Shadows and subversion — a word on temptation

Homily for the first Sunday in Lent (Year A)

 

You can only be tempted by what you really like —or at least by a version of it.

 

It makes sense for Satan to tempt Jesus into trying to turn stones into bread, to assume the powers of a magician and overthrow the natural order of things. Jesus, the Living Bread, longs to feed his people, to make the earth fruitful, to make what is dry and stony fit for humankind. He might quite conceivably like the change from carpenter to magician. But whereas Adam accepts the invitation to deny God’s place at the centre as Creator, Jesus does not. He insists that God is not to be made secondary even to an activity as laudable as feeding the hungry. He directs our attention rather to every word that comes from the mouth of God. We see his humble patience repaid in the feeding of the multitudes, when he turns to the Father with the poor offering before him, inviting the power of God to secure the sustenance of thousands.

 

The temptation to throw himself off a high building so that the angels might catch him is also a coherent offer. Jesus as proclaimer and architect of the Kingdom of God needs forces of the Crown to carry out his work. He might easily imagine for himself a superhero status or (with the affirmation heard at his baptism still ringing in his ears) consider forcing the issue of his place in God’s scheme by inviting this impressive treatment. And of course there would be few things to drum up interest and inspire conversion to his way quite like the sight of an angelic rescue of a man falling through the air. But Jesus knows that unforced trust in God is the prerequisite of all endeavour, and his stupid fallible apostles must be the all-too-human troops with whom he will carry out his mission. To vindicate his faithfulness, angels do indeed come to Jesus after his temptations, and minister to him at the end of his ordeal.

 

In coming to establish the Kingdom of the Father, Jesus needs to influence those around him as they live their lives. Possessing an abundance of earthly wealth and power would surely assist in this. But not at the price of swearing fealty and pledging loyalty to Satan. Rather like those people who dream of winning the lottery and make themselves feel less base by listing all the charitable things they would do with the money, Jesus is tempted away from the heart of his mission, which is to find riches in poverty and his power and glory in the Cross.

 

Not too surprisingly, Jesus defeats Satan by the grace of the Father, and the fruit of this success results in the ministry that follows. In keeping God at the centre, Jesus heals, feeds and restores the needy; in empowering the Church with the gift of the Spirit, he does far more than provide a merely angelic insurance scheme; and in refusing to worship Satan, who himself is the prosecuting shadow-side of the defending and merciful Christ, he prepares himself for the struggle of Gethsemane and forearms himself against the malign power of Pilate and the high priests.

 

For us also the avoidance of sin is made easier when we recognise that our temptations are a distortion of good and holy desires, a flipping of the coin so that we see not the Sovereign but the shadow-side of reality. Our greed is a distortion of quite proper enjoyment of the good things God gives us. Sexual voracity is a subversion of the gift of friendship and closeness between human beings. Our prudence can be distorted into avarice, and an attractive generosity and disregard for money can lead to a recklessness that leaves families in want. And when we gossip (O Christians), this too is a betrayal of that good inclination to be involved and concerned in the lives of those around us, and to build up a network of relationships which will be supportive of all.

 

At the heart of all these distortions is arrogance, a taking of what is not ours, a deciding that we will be the arbiters of what is right and wrong. Or, in the words of the book of Genesis, it is to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The consequence of this, we see, is to recognise that we are naked, and to sew together clothes made from fig leaves. To see our nakedness is in part to lose the childish innocence of the thoughtlessly obedient. It is also to know ourselves to be God’s creatures, unadorned and dependent. In clothing ourselves we seek to disguise this dependence, to insist on our own creativity, to fashion for ourselves the marks of a culture which can at best recognise that we are God’s, but which too often rebels against this reality by applying a veneer of human achievement. It is in the stripping of Christ on the cross that we see the antidote to this false clothing, and the source of the life that is seen in Christ but rejected and denied by Adam.

 

We therefore continue to pray for the grace to know ourselves to be God’s children, to know our place in the cosmos, and to grow ever more Christ-like in the light of these lengthening, lentening days.

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