The writer of Mark dispensed with the whole forty-days-in-the-wilderness thing in a single sentence – “The Spirit kicked Jesus into the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan and ministered by angels.”
I’m rather glad that the writers of both Matthew and Luke decided to include a few more details. Because, when we look beyond the literal, we find that Jesus’ temptations are, in fact, our temptations.
All of us struggle between the material and the spiritual; between our personal comfort and the welfare of others; between our desire to be part of a community and our wish to be in control of it.
Probably the best known of the three “temptations” is summed up in the clichéd “man does not live by bread alone.” We need, in other words, more than the material to give our lives meaning.
It may not seem that way in a consumption-driven society. Indeed, how many times have you heard that the solution to the economic crisis is for people to start buying things again?
Being physical creatures, we need a certain level of material things to be healthy; to feel safe; to provide for our families. We also, however, need “every word out of the mouth of God.” Which is not, as literalists would have it, some specific set of rules or doctrine gleaned from ancient manuscripts. It’s the inseverable relationship with God that the ancient Greeks called agapé.
God is both beyond Creation and part of it; which means that every part of Creation is also intimately part of God. When we understand that, and embrace it, we’re no longer controlled by “bread alone.” We’re more capable of balancing our needs with the needs of others, and with the needs of the world that we’re part of.
When Jesus declines to “test God” by jumping off the top of the temple, the story is speaking to every one of us who ever hoped or prayed for some magical hand to reach down and catch us when we make a mistake, or when something bad happens.
Jesus doesn’t expect God to intervene to keep him from harm. Superman-like invulnerability isn’t part of the program; not for him, and not for us.
Life is, unfortunately, messy. In spite of our best efforts and intentions, tragedies are as common as triumphs. Although it’s sometimes comforting to think otherwise, neither are caused, nor prevented, by God.
One of the biggest problems of expecting God to “catch us when we fall” is simple. What happens if God doesn’t? Those who believe in a supernatural God spend a lot of time rationalizing why bad things continue to happen to even the most fervent believer.
Rather than hope that God will take on the job of ensuring that we don’t “bruise our foot on a rock”, we, like Jesus, need to become the hands of God in Creation.
Jesus is also offered the “easy way out.” He can rule the world. Fix everything right now. He turns the offer down flat.
For those who see nothing more than “history” in sacred text, this should be more than a little troubling. After all, isn’t that what literalists are waiting for? For Christ to, as related in Revelation, return, take charge, and kick butt?
Are there any of us who, at some point in time, haven’t thought “if I were the boss/ran this country/ruled the world, things would be different”?
To “serve God”, however, is to realize that we can’t impose change from outside. At least, not the transformative change that’s embodied in the Message of the Christ. That has to come from within us; from our agapé relationship with God and Creation.
Sometimes we’re impatient. We know that injustices happen every day; that inequality and oppression are daily experiences for millions of people. We want to change that. We want to change it now. We’re tempted to take the shortcut that was offered to Jesus.
The reality, as the Gospel writers knew, is different. Metanoia – transformation – may come quickly to us as individuals, but it comes slowly to us as a species.
We will all have many times “in the wilderness” in our faith journey; times when it seems as though the way of the material –putting ourselves first, taking shortcuts to our goals, claiming the right to define others’ journeys – makes perfect sense.
It’s those times when we, like Jesus, need to remain steadfast in our commitment to God; to the spiritual relationship that makes us all, not the rulers of the world, but an inseverable part of it.