he attempted to sort out the meaning of his baptismal experience and his dawning messianic consciousness. Jesus is pictured as toying with various ways to exercise his messiahship. Such an approach does violence to the gospel genre, comprehending it as “report,” and is uninterested in understanding the text in its concreteness.
The ethical interpretation seems more valid, since it makes contact with our own experience of being tempted. Jesus is presented as a model for resisting temptation (he quotes Scripture, refuses to use his power selfishly, prefers the Word of God to “material things,” etc.). There may be some indirect value in this approach, but the interpreter should not move too quickly from this text to his or her own experience in quest of relevance. The text is not about the general activity of Satan in tempting people to do evil, for the temptations are not to lust and avarice, but to do things that were always considered good, supported by tradition and Scripture.
The third approach is Christological, understanding this scene as an expression of one dimension of Matthew’s Christology. The issue is not the biographical/psychological one of how Jesus once thought of himself, but of how the Christians of Matthew’s church (and ours) should think of Jesus as the Son of God. Matthew presents Jesus as the Son of God, who will work many miracles during his ministry, which is about to begin. Yet this opening scene presents us with a picture that not only rejects violence and miracles, but also considers them a demonic temptation. It is too easy to say, “He only rejected miracles performed in his own interest,” for later in the story the Jesus who refuses to jump off the top of the Temple will show that he is the Son of God by walking on water (14:22–33); and he will match his refusal to turn stones into bread by turning five loaves into enough bread to feed thousands (14:13–21). Likewise, in 17:24–27, Jesus pays his taxes by means of a miraculous catch of a fish with a coin in its mouth.
A broad stream of New Testament Christology pictured the earthly Jesus as weak and victimized, devoid of miraculous power, and saw God’s saving action to be Jesus’ obedience and identification with the victimized human situation. (See Excursus “Matthean Christology,” 353–61.) In 4:1–11 Matthew presents Jesus from the Christological perspective that pictures his earthly life as that of one who fully shares the weakness of our human situation (cf. Phil 2:5–11; Heb 2:5–18). The picture of Jesus as the obedient Son of God does not abolish or compromise the image of Jesus as truly human. The Christian community did not merely define Jesus in terms of his messiahship but redefined the meaning of that messiahship in terms of the Jesus who went to the cross. Instead of the bread, circuses, and political power that “kingdom” had previously meant, represented in Jesus’ and Matthew’s day by the Roman Empire (“kingdom” and “empire” are from the same Greek word), in the Matthean Jesus we have an alternative vision of what the kingdom of God on earth might be. This is what was at stake in the temptation.
Thus, we do not have in this pericope an example of a Jesus who “could have” worked miracles but chose not to do so as an ethical example for the rest of us. So understood, the text is of little help to us mortals who do not have the miraculous option. The same is true when the tempter reappears at the cross (27:40–44). To the extent that Jesus’ temptation serves as a model for Christians, it might teach us that to be a “child of God” (a Matthean designation for Christians; see 5:9; cf. 28:10) means to have a trusting relationship to God that does not ask for miraculous exceptions to the limitations of an authentic human life. (Boring, M. E. The Gospel of Matthew. In L. E. Keck (Ed.), New Interpreter’s Bible [1994–2004, Nashville] Vol. 8, pp. 165–166)

Preaching Possibilities

Temptations are all around they are easy to find. Our world seems to grow as many temptations as they do solutions. So pick out ones that resonate in the congregation and go from there.

Top of Page ILLUSTRATING THE SERMON

Different Sermon Illustrations

“Lead me not into temptation. I can find it all by myself.”
That line, taken from the country music song “Lead Me Not,” evokes smiles because it underscores a truth: The struggle against temptation is universal.
A new survey, however, gets specific about the type of temptations most Americans battle against, and shows that men and women seem to wrestle with different vices.
“Temptations and America’s Favorite Sins,” a survey conducted by the Barna Group, a Christian research firm, concludes that the moral struggles that vex most Americans aren’t the salacious acts that drive the plotlines of reality television shows. Most Americans are too worn down or distracted to get snared by those vices, the survey concludes.
The top three sins seducing most Americans: procrastination, overeating and spending too much time on media.
“You would think it would be sex, drugs and rock and roll,” said Todd Hunter, pastor and author of “Our Favorite Sins,” whose book was consulted in conjunction with the survey.
The survey said that 60% of Americans admitted that they’re tempted to worry too much or procrastinate; 55% said they’re tempted to overeat, and 41% said they’re tempted by sloth, or laziness.
The sex, drugs and rock and roll-like vices fell dead last in the temptation categories: 11% of Americans said they were tempted by drug abuse; 9% were tempted by sexually inappropriate contact.
Even young people put sex and drugs way down on their list, according to the survey, which broke down temptations by gender and age. It found that 21% of millennials (born between 1984 and 2002) considered sexually inappropriate behavior their chief temptation. It was the lowest percentage attributed to any vice by millennials. Their top two temptations were worrying too much and procrastination.
The battleground for temptation has also shifted – it’s gone digital, according to David Kinnman, president of Barna Group, which based its survey on 1,021 online interviews with a representative sample of white, African-American and Latinos.
“Temptation has gone virtual, ’’ Kinnman said. “Nearly half of Americans admit to being tempted to use too much media and one in nine admits to expressing their anger digitally.”
Temptation also seems to affect men and women differently – more women said they’re tempted by gossip and overeating, and only 8% of women admitted to being tempted by online pornography versus 28% of men.
Many Americans who admit to being tempted aren’t putting up a big fight. The study said that 59% of Americans admit that they don’t do anything to avoid temptation and half can’t explain why they give into temptation.
Many Americans still can’t explain what sin is, Hunter said. Worrying, for example, is not considered one of the seven deadly sins (pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth). Yet survey respondents listed it as one of their top temptations.
“There’s no agreement on what sin is,” Hunter said. “It’s one of the aspects of the world we live in. It’s becoming more relativistic. It’s hard to talk about sin when everyone disagrees about what it is.”
Hunter knows a little bit about temptation. One of his is chocolate. He once shot up to 330 pounds because he overate. He said all temptations start with a desire for something good: tasty food, rest, intimacy. They become “disordered” when they enslave people and spread pain through their lives.
“Disordered desires imprison us,” he wrote in “Our Favorite Sins.” “In the end they give us nothing – not one lasting shred of goodness, freedom, joy, or love.”
Hunter’s advice for staying clear of temptation: fasting, praying and staying out of places and relationships that lead you toward temptation.
For those who aren’t religious, Hunter recommends thinking about sports. He cites the practice habits of superstars like NBA legend Michael Jordan. They practice progress, repeating athletic exercises every day until their body complies.
Little victories lead to big things, Hunter said. In his book, he quoted the legendary college basketball coach John Wooden:
“When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur. So don’t look for the quick, big improvement. Seek the small improvements one day at a time – that’s the only way progress happens – and when that kind of progress happens, it lasts.”
John Blake - CNN Writer (https://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/02/08/americans-reveal-their-3-favorite-sins/)

The Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent always features one of the Synoptics on the temptation of Jesus in the desert. This year, we read from Luke. Spiritual writers have long reflected on the meaning of the temptations—for bread, for goods, for worship—that those temptations embody.
The temptations Jesus faced are temptations we all face individually. What is much less considered, however, is how those temptations are reflected in bad ideas and, specifically, bad philosophy. That matters because, as Richard Weaver once noted, “ideas have consequences.”
Almost eighty years ago a Polish priest (and later bishop), Jan Stepa, wrote a book detailing how Jesus’ three temptations in fact find expression in various philosophies. Except among historians of Polish Thomism, Stepa has been largely forgotten as has his 1937 book, Kuszenie współczesnego człowieka [The Temptation of Modern Man]. That’s too bad, because what he had to say before World War II makes even more sense today.
Stepa identifies three “temptations”: the “temptation of bread,” the “temptation of vanity,” and the “temptation of greed.” He associates each with a power of the human soul: bread with reason, vanity with will, greed with the human emotions.
Since man knows through his senses, the “temptation of bread” affects reason. While depending on the senses, reason can lift the human person far beyond the sensory world; Catholic teaching is, after all, that man can even arrive at a certain natural certainty of God’s existence. From the data the senses provide, reason can lift man even to the metaphysical.
Or not. Man can be content to wallow at the sensory level. That is why the temptation of bread often leads to theoretical materialism. Despite the Lord’s injunction, plenty of people have been content to live by bread alone, and to build societies based on bread and the occasional circus. Stepa, writing in the 1930s, had a direct view of a programmatically materialistic philosophy in action: the Soviet Union. (In the 1930s, he was a professor at the University of Łwów, now L’viv, then part of Poland, annexed in 1939 by the USSR, and today part of Ukraine.)
But the roots of materialism need not be found in Marxism alone. Stepa sought the roots of materialism among the ancient philosophers. In taking the data of the senses, Stepa argued, the philosophers could approach them in one of two ways: analytically or synthetically. To those who remained in a purely analytic frame of mind, there are lots of individual things, but no “big picture.” One can be a specialist in the individual, but at the price of a radical individualism that affects not only people but knowledge itself.
Consider, for example, the medical specialist. There are times one needs a cardiologist, an urologist, and a dentist. Each may be a leading authority in his field. But the diseases they each treat are in one body, affecting one person. The bad teeth may contribute to heart problems. The long term use of some cardiac medications may lead to hematuria (blood in the urine). While specialized knowledge is important, losing sight of the underlying unity of the “patient as person” (to steal Paul Ramsey’s phrase) can lead to the paradoxical situation of the famous adage: “the operation was a success, but the patient died.”
This parcelization of reality is especially prominent in the modern university, where one finds very narrow specialists but no place in the universum of the university where the sum of knowledge is integrated. Philosophy and theology are supposed to do that, but even in Catholic institutions of higher learning, they rarely achieve that integrative function.
Stepa’’s “theoretical materialists,” content with their limited proficiencies and their piece of the elephant, eventually leads to theories of knowledge that either limit reality to the measurable and perceptible (empiricism, including logical empiricism) or denies the reality of knowing things in themselves (Descartes, Hume, Kant). The “temptation of bread” thus gives us a lot of “modern philosophy.”
Stepa also admits of “practical materialism,” those who are content with the here and now and the comforts it provides, and—in the absence of faith in anybody/thing transcendent—make an act of faith in technology. “…[M]odern man, aware of his power over nature, trusting in the creative power of science, would even want to change stones into things necessary for him like his daily bread.”[1] One especially sees this practical materialism in the bioethics field, especially so-called “reproductive technologies,” where modern man considers even personal sexual differentiation of parents to be a disposable “extra” to manufacturing children.
In talking about “theoretical” and “practical” materialism, I also note that Stepa was decades ahead of himself. Vatican II used the same terminology in talking about the dangers of materialism in this world, warning that sometimes the one furthest from God was not necessarily the one with the philosophical premises of materialism as the one whom, although he might devote lip service to the deity, acts as if God does not exist.
If the “temptation of bread” strikes man at the level of reason, the “temptation of vanity” hits him in the will. For Stepa, the premier exemplar of this position is Kant and his “autonomous ethics.” Kant’s ethics of duty, in which right and wrong is built upon the absolute determinations of my will, destroys all authority, including God (as supposedly heteronomous). It also undermines the truth about man by failing to reckon with his fundamental flaw, original sin, which inclines that will towards “the evil that I do not want to do” and from “the good I want to do.” Protagoras’s “man is the measure of all things” comes back with a vengeance in Kant, which is essentially a return to the first sin, where man yielded to the temptation that he would define what is good and what is evil. One need only consider, even within the Church, various false notions of “conscience” to observe the corruptive force of this ethical autonomy.
Finally, the “temptation of greed” which, for Stepa, affects the emotions. Man wants. He may want concrete material goods, such as money, or he may want X—whatever X is—inordinately. He is led to believe that consumerism fulfills him. In the words of Shania Twain, “All we ever want is more / A lot more than we had before / So take me to the nearest store” (which, incidentally, is why our “religion … is shopping every Sunday at the mall”).
The obsession with things, of course, is a two-edged sword: double-edged, in that it undermines justice (what is due to another) and love (what one does out of benevolence and non-self-interest). That is why Stepa argues that Adam Smith is a great illustration of the “temptation of greed.” In Stepa’s reading, Smith turns predatory self-interest shorn of ethical referents into a virtue, and trusts that justice and love will be achieved by the workings of some “invisible hand.” The result is a system that approves all sorts of social disparities and injustices.
As we consider the Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent, we should first look into ourselves: how does our interest in bread, wealth and power, and pride shape my attitudes? But Stepa’s analysis suggests we also look a little further: how has modern thinking built those temptations into the warp and woof of modernity? (https://www.crisismagazine.com/2016/the-three-temptations-of-philosophy)

“Refuse to be intimidated. Many Christians are frightened and demoralized by tempting thoughts, feeling guilty that they aren’t ‘beyond’ temptation. This is a misunderstanding of maturity. You will never outgrow temptation.” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002], p 204)

“Recognize your pattern of temptation. Ask yourself, ‘When am I most tempted? What day of the week? What time of day?” Ask yourself, ‘Where am I most tempted? At work? At home? At a neighbor’s house?’ Ask yourself, ‘How do I usually feel when I am most tempted?’” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002], p 206)

“Be prepared. You should identify your typical pattern of temptation and then prepare to avoid those situations as much as possible. The Bible tells us repeatedly to anticipate and be ready to face temptation. Wise planning reduces temptation.” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002], p 206)

“Request God’s help. Heaven has a twenty-four hour emergency hot line. The Bible guarantees that our cry for help will be heard because Jesus is sympathetic to our struggle. We don’t turn to him because sometimes we don’t want to be helped. At other times we’re embarrassed to ask God.” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002], p 207)

“There is always a way out. You may sometimes feel that a temptation is too overpowering but that’s a lie from Satan. You must do your part by practicing four biblical keys to defeating temptation.” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002], p 209)

“Refocus your attention on something else. Since temptation always begins with a thought, the quickest way to neutralize its allure is to turn your attention to something else. Don’t fight the thought, just change the channel of your mind and get interested in another idea.” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002], p 210)

“Ignoring a temptation is far more effective than fighting it. Once your mind is on something else, the temptation loses its power. Sometimes this means physically leaving a tempting situation. This is one time to run away! Get up and turn off the television set. Leave the theater.” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002], p 211)

“Reveal your struggle to a godly friend or support group. You don’t have to broadcast it to the whole world but you need at least one person you can honestly share your struggles with. God’s plan for your growth and freedom includes other Christians.” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002], p 212)

“Do you really want to be healed of that persistent temptation that keeps defeating you over and over? God’s solution is plain: Don’t repress it; confess it! Don’t conceal it; reveal it. Revealing your feeling is the beginning of healing.” (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002], p 213)

The idea of fasting, particularly for such a lengthy period as forty days, seems strange in a land where overeating is the norm. But while the religious practice of fasting is relatively unheard of in American culture, the secular practice of dieting is all the rage. In a typical year Americans purchase more than 50 million diet books and spend more than $50 billion on dieting. (Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less [New York: HarperCollins, 2004], p 213)

The practice of fasting might not only yield benefits when it comes to eternal life but fasting—or at least significantly restricting your food intake—may yield benefits in the present life as well. CBS News (3/23/04) reported on a study that found that mice that were fed a low-calorie diet extended their life span, even if that low-calorie diet was not started until they were older. The study, originally published in the March 2004 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicated that mice at the relatively advanced age of 19 months that were placed on a limited calorie diet lived 42% longer than litter mates who continued to eat a standard diet. Other studies have similarly shown that young mice that are put on low-calorie diets live much longer than mice that eat standard amounts. In addition, the new research showed that while death from tumors is rather common in mice, calorie-restricted diets had the effect of delaying and slowing down tumor growths. Stephen R. Spindler of the University of California, Riverside, the leader of the research team, is optimistic about the findings and believes the research may help pave the way toward eventually slowing down the aging process in humans.

In many areas of the country, fried-chicken fellowship dinners and potbellied pastors are a part of the landscape. Some churches today, though, are encouraging their members to resist the temptation of overeating. CNN (3/8/04) reported about how the pastor at Fellowship Church in Grapevine, Texas, preached a series of sermons on the biblical principle of how the body is supposed to be the temple of the Holy Spirit. The problem, the pastor realized, was that after his congregation sat through his message, immediately after the service they proceeded to the fellowship hall and devoured piles of fat-filled doughnuts. So, the 18,000-member church in suburban Dallas decided that their faith required them to promote healthy eating and physical fitness. Autumn Marshall, a nutritionist at church-affiliated Lipscomb University in Nashvile, Tennessee, explained that while most conservative Christians don’t drink, smoke, curse, or commit adultery, they do eat. Gluttony, she suggested, has become an acceptable vice. A study conducted in 1998 by Purdue University sociologist Kenneth Ferraro found that church members are more likely to be overweight than other people. In particular, he determined that Southern Baptists tended to be the heaviest, while Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists were less likely to be overweight. The board that administers the medical and retirement plans for Southern Baptist pastors issued a report in 2002 that stated that the most common ailments among pastors were back problems and high blood pressure, both problems often the result of obesity. Denominational statistics backed that up when it was found that 75% of Baptist pastors eat fried foods at least four nights a week, and 40% snack two or more times each day on cookies, chips, or candy.

Fasting, such as Jesus did, doesn’t seem to have any place in a country filled with McDonald’s, Pizza Huts, and Wendys’. According to National Geographic (August 2004), whereas the average American consumed 1,497 pounds of food in 1970, that amount rose to 1,775 pounds per year in 2000. But while we are eating more vegetables than we used to, almost a third of those vegetables are in the form of French fries, potato chips, and iceberg lettuce. Being overweight is associated with somewhere around 400,000 American deaths each year and is related to the increase in heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and various kinds of cancer. Yet overconsumption is something that most people don’t want to face up to. In a survey, 41% of overweight people described themselves as being “underweight” or “about right.” Another sign of the problem may be found in the fact that while the average woman’s dress size in 1950 was a size 8, in 2002 the average size was 14.

Many people today hesitate to believe that the devil exists. Yet researchers have found that those who acknowledge the reality of the devil are more likely to pursue godly ways. Reuters (7/28/04) reported that economists who were trying to find out why some nations are richer than others found that in countries where there is a widespread belief in hell, thee is less corruption and more prosperity. For instance, 71% of people in the United States believe in hell and the nation boasts the world’s highest per capita income. Ireland, where a firm majority also believes in hell, has a level of income just below that of the United States.

One of the temptations that many people face, especially during this time of year, is the temptation to cheat on their taxes. Utah’s Desert Morning News (3/27/04) reported that statistics show that a growing number of Americans feel they are paying more than their fair share in taxes, so that they feel justified in fudging some of the numbers of their returns to lower their tax bill. An Internal Revenue Service survey in 2003 indicated that 12% of taxpayers feel it is all right to cheat “a little” on their taxes. That number is up from 8% in 1999. The survey also found that up to 5% of taxpayers feel that it is acceptable to cheat as much as possible on their returns. When survey participants were asked if they thought paying taxes was part of their civic duty, 68% said it was; that was down from 81% four years before. A spokesperson for the IRS said that if everyone paid their fair share, then the United States would probably not have a budget deficit. The IRS conjectures that it loses about $282 billion in unpaid taxes each year, $166 billion of that being from individual taxpayers who either under-report, don’t file, or don’t pay. David Keller, director of the Center for the Study of Ethics at Utah Valley State College, comments on the slippery slope that is often involved when someone cheats on their taxes: “If somebody cheats on their taxes and gets away with it, they’re going to do it again and again—it’s kind of like drug addiction, until they get caught.”

In some ways non-Christians are less likely to succumb to certain temptations than Christians are. For instance, Christian Century (6/15/04) cited a bulletin from the Religious News Service that indicated that Christians are more likely to purchase lottery tickets than non-Christians are. Furthermore, research has found that non-Christians are twice as likely as Christians to fast.

Some people go to great lengths to try to resist the temptation they have to gamble. According to the Arizona Daily Star (4/6/04), an Arizona state law allows people to ask casinos to ban them from their facilities. Casinos are expected to deal with those who request “self-exclusion” by refusing to pay them any winnings, evicting them from the casinos, and, if necessary, arresting them for trespassing. So far nearly 400 Arizona residents have chosen to have themselves banned from gambling establishments. People can choose to have themselves banned for one, five, or ten years. But once they make their choice, they cannot alter the length of the ban, even if they have a change of heart. A report from the Arizona Lottery estimates that about 43% of Arizona adults have gambled at a casino in the last year, and around 2.3% of Arizona adults are problem or pathological gamblers. A study conducted in Canada found that where people voluntarily banned themselves from casinos, about a third of those people abstained from gambling during that period altogether, while more than half turned to other methods of gambling, such as lotteries and various forms of wagering.

Although giving something up for Lent is a tradition among many Christians, some of the first Protestant reformers went out of their way to abandon that tradition in order to call attention to the fact that there is no specific biblical warrant for that practice. For example, a sausage ended up becoming one of the initial rallying points in the Swiss Reformation. On the first Sunday in Lent in 1522, a Zürich printer by the name of Christoph Froschauer sat down with approximately twelve friends, cut into two sausages, and passed the pieces around to his guests. Ulrich Zwingli was apparently present at the event but sat out the eating of the forbidden meat. When the incident became public—as it was probably intended to be—Zwingli immediately defended the group by preaching a sermon about why it was unnecessary to follow the church’s tradition of not eating meat in Lent. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History [New York: Viking, 2004], p 135)

As Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness demonstrates, we are called upon to deal with the temptation to sin with all seriousness. During the sixteenth century in Scotland, the stool of repentance was a common piece of furniture in many Protestant sanctuaries. The idea was that a known sinner needed to engage in sincere repentance before being restored to fellowship in the church. The stool of repentance played a key role in that journey toward reconciliation. On a particular Sunday, usually a Sunday when communion was going to be celebrated, the penitent sinner sat perched on the stool of repentance in the front of the sanctuary under the watchful gaze of the pastor. Following the sermon, the person would then be given an opportunity to make a statement about their repentance. The congregation then judged whether the speech was sincere. If the church members thought the offender was acting scornfully, the person would be sent from the church to engage in more acts of penance. But if the church considered the person to be sincere, they were welcomed back into fellowship with a handshake or a kiss. That practice was structured that way because the early Protestants considered an individual’s sin to be hurtful to the entire community. Therefore, the entire community was involved in the process of absolution and reconciliation. (Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History [New York: Viking, 2004], pp 578-79)

While many Americans are obsessed with rooting out unwanted weeds from their yards, how many have that same passion for rooting out temptation and sin from their lives? It was only after World War II that Americans began in earnest to launch chemical warfare against dandelions and other undesired plants in their lawns. For instance, O. M. Scott’s & Co. found that by making minor changes to the nerve gases it had created for possible wartime use, they could develop a product that would eradicate most forms of weeds. One problem, though, was that the resulting herbicide, known as 4-X, also killed the clover that grew among the grass. Up until that time, clover was considered to be a perfectly acceptable part of a good lawn. In fact, most packets of grass seed included clover, with the general public feeling that clover added a nice touch. But when Scott’s found that their 4-X product killed clover, instead of changing their herbicide’s formula so that clover could be spared, Scott’s instead entered into an aggressive ad campaign to demonize clover and to convince people that it was for their benefit that it was being eradicated from their lawns. (Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger, Poplorica: A Popular History of the Fads, Mavericks, Inventions, and Lore That Shaped Modern America [New York: HarperCollins, 2004], pp 10-11)

Some people might wonder why Jesus had to wait about thirty years before being baptized, and why he had to wait another forty days after that to begin his public ministry. An explanation might be found in a comparison with how fruit becomes ripe. When fruit is forced to ripen too quickly, it tends to lose its flavor and ends up becoming less than what it could be. For example, in the United States, tomatoes are commonly picked when they are still green and shipped that way so that they won’t bruise on their way to stores. Then, before the tomatoes are sold, the green tomatoes are sprayed with carbon dioxide gas, which instantly turns them red. The gassed tomatoes are edible, but when compared to tomatoes that are permitted to take their time and ripen naturally on the vine, there is no contest. (Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002], p 217)

One of the problems we have with temptation is that we often tend to think that whatever we feel an urge for is automatically a genuine need that should be satisfied. Commentator George Will has observed that a need now “is defined, in contemporary America, as a 48-hour-old want.” The result, he says, is a “blurring of needs and wants,” which he asserts leads to a “tyranny of the unnecessary.” (Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse [New York: Random House, 2003], p. 136)

Through his baptism and through his time of testing in the wilderness, Jesus had the opportunity to affirm and clarify his true identity. Rabbi Zusya stated, “In the world to come I shall not be asked ‘Why were you not Moses?’ I shall be asked: ‘Why were you not Zusya?’” (Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God: what can we expect to find? [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000], p 163)

Syncletica, one of the ancient monks who lived in the deserts of Egypt, taught: “Bodily poison is cured by still stronger antidotes; so fasting and prayer drive sordid temptation from us.” (The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, tr. Benedicta Ward [New York: Penguin, 2003], p 27)

“Nothing can be more cruel than the leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than the severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” (Henry Ford)

“In any consideration of temptation, we must take into account the following two facts. First, temptation is an inevitable certainty. Second, God has endowed human personality with a free nature. We will not escape the choice.” (Robert Ozment But God Can [Westwood, N.J.:Fleming H Revell Co. 1962], p 15)

Last year I went to England and there visited Westminster’s Abbey. The body of Dr. David Livingstone is there in a place of honor among England’s most famous sons and daughters. The temptation to believe that he would die in Africa forgotten worked the corners of his mind. He fought the temptation to lift himself up by focusing upon the suffering he was sent to relieve. When he did die a grateful nation saw to the loving disposition of his earthly remains in a place of honor in the royal abbey in Westminster.

No failure is permanent in this life and no victory is final until one’s death. A man told God in his struggle with alcohol, “I’ll furnish the effort, if you’ll furnish the strength.” He went weeks without a drink and then slipped back into old patterns. He asked for God’s help again. The struggle is still going on, but God will help him and together they can win the battle. It is never over, until God says it’s over. Humility is the order of the day in dealing with temptations.

There are many images in the movie Spiderman II which make it clear the filmmakers are drawing parallels between Peter Parker/Spiderman and Jesus. In this film, Parker is tempted to give up the life of helping people so that he can lead a normal life: hold a job, have a girlfriend, keep up with his college homework. He tries it for a while, but then realizes that if he is untrue to his call, he can never be happy. The temptation was an illusion, much as the wonderful things Satan claims to offer Jesus.

One of my problems with the books in the Left Behind series is that they indicate that before the Rapture, Satan had been given control of the earth. The temptation story makes clear that is not the case. God still reigns, and believing that to be true gives us strength to fight temptation of all kinds.

A good exercise for Lent would be to look at the Temptation scenes in various Jesus films. A couple of them are fascinating for what the filmmakers add—in both Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ and CBS’s Jesus Satan is present in the Garden of Gethsemane. Both films (and even the animated The Miracle Maker) pick up on Luke 4:13 that states that the devil “departed from him until an opportune time.” Gethsemane, where Jesus’ deep desire to save his life wells up in his anguished prayer, apparently is that “opportune time” for the devil. He is merely a shadowy figure in Gibson’s film (which also depicts Christ as symbolically crushing a serpent in fulfillment of Genesis 3:15), whereas in the CBS film Satan is a major figure, dressed, as he was at the beginning of the film, all in black and entering into a lengthy debate in his attempt to dissuade Jesus from subjecting himself to a futile death. No one will understand, Satan argues, and humanity will take Jesus’ name and kill one another in his name—while saying this Satan conducts Jesus on a tour through future history, where they witness the Crusades and trench warfare of WW 1. Jesus, of course, refuses to be led astray, and the devil again withdraws in defeat. This artistic or poetic license adds greatly to our understanding of Jesus’ agony in the Garden.

Top of Page prayers (WorshipAid)

Call to Worship

Leader: Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all You upright in heart
People: For our God surrounds those who trust in the LORD with steadfast love.

Prayer of Confession

O Lord, we are surrounded by temptations, and unlike our Lord Jesus, we give in to them. Even when we successfully withstand one, we are prone to give in to spiritual pride, by which we elevate ourselves above “sinners” who have succumbed. Forgive us for our weakness; renew us by your Spirit that we might grow in strength of spirit and will. We know that we are unworthy servants—still we are servants, your servants, and we want to do better. Only through your forgiveness can we do so. We ask this in the name of the Tempted One who is also the Victorious One, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Prayer of Dedication

Gracious god, we have been tempted to keep these gifts for our own use, but we know that we are in great debt to You because You gave us your only Son to die for us. Thus in gratitude we bring them and lay them upon this table of sacrifice. Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

Dear God, we thank You that there is One who faced temptation as one of us and did not give in. Because Christ understands what we face, we believe that we have an advocate in heaven to whom we can turn. We have come into your house of prayer today and celebrated your gracious acts with brothers and sisters in the faith. We thank You that You have not called us in isolation but as a part of a fellowship, a Resurrection Fellowship from which we can draw and share strength and insight. May we and our church continue to grow in loving service and loyalty to your Son. Help us to lay our dreams and our personal plans in your hands, confident that if we seek your will, things will work out for the best—not always in the way we want or expect, but nonetheless, for the best. We pray for those who are sick, at home or in the hospital; for those disturbed in mind; for the hungry and the homeless; for those who live in fear of catastrophes of weather and war. Guide the leaders of our church and of our government, that they will seek your will in all things, and have the courage to follow it. Hear our prayers, spoken and unspoken, as we bring them to You in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.