Jesus and temptation
Conversation | | 25th January 2019
Nearly every adventure, fantasy, or science fiction movie has a scene where the heroic protagonist is tempted to join the villain. Darth Vader asks Luke Skywalker to join the Dark Side and rule the galaxy as father and son, Lex Luther attempts to convince Superman to reject the people before they reject him. There is something dramatically satisfying to a scene where the ultimate good guy is made an offer to forgo their scruples and go bad. But this kind of temptation isn’t only reserved for the truly heroic and powerful – how many movies or novels signify positive character growth through a scene where the protagonist overcomes temptation and chooses better than they had in the past. It isn’t difficult to see how the temptation of Jesus has contributed to this legacy, shaping the imaginations of artist and audience alike.
And so we come to Matthew’s story of the Temptation of Jesus. What kind of scene does he record, and what might he be trying to convey? One of the reasons we can ask these kinds of questions of Matthew is because he expanded on the story from Mark’s earlier version. In Mark’s gospel the temptation story is characteristically brief – there are no details of the temptations themselves. Mark’s silence on the topic has led many to believe that the disciples did not know the details of Jesus’ wilderness experience, and so it was up to the early church and the gospel writers to tell this narrative in a way that spoke to their contemporary situation, while reflecting the broader life of Jesus and their lived tradition with the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew recasts Jesus in the role of Israel, tested in the wilderness, and builds the dialogue through references from Deuteronomy (mostly from the passage we read) and the Psalms. Matthew is crafting a story to convey a striking and profound truth to his audience – modern questions of the facticity of a mountain from which Jesus could see all the kingdoms of the world do not concern him, he is after something deeper.
So what is Matthew doing in this narrative, what has he included, and why?
I want to draw our attention to the many significant parallels between Matthew’s Temptation narrative and his account of Jesus’ passion. Both the Temptation and the Passion immediately follow ‘high moments’. Last week we heard about Jesus’ baptism, where the voice from heaven declared Jesus a beloved son… immediately following this the Spirit drives him to the wilderness, alone, where that calling will be tested. Conversely, it is after the anointing at Bethany and the Last Supper, two moving and emotional scenes, that Jesus is drawn to pray in the garden of Gethsemane – where he will struggle, alone, with his resolve to carry through with the will of the Father. After periods of solitude and prayer his trial begins – The Slanderer, the Accuser (diabolos) appears in the wilderness and begins to test Jesus; at his trial Jesus will also be slandered and accused; the veracity of his claims tested. Between temptations and between trials Jesus will be led by others – showing no resistance to this process.
Even the temptations themselves find parallels in the Passion. He is first tempted to turn stones into bread and bring some relief to his bodily suffering – on the path to Calvary he is offered wine – both times he refuses. He is tempted to cast himself down from the Temple to be caught by angels – leaving no doubt of his divine status and calling. On the Cross, the religious leaders challenge Jesus to descend from the cross, to prove that he truly is God’s Son. In a slightly different way, the third temptation – where Jesus will be given power and dominion over the whole of the earth, should he only bow to the Evil One, is subverted in the Resurrected Jesus’ announcement that ‘all power on heaven and earth has been given to me’ (both scenes occur on mountains).
The next question we have to ask, is why? Why draw these parallels between the Temptation and the Passion?
I have four possible motivations:
1) The Temptation scene is figurative for the kinds of temptation Jesus faced – he is tempted to waver from his trust in God and secure his own basic provisions, he is tempted to test God in a manner intended to prove his glory and coerce our love, he is tempted to worship and give allegiance to an alien power over God. It is not that this was the only time Jesus was ever tempted, rather this is a figurative story which encapsulates the basic nature of the types of temptations that Jesus faced throughout his ministry.
2) Emphasising that Jesus’ refusal to give into temptation at the beginning of his ministry set the course for the rest of his life, a course that would take him to the cross.
3) Portraying these kinds of temptations as ones all followers of Jesus will encounter (in life and in the face of martyrdom) – one commentator referred to this story as a parable about life as a Christian disciple; where encounters with the presence of Christ and the joy of repentance are inevitably followed by trials (Davies and Allison).
4) Because it is the same Evil faced by Jesus the whole time – the same cosmic enemy that Jesus has come to battle and defeat. The first encounter is direct, in the second intermediaries are employed (wittingly and unwittingly).
Perhaps one of these rings truer with you, perhaps its a little of all four. But I think the why can go deeper still. Perhaps we reframe the question: why was Jesus tempted? Why was that temptation so carefully witnessed to in Holy Scripture? And why is this story influencing so many artists?
Temptation is surely one of the most universal experiences. In the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, our need for help in the face of temptation is placed alongside the need for daily bread – it is just assumed that we will all struggle against temptation. I think Paul wrote one of the most relatable and piercingly human lines in all of Holy Scripture:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.
We have all had this experience, and usually we know the moment the act is done that we shouldn’t have done that or said that and we hate it and often ourselves. And even when we think we have forgotten it, one day, ten years later you’ll be driving in your car and it will spring back into your mind uninvited and that memory will illicit an audible ‘urgghhh.’
Now from that very relatable start, Paul continues:
Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.
Paul hits it well here. When we don’t do the thing we want to (that which we know is good) it is because of Sin – that wicked Power that lurks around and dwells within. When Paul speaks of Sin he generally doesn’t mean a list of infractions, but a power, along with Death; a semi-autonomous power that corrupts human beings and their structures. For Paul, the Powers (Sin and Death) are what the Gospel writers call the Evil One, Satan – and it can take hold of the even the most ardent followers of Jesus, such as Peter (who Jesus calls Satan when Peter tries to come between Jesus and the cross), but it can also work its way into whole systems – such as the Roman Empire, which considered crucifixion a path to peace, or in societal structures – such as those which upheld South African Apartheid or Australia’s Colonial system which orchestrated the Stolen Generation and continues to structure society in a way that oppresses and disenfranchises the First Peoples of the Land. Indeed as we heard in the Temptation account, The Power of Sin knows the Scriptures and can turn it to nefarious purposes – just like those who used Scripture to justify colonisation, slavery, and genocide.
But let us not restrict this conversation to the true horrors of history. From little to large, all are susceptible to doing what they know is wrong, to giving into the temptation of fear over love, hatred over tenderness, exclusion over embrace. These moments, these choices are not us – as beloved, image-bearers of God – it is the sin that dwells within us – that has gotten under our skin, a product of our place in a conflicted world – a world torn and twisted by an enemy who persists in futile attempts to disrupt the coming of the kingdom of heaven. I say futile, for the evil can never truly win the day — this is one reason to love the fantasy/action movies and their Hollywood happy endings (they may not reflect life as it is, but they do a great job of witnessing to life as it will be when Christ returns and sets to right all that has gone wrong, conquering and vanquishing all that afflicts and oppresses God’s Creation). Again, I say futile, because the Temptation and the Passion both end in world upturning guarantees… the kingdom of heaven draws near and all power on heaven and earth has been given to me.
Or, as Paul puts it:
For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
Now we are not there yet, not fully at least – the futility of evil is important to hold close, but so too must we heed that we live now in what Paul referred to as present sufferings. We have been released from the power of Sin, and as for death – o death, where is your sting? But the thorn in our flesh persists, our trials remain, our failures abound… and this draws us back to the Temptation narrative, draws us back to the why.
In facing temptation Jesus shares in this most universal, though most unfortunate aspect of the human condition. The deep solidarity of the Incarnation goes this far, indeed further; because Jesus is the one able to resist temptation even to his death. The author of Hebrews puts this well:
Jesus had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
It is important to note that Jesus doesn’t face and resist temptation easily — he is not some unruffled, not one-hair out of place, near angelic being floating above the human condition — Jesus is a living human person who faces real temptation. The Gethsemane prayer attests this, the need for the angels to come and care for Jesus after his encounter with the Slanderer also attests to the drain that Jesus faced in his temptations. Jesus reaches the depths of the human experience and so wherever we go, whatever dark corners of our world or our minds that our temptations take us, we will find Jesus, our suffering Messiah there as well.
Jesus joined with us all in our repentance (by being baptised by John even when he didn’t need to). Then, the Eternal Son, present at the Creation of the cosmos, joins us in our temptation, so that just as we are met in the moment of repentance by the loving arms of a welcoming God, so too in our temptation we are met by the sympathetic face of Jesus who endured the worst this world could throw at him and overcame! Because that is the really good news; not just that we have a friend in Jesus, one who shares in the temptation though he need not, we have a saviour in Jesus who took all temptation (and all failures) into himself and came out the other side the victor, who emerged from the wilderness still trusting in the God who sent him, still proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of heaven, still praying thy will be done.
The resurrected one, to whom all power has been given, is the conqueror of Sin and Death. Because of Christ, we know that despite present appearances, despite the ubiquity of temptation, all the wrongs of this present age (those which befall us and those in which we are complicit) will be made right.
When we face temptation – and that is when – we know two things:
1) Jesus is there with us. The tempted, tried, and crucified one has been to whatever dark place you are in — and not on been (past tense) but is with you now. We are not alone, nor can we ever be. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.
2) Jesus has overcome the evil that dwells within us and this world. The victory was won at Calvary, and though the fullness of the new age is still awaited, we can know that just as all power on heaven and earth has been given to Jesus, just as he is the first-fruits of all the dead, just as the kingdom of heaven is near – we too are more than conquerors through the one that has loved us.
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Temptation may be universal, but it is not the last word. The last word, along with all power on heaven and earth, is given to Jesus. That is why we have temptation accounts, but that is also why we go out into the world, joyfully singing songs of freedom.
Image: The Temptation of Christ by Philips Augustijn Immenraet, 1663.