The gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent, which was last night, was the story of the three temptations of Christ in the desert (Matthew 4:1-10). I’d heard comparisons between the person of Job and the person of Jesus in Scripture but last night, the similarities were stark to me. Both stories involved God allowing innocent believers to be tested to the point of exhaustion by forces of darkness. Both stories deal with questions of loyalty and reasons for worship. Both end with a holy presence ministering to the blameless sufferer, though not providing the “answers” to suffering we seem to commonly want. At no point in either story does the main character renounce his faith, though Job seems to come close in cursing the the day he was born. There are obvious differences between these two stories, but the intertextual conversation here is compelling.Both Jesus and Job are blameless and satan is allowed to test both. In Jesus’ case, He knew that the source of His trials was satan. In Job’s case, he did not, and God does not reveal the reason behind Job’s plight. The text does not state why Jesus had to be tempted, either. Neither Jesus nor Job abandon God, but Job is more outspoken about his suffering and the fact that he is innocent. Job’s questions of why are, in my opinion, legitimate and understandable, but we get a very different answer than the intellectual rational or argument-style “case” our technology-driven, empirical-verification hungry culture wants. At the end of Job’s story, God responds to Job’s cries by pointing to God’s own handiwork (creation). Not only that, by God denounces Job’s friends, who work hard tying to provide a logical reason or explanation for the immense suffering of their friend. The temptation story closes with angels tending to a weary Jesus in the desert. The text does not say in either case why satan was allowed to get involved. What we have at the end of each is healing, restoration. It’s not about explanation, it’s about the person of Job and the person of Jesus.
When Jesus refuses satan’s temptations, I wonder if it’s about the person of Jesus as well. Why not turn these stones to bread, especially after a 40-day fast?
Why not throw yourself from the pinnacle of the temple; if you are who you say you are, God will surely not let even your foot be dashed against a rock? Why not take control of the whole world in exchange for a measly little knee-bow to Satan? One answer is that Jesus’ calling was to live a perfectly human life before God and humans, try as we might, are quite powerless to do anything like fashion food from rocks, survive multi-story falls unharmed, or rule the world.
Our conversation after the homily centered on control as it relates to Lent: typically, we give up something for Lent – chocolate, Facebook, speaking, etc. But is Jesus really giving up control here, or even the chance of control? Obviously, Jesus would recoil at worshipping the devil; it’s low-hanging fruit to say that He refused to turn stones to bread at satan’s request because it was at satan’s request. But is Jesus giving up power and control in service of living human and faithful before God? Where is power said to be in this story?
It seems to me that Jesus was exercising control. In the first scenario, satan puts the power with Jesus: you turn these stones to bread. He had just fasted for 40 days, so it seems to me that one would have to muster immense self control not to procure food by any means possible. In the second temptation, satan puts the power with God: leap off the top of the temple and God will command angels to save you. Given how fatigued He seems to have been at the end of His temptation, he probably was ready to be rescued. In the third temptation, satan seeks the power for himself under the guise of giving reining power over “the world” to Jesus. But Jesus, as God and as God’s son, already has authority over all that is seen and unseen. In each case, Jesus’ answer directs us back to God. You can’t live on just food, you need the Word; you should not try God; only God deserves worship. To me, the story of the temptations is less about control, power and humanness and more about integrity of identity. Jesus could resist these temptations that were so very close to Jesus’ mission and the mission of God only because Jesus knew who He was, and once you know that, you’re unshakable no matter what happens externally.
Who will you be in situations where you seem to have power? Who will you be in situations God has power and you seem to have none? Who will you be when it seems evil has power? If Jesus is our model, our answer should be the same for all three options – this is integrity. If we are truly living as Called of God, whoever the power seems to lie with should not sway us from constantly and consistently living as who we’re each and collectively made to be. And this should, in all our hand-crafted individuality and bumbling reach toward unity, point us ever back, as Jesus did, famished and fatigued though He was, to God.