Temptation is not a popular subject, indeed its often something we give no thought to at all. But today is the first Sunday in Lent and so its appropriate to give some thought to Jesus’ temptation. Because this is the year in our 3 year lectionary in which we read mostly from Mark’s gospel, the account of the temptation read in this mornings services was very short – precisely two verses – in contrast with the longer accounts in both Matthew and Luke. But the fact that the temptation of Jesus is not described in detail does not mean that Mark thought it unimportant. It is simply that he writes it as the end of the prologue to his gospel. Mark is clear that Jesus is in the wilderness because of divine intervention. This short account marks the end of the significant early life of Jesus – covered briefly by Mark – and the beginning of his public ministry.
Why did Jesus’ temptation occur at this point? Why did the Spirit deliberately drive Jesus into this situation? If we assume that Jesus was being tempted to diverge from the path before him then we can attempt to answer both these questions.
Jesus faced a journey with a particularly gruesome destination. Not only that, but he encountered obstacles in reaching that destination. Those obstacles were placed in his way by those who opposed him. They were also placed in his way by his friends – remember the time he told Peter to ‘get behind me Satan’ or his betrayal by Judas. And at times the obstacle was within himself, for example when he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me.’
At the start of such a journey, it is vital to identify the destination with absolute clarity if there is to be any chance of staying on course. Its also necessary to be adequately prepared for the conditions which will be faced. In the wilderness, Jesus could focus on the ultimate and not just the immediate. At the same time however, the sheer space – both physically and in terms of time – would have brought the big temptations to light. We know that usually simple, everyday concerns can distract us from our journey quite satisfactorily, but in periods of steady contemplation much heavier guns must be used to blow us off course. To some extent that would have been true for Jesus too.
There is another significance to the wilderness. Very early in the bible there is a picture of the Garden of Eden. All in the garden really was lovely and Adam and Eve wandered around naked because smut hadn’t been invented. We all know how long the Garden of Eden lasted, just long enough for the first temptation to appear and to be given in to. Here in the wilderness we have the second Adam come to restore our relationship with God and this time the outcome of temptation will be different.
What tempts us? We can think of little things we might be prepared to admit to – the temptation to have just one more biscuit/drink/ whatever is our weakness is. What about the temptation to misappropriate resources? its only a paperclip/ a library book or whatever. There are also temptations that we struggle to admit to ourselves never mind our nearest and dearest.
What gives temptation its unique power and force? With whom do we wrestle when we feel tempted? Do we wrestle with ourselves and conduct the battle entirely within? Or are we caught in a more sinister cosmic conflict between good and evil, between God and Satan?
It is not always easy to resist temptation. As Christians we are called to have compassion on those who have fallen. We can imagine a child who is bullied at school and the only way out seems to be to ‘join the gang’ and therefore to join in with anti-social behaviour.
We can imagine the parents of a sick child with inadequate money to fund all that is needed – and bear in mind evidence that the poor have borne the brunt of the cutbacks – tempted to steal if there was something easy to steal in front of them. Where fair means of providing for the family have failed, foul means of survival might appear attractive.
I was challenged recently by a young woman when I said that I would prefer to give money to the Mother’s Union or similar rather than any governmental scheme in parts of Africa. Her reply was that she had no objection to bribes if they fed a family. She has no church background and doesn’t share my scruples. Unlike me she has actually been to Africa. She was talking of local officials rather than folk at the top who rake of millions but she still made me think.
Of course if fewer people kept all their wealth to themselves we could have a fairer system all round. Jesus who walked in the wilderness with the tempter beside him is able to sympathise with those who succumb to temptation.
Thus, as a final preparation for his public ministry, Jesus is given the opportunity to take stock of what lies before him, both the destination and the obstacles that lie in front of Him.
We too need this constant refocussing, and to be guided by the Spirit. Because we too face temptation from those who oppose us, sometimes from our friends, and certainly from within. But temptation isn’t something to be shunned – when it happens the important thing is how we react. The comforting thing is to know that Jesus has actually experienced temptation. He will help us to resist it if we seek His help. And He is merciful when we fall. That is why we reflect on the temptation Jesus faced on this first Sunday in Lent.