Lent 1, Temptations
Looking at me, you probably don’t think you’re looking at Satan. But re-encountering the story of Jesus’ temptations in preparation for today – and this is a gospel I thought I knew practically by heart – I was taken aback to realize how often I actually take on the role of the devil.
That first temptation Jesus faced? “If you really are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread.” Turn stones into bread. Right. I often find myself offering some version of that temptation, tempting Jesus not perhaps to feed himself with that bread, but to feed the hungry here in Brunswick, at the border, among children, in places facing famine. “Come on, Jesus, you can do it. Take it on. Fix it. Solve it. If you’re the Son of God, why do you let such hunger go unappeased? Why won’t you turn stones into bread?”
The second temptation: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down…” How often have I tempted, begged Jesus to do something so incontrovertible, so clear that I would absolutely know his presence, his identity. “Prove it,” I tempt him. “How do I know you’re really here in this time of darkness and chaos and evil? Show yourself, preferably today.”
The third temptation: the devil shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor,” and offers them to him. And, with a slightly different twist, I do the same thing: “Jesus, YOU fix the political leadership of the world. Look at the mess we’re in, Lord. Take it on. Eliminate racism, poverty, sickness, violence, climate change. Throw out the bums that are wrecking our planet and abusing the marginalized. Rule the nations in all their splendor and their squalor.”
But then I imagined Jesus shaking his head in a kind of frustrated tenderness: “But these are your tasks. God has given humanity all that you need, but you trash your garden and trash-talk your neighbor. Don’t you see, you are the ones who need to find ways to feed, heal, and fix. I am true to my promise: “I am with you always.” Remember St. Patrick’s breastplate: “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.” It’s all true; I am in all those places, and I will work beside you. I will work within you. But I will not work instead of you.
“Already you are doing good work in my name. Stones into bread? People already work hard to feed the hungry – look at what St. Paul’s is doing today, collecting food for the food pantry. But, Mary Lee, you Christians can do more. You can also advocate for a wage that allows families to feed themselves. Feeding the hungry is your task, not the magic of turning stones into bread, but turning your sweat into policies that will reduce hunger. Here in Maine, one in five children lives without enough food, yet there are proposed government cuts that will deny school lunch to even more children, and put Maine seniors at risk. It’s a daunting task to reduce hunger, especially in this climate, but I am with you. The devil wanted me to turn stones into bread, and I refused. But never forget that at the end of my life, I turned bread into Body, and my own Body and Blood have been feeding you for 2000 years. Bread for the journey. Strength for your souls.
“Now for that next temptation, wanting a direct experience of God, proof of my presence. Remember that night you spent looking at the stars with your grandson, Mary Lee, the awe and the hope you felt? And what about the Eucharist? How much more God do you want? I am always here. It’s your task to pay attention. Enough said.
“And that temptation to rule the earth? Uh-uh. Not me,” Jesus says. “You have to figure it out. Ah, and this Super Tuesday week, a good time to be thinking about who is going to rule this particular realm in ways that are pleasing to God: So consider who is most likely to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit those in prison, seek healing for the sick and the damaged, love the children. You have a hand in how this one country rules and is ruled. I’m not on the ballot, but you know my words and my witness.
“So, Mary Lee, you may sometimes sound like Satan as you try to tempt me act in ways that are not godly. But remember, so did Peter, and I had to tell him, too, to cut it out. The devil wanted me to do those things to corrupt me, and you are asking instead for compassionate reasons. But if I did those things, you might stop being compassionate and expect me to continue to do all the work. So my answer is still no, but it is said with love, and with hope. I’ll leave you with this passage from my beloved Elie Wiesel, who wrote this conversation between a rabbi and his student:
The student asked, “God, who is perfect, took six days to create a world that is not; how is that possible?”
His rabbi responded, “Could you have done better?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“You could have done better? Then what are you waiting for? You don’t have a minute to waste, go ahead, start working.”