Here at the beginning of Lent the church asks us to consider the meaning of an early incident in the ministry of our Lord, one commonly referred to as the temptation of Christ.
It is unfortunate perhaps that in contemporary English, the word “temptation” lends itself to a very narrow interpretation. I expect that when you or I hear the word “temptation,” what comes to mind is an effort made by one person to entice another person to choose evil over good. Temptation to us means only this: to attempt to entice someone to choose evil over good.
And that is definitely part of the story in today’s passage from Luke. The devil certainly tries to entice Jesus to choose evil over good. I will come back to this in a second.
First I want to say a few words about another way of understanding the Greek word that gets translated as “tempted.” Because this word can have another related meaning that is not quite the same as being enticed to choose evil over good.
This word can also mean to be tested or proved. The nearest approximation in contemporary English I can think of is when we speak of proving precious metals. To prove silver for instance is to subject it to a series of trials that ascertain the purity of the metal. Ancient people knew all about how to do this: you heat up chunks of ore until they are liquified, and then you skim the dross or scum off the top of the molten metal. Then you do it again. And again. Until all that remains is the pure precious metal. Only by testing or proving the metal can we find out what it is made of, how much of it is valuable and precious and worth keeping and how much is dross that should be thrown out.
I distinguish these two senses because I think something of both of them is going on in today’s Gospel passage.
On the one hand Jesus is being tempted by the devil, and the devil tempts us in the sense that he tries to entice us away from what is good and to choose what is evil instead. This is the devil’s main business, to lead us astray by lies and insinuations.
On the other hand Jesus is being led into the wilderness for forty days of fasting, and he has been brought here by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not tempt us in the same sense that the devil does. God does not—God never has and God never will—entice us to do evil. But Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and is led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, which as I have said from this pulpit before is a place of testing or proving.
And here in the wilderness he fasts, which I submit is part of the testing or proving of who he is and what he is made of. This kind of testing is within the will of God, and Jesus asks his followers to imitate his example of fasting and spiritual self-discipline. As we saw in Ash Wednesday’s Gospel reading, Jesus teaches his disciples with the words “When you fast,” not “If you fast.” He expects that we will fast as he did, and the church has established Lent as a period of 40 days of fasting in exact imitation of our Lord’s 40 days in the wilderness.
The temptations of the devil however are not within the will of God, and Jesus teaches us that we should by no means put ourselves in the way of the devil’s temptations. In fact he instructs his followers to do just the opposite. In the words of the prayer he himself gave us, we ask God quite plainly to “lead us not into temptation.”
So here are two different meanings to the notion of temptation, and I have said that I think both are at work in this passage. Jesus goes into the wilderness at the prompting of the Holy Spirit to be tested; and while there Jesus is attacked by the devil, who tries to tempt him.
But it’s a little more complicated than that. Because I think that it is his testing—the good kind of testing, the one that God wills for us to undergo—that prepares and strengthens Jesus to overcome the bad kind of testing, the one that the devil inflicts upon us. His testing strengthens him to defeat temptation.
When the devil says “command this stone to become bread,” Jesus resists this temptation because he has already proved to himself that he can go without bread. The devil tries to get him to put his material needs over his spiritual needs, to do a sort of magic trick to conjure an end to his hunger. Being fully human he will of course at some point need to eat—we all do—but he will not get what he needs by just any means. He will not stoop to diabolical tactics under any circumstances, not even to satisfy his material needs because he is confident that his needs will be supplied by his loving Father.
When the devil says “worship me,” all the authority and the glory of the kingdoms of the world “shall all be yours,” Jesus resists this temptation because he has already proved to himself that all the power and splendor in the world cannot compensate for bending the knee to the devil. Power and influence are attractive, but Jesus resists these attractions because he can see the devil’s bargain for what it is; he realizes—and we must realize—that the world’s glory is worthless if we acquire it at the price of our own soul. He shows us that we should worship God alone and await his assignment to us of whatever share of worldly goods he sees fit to place into our trust and care.
When the devil says “throw yourself down from” “the pinnacle of the temple,” Jesus resists this temptation because he is completely reliant on God his Father and upon God’s word, which he constantly quotes back to the devil, and he has proved then to himself that we must not put God to the test but rather endure our own testing with patience and fortitude. Once more Jesus shows that we must not presumptuously demand that God do our bidding but rather confidently trust him to come to our aid when needed.
Notice something interesting though at the end of these three temptations. Luke lets slip something unique to his version of this story at the very end. Verse 13 reads “when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from him until an opportune time.”
There are two important points here. First, this phrase “every temptation.” Some translations try to soften this phrase by saying “every sort” or “every kind” of temptation, but that’s not what the text reads. It says what our translation says: every or all temptation.
What if we take Luke literally here? Is it possible that Luke means that in these three temptations are summed up all possible temptations? That Jesus overcomes in three compressed moments every temptation it is possible for human beings to face?
I think it’s possible. What if every temptation comes down to putting our material needs ahead of our spiritual needs? “You can make a little money if you look the other way.” “You can make a lot more here once you are promoted, you just have to spend a little more time at the office and less time at home.” “Have another, treat yourself.”
If we will test our dependence on material needs like food and drink and money, we will prove able when tempted by self-indulgence and gluttony to say “No, I don’t need it.”
Or how about seizing power and status by whatever means necessary? “I can show you how to beat your rival through underhanded means.” “You should be in charge, you would be able to do a lot of good with that kind of power.” “You earned it, so now you should enjoy it.”
If we will test ourselves around the blandishments of power and prestige, we will prove able when tempted by the lure of shortcuts to success without sacrifice to say “No, it’s not worth it.”
Or putting God to the test? “I thought you were a Christian, why is your life such a mess?” “Can’t God just give you this one thing you’re obviously dying to have?” “You’ve given a lot of money to the church over the years, don’t you think you deserve better?”
If we will test our relationship to God in prayer and worship and spiritual discipline, we will prove able when tempted to say “No, I will depend upon God and trust in him no matter what.”
In these ways the temptations of Christ are very much our own. This is what I think Luke means by saying that he faced and overcame “every” temptation.
But there is another way in which the temptations of Christ are very much his and his alone.
This is what I think Luke means by saying that the devil departed until “the opportune time.” What time could that be?
At what time will Jesus again be tempted to put his material needs above his spiritual needs? Maybe when he is starved and parched, flogged and spat upon, his flesh torn raw, his body mutilated and bleeding.
At what time will Jesus again be tempted to seize for himself the authority and splendor of the world’s kingdoms? Maybe when the power of empire has crushed him underfoot, when the city has turned against him, when kings and governors have unjustly condemned him as a criminal and put him to death without the slightest pang of conscience.
At what time will Jesus again be tempted to cast himself down from a high place where he has been placed? Maybe when passersby haunt him with the devil’s own words, “If you are the Son of God.” If. That horrible, mocking little word. If you are the Son of God, then why not come down from up there? Up there where you have been nailed by the sin and sickness of the world?
It turns out Jesus Christ is not only tested and tempted at the beginning of his ministry. The whole of his ministry—beginning to end—is a test. His whole life proves what he is made of. That is why when the last temptation comes, he overcomes it, just like he did the first time.