The Temptations of Jesus

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.


There’s been a series of superhero films recently – many of whom have their everyday “normal” identities to conceal their powers. Peter Parker is Spiderman, Clark Kent is Superman, and so on – and if people find out who they really are, they demand to see their powers to prove they aren’t making it up. 


The tempter in our gospel passage has a similar line of argument. His temptations – or tests – the word is the same – begin and end with “If you are the Son of God…” Now, the devil is often portrayed in Scripture as being very spiritually aware – for instance when Jesus casts him out of people, he often describes Jesus as “Jesus, Son of David,” or “Jesus, the Holy one of God” – and just like our superheroes, Jesus commands them to be silent and not reveal his identity. – so we can assume he knows full well that Jesus is the Son of God – he’s just trying to get Jesus to break his fast.


This is one of the key passages that we base our observance of Lent on, together with the gospel read on Ash Wednesday, during which Jesus spoke about the right way to pray, fast, and give alms.


Those three principles, which we follow in Lent, and which Fr. Adrian has described as taking up, giving up, and giving away, also have close parallels with the ways in which the devil tries to tempt Jesus.


The first temptation is food. It’s easy to see why – Jesus has spent forty days without food – a much more strenuous ordeal than our abstinence from cake or alcohol! -  and the Gospel records that “at the end he was hungry”. So the desire to eat is a natural one. 


The second temptation is that of the easy road to power. The devil tells Jesus that the power and the glory of all the kingdoms of the world has been given to him, and offers it to Jesus in return for Jesus serving the devil.


We know, of course, that the time is coming when Jesus will take his place on the throne of all the universe. St. John’s Gospel tells us, and the creed reminds us, that through Jesus all things were made – and so it is his by right. But the road to that throne must pass not only through Lent, but through the agony in the garden of Gethsemane, a torturous death on the cross of Calvary, and the sorrow of his burial. This offer of the devil – the short road to power – is a cheap imitation, and a hollow one at that.


And finally, the desire to be known and recognised. The Jewish people expected their messiah to be a mighty king, who would rally his people behind him. It’s this image of the archetypal King David, the King of Israel of whom all its successive kings and leaders were merely pale shadows, still revered by his people centuries after his death.


And after all, the devil says to Jesus – God will protect you, won’t he? One big spectacle and everyone will know who you are.


The key to all these temptations is selfishness – in the most literal sense. Self-ish-ness makes everything about “me”. I want to eat, I want to get to the top, I want people to speak well of me and to admire me.


Which is why Lent makes us fight this self-ish-ness by emptying ourselves of self-ish-ness and replacing it with Christ.


Fasting fights the urge for us to be what St. Paul calls “slaves to our appetites” – by not giving in to our desire for things – be that foods or drinks or any other luxury, we stop them from being our masters and make them our servants.


Money and power are often linked – after all, one of the reasons President Trump was so well-known was through his business ventures, and in the Roman Republic you had to be a millionaire even to stand for the senate – with people being kicked out each year if they fell below the threshold.  Almsgiving, then, makes us less powerful in the eyes of the world, which equates wealth with power.


Finally, prayer is the counter to fame. The world is full of celebrities these days, many of whom maintain their public visibility by self-promotion – selling perfumes, keeping up a regular stream of updates on their life, and so forth. The world’s youngest billionaire is a woman called Kylie Jenner, who is 21 – she’s part of a family called the Kardashians, who have their own TV show about their daily life – but all they do is publicise themselves. Prayer, meanwhile, turns us away from ourselves, and focuses on God. 


John the Baptist said of Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” – and the hallmark of a Lent lived well, is if it directs us better towards God.


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: Amen.