Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
We imagine him out there, sitting in the shade of some overhanging crag, wrestling with a fallen Angel. We tell the story as if it were all so obvious that his opponent was some red demi-god with a forked tail and pitchfork. But we misread the Gospel when we imagine it like that.
For he was not some Superhero in a cape, with extraordinary powers of resistance. He was a human, as we are, struggling to understand what God wanted him to do with his life. After he wandered off from his encounter with his cousin, John the Baptizer, he was as confused you or I would have been. John had tried to talk him out of being baptized—for John’s baptism was reserved for notorious sinners, for tax collectors, hookers, drunks and ne’er-do-wells of various stripes. But he had insisted, impelled by something he couldn’t quite grasp. And then there was that mysterious voice, and the white dove who had landed on his shoulder, as he came up from the water.
During his sojourn in the desert, for forty days and nights, he went over the scene, reliving it moment by moment. He remembered his parents’ words to him, their quiet re-telling of the story of the shepherds and the Magi. He remembered his bar-mitzvah, when he’d holed up in the Temple for three days, while his frantic parents scoured the Holy City searching for him. He remembered his father’s instructions in the carpenter’s shop—on how to carve a piece of wood or make a table for a rich man’s home. He was tired and hungry and thirsty and pretty much prayed out.
That’s when the Tempter showed up. Did he come as an old man, full of the wisdom of the ages? Did he come as a young boy, in search of a rabbi to guide his life? Did he come as a beautiful woman with a smile as bright as the sun and a playful twinkle in her eye? To understand the Temptations of Christ, one must read the original story of sin in the Book of Genesis.
The writer of Genesis opens the story like this: “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made.” The temptation of the first humans came not from some alien place, but from within the Creation that God had declared Good. The snake, who is not called “evil” or “the devil” but simply “crafty,” poses a very simple question: “Did God say, `You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”
The woman, perplexed perhaps by this talking serpent, is quick to respond, “Oh, no. We can eat from these trees. It’s only the tree in the middle of Paradise that we can’t eat from. As a matter of fact,” and she eyes the man beside her, “we can’t even touch it, or we’ll die.”
Notice that she gets the Word of God twisted in her response. There was no prohibition against touching the tree or its fruit—only its eating. And the serpent chuckles. “That’s ridiculous. God knows that if you eat this fruit, you will become Gods yourselves. That’s why he doesn’t want you to do it. Why, if you eat it, you will not only not die, but your eyes will be opened and you will understand Good and Evil.”
The Tempter, in his first appearance in the Bible, is telling the truth—at least partly. Because when the man and woman do eat the forbidden fruit, their eyes are opened and they don’t die, at least right then. All that happens is that the universe is rent in two and suddenly, there is Good and Evil when a moment before, there had only been Good. The Tempter quotes God’s Word, but in a way that twists its intent. The hapless human couple stands naked before each other and are overcome with guilt and shame.
That’s the same way the Tempter tries to engage Jesus. First, an innocent sounding question: “So, you’re struggling to figure out if you’re the Son of God? Look, you’re out here in the desert and you’re starving to death. If you’re confused about it, why not just find out: turn these stones into bread. For God’s sake, man, don’t starve to death if you’ve got the power to do something about it.”
But Jesus has been meditating on what it meant to be called Son of God. And he, unlike Eve, does not get the Word of God wrong:”It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'”
It is not so easy to break the spirit of someone who has been dwelling in the desert with holy memory. So the Tempter comes back for round two. Suddenly they are standing on the very top of the Temple, in the center of the Holy City. “Look, this whole Son of God thing is really tough. You are going to need every last bit of Divine confirmation you can get. Just throw yourself down there. Because you know the scripture: ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ After all, if you are the Messiah, nothing bad can happen to you.”
But Jesus is not so easily convinced: “Again it is written,” he replies, “’Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
But the Tempter has not lost his thirst for yanking Evil out of Good, and in a flash, they are at the top of the world’s highest mountain. Atop it, they gaze out on the Seven Wonders of the World: from the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to the Temple of Artimes at Ephesus. The Colossus at Rhodes, the Great Pyramid of Gaza, Zeus on Olympia, the Persian Tomb of Mausolus, and the Lighthouse at Alexandria.
The Tempter smiles. “Pretty impressive, isn’t it? Look, being a Messiah from some backwater village in Galilee, in that ridiculous little province where you live—what do you call it? Oh, right, Palestine. Well, being a Messiah there can’t give you any of this. All that’s going to happen to you is those people are going to turn on you and kill you. But I can give you what everyone really wants: riches, power and glory. Go back there, and there’s a cross with your name on it.”
And Jesus looks him straight in the eye. “Get out of here, Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
The Temptations of Adam and Eve and the Temptations of Jesus are not so very different. In each case, the Tempter is offering something that they already had. He is just offering it in a way that will be certain to disrupt the relationship they had with God. And he does it by twisting the word of God so that it says the opposite of what God meant.
And each case, they were only offered what they already had. The couple in Eden had plenty to eat and they knew what Good was: the entire Creation. Jesus had the power to turn water into wine and to feed five thousand people from five pita loaves and two tilapia. So it would have been easy to turn to stones into bread. Jesus had angels who would minister to him—they had been there on the night he was born and they came to the desert that day, as the Tempter walked away in defeat. Jesus may have been from little Nazareth of Galilee, but he already had all authority in heaven and earth. He didn’t need to bow to down to the dark power that runs the world’s political systems to get something that was already his.
We have these stories in scripture to remind us that our wrestling with dark forces, our Temptations, whether in the Garden or in the Desert, are really just the experience of every human. We are constantly tempted to declare something or someone Good or Evil, though that is the sole province of God. We are constantly tempted to gain power over others or fling ourselves off religious roofs in order to impress others with how pious we are. We are constantly tempted to use the things that God has given us for ourselves rather than for others. And why wonder why we find ourselves so overcome with guilt and shame.
We are tempted to use the season of Lent as a time of Grace-getting, using our penitence as a sort of religious insurance policy, cashing it in to pay for our trespasses. But, as St. Paul notes: the gift of Grace is not like the trespass. This isn’t a zero sum game between God and us. We have been given Grace, freely. We may be tempted to turn Grace into religion, but Grace is a free gift.
Scott Peck once told a story about a Northern traveler who stopped for breakfast in a country restaurant in the rural south. You know the place, you’ve probably eaten there yourself a time or two.
The traveler ordered his favorite breakfast: coffee, eggs, bacon, toast.
But when his plate arrived, he was puzzled by the white stuff in the middle of his plate. “Um, miss,” he said, summoning the waitress.
She came back to his his table, “Yes, sir, is everything all right?”
He pointed at his plate. “What is this stuff?”
“Why sir,” she replied, “them is grits.”
“But I didn’t order it,” he protested.
The waitress smiled her best Southern smile. “Sir, you don’t order grits. They just come!”
For the gift is not like the trespass. You don’t order it. You don’t manipulate it. You already have it. It just comes. Amen.