A little Wikipedia to get us all on the same page: Lent is the preparation (for Easter) of the believer through prayer, doing penance, repentance of sins, almsgiving, atonement, and self-denial. And then everyone does it kind of different. Think about it like the “holiday season” except this might be the “unholiday” season. So just like once Thanksgiving hits there’s 4-5 weeks of a “holiday season” ending in Christmas, with Lent – Ash Wednesday hits and then there’s 40 days of, “prayer, doing penance, repentance, almsgiving, atonement, self-denial” until Easter.
So it is of course only appropriate that we begin our Lenten season in the temptation narrative. Jesus was just baptized and it was, by most accounts, a big deal. After which it then says, “Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness.”
Let’s pause for just a minute on the baptism story. It “being a big deal” is indeed key to understanding the temptation experience. Jesus’ baptism essentially begins this “new way of living,” ushering in the kingdom of God. It’s literally the inauguration of his three year revolutionary journey. And from what we see in the story, something amazing happened.
Some of you may be familiar with the work some scholars have done on explaining just why exactly Jesus’ baptism was a big deal. To “become a rabbi” basically you must have two senior rabbis sign off on you. Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist can be read, at least literarily, in this way.
John the Baptist obviously signs off on him giving him major props and credit in front of everyone, saying he’s not even worthy to tie the shoelaces of Jesus and then just to top it all off – the skies part open and another rabbi, YHWH, essentially adds the ultimate signature to the whole event. It would seem all this, even down to details, is certainly key to understanding TONS about Jesus’ temptation and life as a whole but if nothing else we ought to understand that Jesus’ baptism was a BIG, SIGNIFICANT EVENT, in front of people that mattered.
One of those things times when “YOU ARE THE SHOW.” You are the reason people are applauding. And so yes, very directly, very intentionally, very naturally, the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness. Many scholars agree, the temptation Jesus experienced in the wilderness was 100% about his ego and the literal temptation to make his purpose in life ultimately about himself and fulfilling the common, maybe even innate, human desire for fame and fortune. (Sidenote: It’s like my favorite past-time to reference “scholars” whose names and even book titles I can’t remember but I know I read them during the three years I was in school and I caught their point, just not their name.)
Whether you choose to read the devil in the story as a literal flying devil, some dark tall hooded Satan character without a nose (see the Passion movie), some dark side of himself, his ego, etc. – whomever you understand “the questioner in the temptation narrative” to be, regardless, the questions are clear. They are about Jesus’ decisions and purpose. First one – make bread, feed the people, be a hero. Second one – throw yourself down, let the angels catch you, be invincible, be a superhero. Third one – standing at the top of a very high place, “forget about everyone else, do all things above else for your own power and control, and if you do, you’ll own and be greater than all this. Trust me.”
These are, very literally, the temptations of the human psyche. I’m not saying we all exactly experience them in quite the exact same language or divine interactions – although we may, I’m just saying these are VERY, VERY natural and human temptations.
And I think, when I look at this story there are three things I can really sink my teeth into as take aways; lessons to be learned from Jesus here. Because after all, according to the story, he resisted – and I don’t know about y’all, but I’m always trying to figure out how to live better, how to live more wholly and lovingly, how to resist the evil stuff. I am a big believer in looking at the stories about Jesus and trying to find some things I can concretely practice.
- And when I look at this temptation story and what Jesus did here’s what I see.
Jesus took himself, his role, his contribution in the world, seriously. He understood himself to be a part of an important movement of love and justice and he took himself seriously. He believed he was important and could make a difference in the world. He didn’t succumb to temptation on the other end of the spectrum by answering back – “It doesn’t matter what I do, I’m not good enough. I’m not important. In the big picture my life doesn’t matter.” Jesus DID believe in himself and the difference he could make which is a very important distinction than believing it was all about him and for his own gain and glory. Richard Rohr says, “You know after any truly initiating experience that you are part of a much bigger whole. Life is not about you henceforward, but you are about life.”
- He grounded himself in a spiritual practice. It’s real easy to forget in this story that Jesus was fasting. This means there was an intentionality to the way Jesus was living at that moment. It was not just willy nilly, like the devil came and tempted me on my way to the well today. Jesus followed the Spirit and took on the hard work of investigating himself and his desires and motivations for why he was doing the work he was going to be doing. I think this played a huge role in his ability to resist. He greeted this difficult self-investigation with discipline and intentionality. Spiritual practices are endless in number. They can be anything from traditional fasting, to committing to do something ten minutes everyday, to refusing to shop at certain places because of their business practices. Spiritual practices are about being grounded in such a way that keeps us awake.
- Jesus knew what he was saying – like head and heart knew – because he had immersed himself in the wisdom of those who went before about what was right, and true, and good. Each time he answered he said, “It is written.” He didn’t say, “well I think… blah, blah, blah.” He located himself in a wisdom tradition that was older and wiser than that one current conversation he was having. This would therefore imply he had spent time immersing himself in those older, wiser, writings. He placed himself in a lineage – not out there free floating pulling out “truth” like a seedling that just popped through the soil today but instead found shade under a massive oak tree that predates everything around it… especially simply what we may think or feel today.
And then naturally what does Jesus do next… once he’s been confirmed as a rabbi, dealt with the questioning of his Spirit, he goes and gets a posse. But that’s another story for another season…by