Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 13 March 2011
Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7; Psalm 51:3-6, 12-13, 17; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
How do we discover our purpose in life? Today’s Gospel gives us a glimpse of that process in the life of Jesus. The story of the temptation comes just after Jesus’ baptism and anointing by the Spirit where Jesus was declared to be God’s beloved Son. That same Spirit leads Jesus into the desert. There he wrestles with alternative possibilities before emerging to embark on his public ministry. In this struggle Jesus comes to embrace the journey that he will travel and the values and vision that will inform it. The Devil’s modus operandi is to introduce doubt: “If you are God’s Son …” He would, if he could, rob Jesus of the certainty of the call at his baptism. Jesus answers each time with a quote from the book of Deuteronomy. His understanding of who he is and what he is to do is forged as he meditates upon Scripture in light of his experience of his Father. As Jesus counters each suggestion – to use his power for himself, to test God’s commitment to him, and to seek to dominate the systems of worldly power by acquiescing to those very systems – he is choosing a different, a better way. The Kingdom he goes on to preach is one in which power is used for the good of the other, in which God is trusted unconditionally, and in which the way to glory is the way of the cross. This encounter with the Devil is the opportunity for Jesus to say a resounding ‘yes’ to his Father’s will and way. Temptation is not just an invitation or opportunity to sin; it can be a God-given opportunity to forge our sense of identity and mission.
The story of the temptation in the Garden of Eden has a sadder ending. Adam and Eve, the archetypal human, have the breath of the divine in them and are given everything they need for life and happiness. Did you notice how all the trees are described as ‘pleasing to the eye and good for food’? But when the temptation comes – “Did God really say ….?” – they are much quicker to distrust God’s intentions and want to be gods for themselves. If the woman had chosen not to eat the fruit, would she have forfeited the wisdom on offer? Looking at the temptation of Jesus, I don’t think so. If she had engaged the serpent as he engaged the Devil, she would have arrived at conscious knowledge by embracing God’s way and resisting evil.
Today’s psalm is attributed to David after he sinned by committing adultery with Bathsheba, murdering her husband, and then suppressing any sense of guilt about it until he was confronted by the prophet Nathan. He had succumbed to the temptation to use his powers as king selfishly and abusively. In attempting to gain the world, he had lost his soul. His words are a prayer we can pray when we succumb to temptation and are overtaken by our own guilt. The gift of forgiveness is asked for and received. The gift of a clean heart and a steadfast, willing spirit has already been offered to us in Christ, and is ours to accept
St Paul reminds us that the story of the First Couple is the story of us all. But so can the story of Jesus be our story. The same Spirit that empowered and guided Jesus dwells in us. Through this gift we have not only acquittal or right standing with God in a legal sense, but also the ability to choose God’s way as Jesus did. Jesus’ obedience has created new possibilities for us. Temptation can be the testing-ground in which we discover and choose those better possibilities and grow into our truer selves.