“Neither Rats Nor Roaches”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, 2 where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. 3 The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” 4 Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
5 Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. 6 And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. 7 If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” 8 Jesus answered him, “It is written,
‘Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.’”
9 Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, 10 for it is written,
‘He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you,’
‘On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”
12 Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
13 When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. (NRSV)
My college roommate, Charlie, grew up in Waynesville, NC. While Waynesville is hardly a metropolis, for Charlie’s father it was uptown. Raised in a holler near Barnardsville, NC, Charlie’s dad was country as a wash pot. That, combined with his experience as a district court judge, gave him some interesting stories to tell. I’ll never forget one thing he said, maybe because he said it more than once to us college boys who were sure we already knew everything.
“Boys,” he said, “people will do anything when they get hungry. Anything.” He neither elaborated nor needed to.
Most of us know what it feels like to be ready for supper. And missing a meal on a busy day may give us a headache. But being truly famished can be like an evolutionary regression. It can awaken our reptilian brains and cause us to act like animals rather than human beings who are made and being continually refined in God’s image.
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell the story of Jesus’ fasting and temptation, and the story affirms the full, God-imaged humanity of Jesus. He feels what anyone would feel when dangerously hungry, and he remains faithful.
Weakened by hunger, and facing the uphill climb of his vocation, Jesus becomes vulnerable. Recognizing that, Old Scratch tries to lure Jesus into making the kind of selfish and faithless decisions that you and I struggle with every day, decisions to survive by our own wits rather than by God’s gracious provision.
We struggle because faith itself is a struggle. Faith is more than believing some doctrine. Faith means trusting where we have not seen and following where we have not gone. And because of that, we can find as many reasons to abandon faith as there are rocks in a desert.
Countless temptations lure us with the tangible and fragrant loaves of worldly wealth and power—the very things that tempt Jesus. And sure, when responsibly harnessed, temporal means and influence can encourage wonderful progress: Cures for illnesses. Discoveries at the heart of atoms and the outer reaches of space. Splendid art and music. Diverse cultures. Still, in and of themselves, wealth and power are kind of like Twinkies or Twizzlers. You can eat such things, but they neither nourish nor satisfy. And I genuinely trust that God intends us to experience more than “satisfaction.” I think God’s desire for the Creation is Shalom.
While Jesus is famished and alone, Luke describes him as “filled with the Holy Spirit.” So, even with an empty belly, he is brimming with Shalom. Shalom is not the same as happiness or contentment. Shalom is more like joy. It’s the peace and the strength that come as gifts of union with God, even in the midst of struggle—especially when that struggle is with one’s own self. And isn’t that the nature of temptation? Even if someone else tempts us with selfish possibilities, the struggle to give in or to resist is ultimately with our own selves. Temptation forces us to decide whether or not we will live faithfully against all the selfish indulgences and all the lazy evasions we use to avoid demonstrating the grace and love of Christ.
Living faithfully in Christ is more than hard work. It’s a counter-cultural existence. Modern-day prophet Wendell Berry once wrote, “Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”1 While it may be our privilege to live faithfully, the pestilent temptations to live like “rats and roaches” are ever before us. They’re often saluted as strength by would-be leaders. They’re romanticized by entertainers. And, with embarrassing frequency, temptations are even preached from pulpits. But such things are not our truth. The image of God within us is our truth. The realm of God among us is our truth. Faith, hope, love, justice, and mercy are our truth because they are Christ’s truth.
“If you’re the Son of God,” says the tempter to a fast-weakened Jesus, “turn these stones into bread.”
We might ask, Well, why not turn stones into bread? It would be a private and harmless act, wouldn’t it? Maybe, but Jesus was raised in a storied faith, and this temptation re-enacts Moses telling the Hebrews that God, who is faithful, would provide for them as they wander in the desert. Moses also reminds them that their need for bread does not override their call to trust God. It seems that for Jesus, Sonship means trusting God and not taking matters into his own hands.
Next, the tempter takes Jesus up on a high mountain and says, If you will worship me, then all the world is yours!
Well, again, what if Jesus had assumed control of the nations? Wouldn’t we be better off? Maybe, but Jesus knows that Israel got into trouble when they demanded that Samuel find them a king so that they could be like all the other nations. And after getting what they asked for, they soon discovered that they got nothing they really wanted. The power they craved and thought would save them only delivered them deeper into worldly ways and turmoil. As the Son, Jesus becomes the wellspring of spiritual strength, not a wielder of political and military might.
The final temptation dares Jesus to open up a can of seduction. From the top of the temple, Jesus can jump and let the people watch in horror as he plummets toward earth only to be caught at the last moment by God’s angels. Pull a sensational stunt like that and the world just might beat a path to your door. But real leaders lead through humility and wisdom, not through bombast and manipulation. Stunts don’t generate durable faith. Only living in and through Christ can do that.
During his temptation in the wilderness, Jesus embodies his Sonship not by posturing and bewildering, but by fulfilling the Shema of Deuteronomy 6. On behalf of the entire Creation, he loves God with all his famished heart, soul, mind, and strength. And if love is God’s aim for us, then God offers love through loving means. God creates opportunities for us to receive and share love through our own willing participation. Maybe that’s why, when we pray for patience, we shouldn’t be surprised when someone tries our patience. Or when we declare ourselves to be people of compassion and justice, we only become more aware of the world’s violence and injustice. It’s like God is saying, Don’t just say it. Live it!
During these forty days of Lent, I pray that we all become more aware of the temptations that needle us with selfish desires, temptations that distract us from the call to love and serve God by loving and serving our neighbors and caring for the earth. The story of Jesus’ temptation reminds us that while it is a human thing to sin and fall short of God’s glory, it’s even more authentically human to live and love faithfully, because such living and loving is Christ-like. For more than any act of power, it is Jesus’ day-to-day faithful humanity that reveals his oneness with God.
We struggle with temptation because within us, our true and false selves exist side-by-side. And in Christ, we, who are neither rats nor roaches, can be faithful sons and daughters of God.