5 min. to read.
Good morning! It’s the 5th day of Lent. This is the next installment of my series of Lenten reflections based on Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional The Unvarnished Jesus. As a practice of my own, I’ll be posting daily (or near daily) short reflections on the scriptures chosen.
Today’s scripture is Matthew 4:1-11, the story of Jesus’ temptations.
Immediately after his baptism, Jesus heads into the wilderness. There, during forty days of deprivation, he faces three temptations. The way he responds sets the boundaries for his ministry.
The first temptation is to use his Divine power to feed himself. The second is to prove his relationship with God through the spectacle of throwing himself off the Temple. The crowd would see his miraculous escape and believe. The third is to receive the authority and power over all the kingdoms of the earth by paying the low, low cost of worshipping the devil. In each case, Jesus cited scripture, and refused.
Hebrews 4:15 tells us that Jesus was tempted “in every way” just like we are, but apart from the Garden and its temptation to avoid suffering, this scene in the wilderness is the only passage where we explicitly see Jesus tempted. That’s odd, because the three temptations in the wilderness at first glance don’t seem to be the kind of temptations most of us deal with. Or are they?
Jesus’ public ministry is beginning. The end of that path is Jerusalem and the crucifixion. This 40-day period in the wilderness was the point where Jesus was deciding how he would go about his work. We often overlook the necessity of this kind of decision. When we set ourselves to a good goal, it can easily feel that any means will serve. After all, the good goal is worth it, right? We want to reach that goal, whatever it takes. If the goal is good enough, we’ll do anything to get there.
It’s worth the cost. We’ll do whatever it takes. We’ll do anything to get there.
I’ve felt that! Relationship goals. Financial goals (a big and stressful one for me). Goals around my work as a pastor (all good, right?!) It’s so easy to think that the goal is so good, so helpful, so right, that any cost is worth paying. I suspect that’s the heart of Jesus’ temptations, too.
Jesus’ temptation wasn’t about magic tricks. Jesus temptation was about accomplishing his very good goal through means that on the surface would seem like shortcuts. But, as Brian Zahnd writes, “the means are the end in the process of becoming.” The way we choose to pursue our goals inevitably changes the nature of the outcome. The way we proceed also changes us, and in changing us, it further changes what we accomplish. We’re often told that setting goals is the most important step, but how we do something matters even more. Temptations to take shortcuts that violate love surround us.
Zahnd allegorize the temptations to make them about choosing justice (feeding people), getting rid of the need for faith (a showy trick at the temple), or choosing power (bowing down to Satan), but I don’t think that allegorization is necessary. All three temptations are different avenues of the same temptation. They are all about using power to take a shortcut. While Jesus had more power than us, we all have personal power and we all face the same kinds of temptations. We all have to choose the way we move toward our goals. We all have to face the temptation to use whatever power or privilege we have for our own gain, to build our reputation, or to obey our impatience rather than trust God’s timing.
Jesus was experiencing these temptations over the course of forty days of deprivation in he wilderness. We are now in Lent, a forty day period set aside in the church year for the express purpose of reflection, and even using a little strategic deprivation (fasting) to help focus our souls. Lent is a natural time to reflect on the temptations we face and why. When people fast over lent, one of the ways they use fasting is to help them face particular temptations.
If we are followers for Jesus, then we are called to a way of life defined by love. If that’s true, then the goals we pursue must be loving. Yes! But also, the ways we pursue those goals must be loving. If the way isn’t loving, the end result cannot be.
Lent invites us to choose love over power. This way is life.