Tempted, and the Truth Is Discovered
In the R&B classic, “Tempted,” by the band Squeeze, Paul Carrack declares that he has been “tempted by the fruit of another; / tempted, but the truth is discovered” (Difford and Tilbrook, “Tempted”). It’s a great song, but I have always wondered about his choice of conjunctions. It seems to me that the purpose of temptation is to reveal what lies at the heart of the person being tempted, so a better rendition would be “tempted, and the truth is discovered.”
That is certainly the case in the stories from Genesis and Matthew that we are considering today. Adam and Eve discover truths about themselves and God when they yield to the serpent’s temptation and eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and Jesus does likewise when he successfully resists Satan’s temptations in the wilderness.
Jesus has just come up from the waters of the Jordan, where he was baptized by John and saw the Spirit of God descending on him like a dove and heard a heavenly voice say, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt 3:17). The next thing he knows, he is being led by that same Spirit into the wilderness for the purpose, Matthew tells us, of being tempted by the devil. This may seem like an odd series of events—why would God send the one God just declared to be God’s beloved Son into the arms of the tempter? “I love you, son, and I couldn’t be prouder of you. Now, go into those spooky hills over there for about a month and a half, don’t eat anything, and when you’re at your weakest, I’ll send someone along to make you question everything you ever thought you knew. Good luck!”
It may help to note that the word “tempted” here in Matthew 4:1 could also be translated “tested.” Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tested, because, as the townspeople in Mark Twain’s famous short story, “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg,” find out, an untested virtue is weak, and an untried faith is bound to fail in the moment of truth. It is instructive, I think, that in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, the line that we recite each week as, “Lead us not into temptation,” the NRSV translates as, “Do not bring us into the time of trial” (Matt 6:13). Jesus presumably tells his disciples to pray that way because the memory of his own time of trial is fresh in his mind, and he would save them from a similar ordeal if he could. It’s no fun to have doubt cast on everything you thought you believed and to have to sort out what’s true and what’s a lie under serious duress. Refined gold is pure, bright, and beautiful, but to get that way it has to go through fire.
Jesus’s trial has to do with his identity and his mission. Fresh off the spiritual high point of his baptism, when he had the strongest sense of well-being and of God’s approbation—so much so that he thought he heard an audible voice telling him he is God’s beloved child and that God takes great pleasure in him—he finds himself thrust into this desert experience that has called all of it into question. After fasting for forty days, seeking in vain for a renewal of that sense of God’s nearness, he has begun to doubt the whole episode. How presumptuous he had been, a poor laborer from Nazareth, a nobody, to think he was anything special to God! Perhaps he was guilty of the sin of pride. But then, the voice had seemed so clear, the vision so real. Could he have got it that wrong?
Wrestling with these conflicting thoughts and listening to his stomach growl, Jesus begins to think, maybe I can kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Many of the stones in the hills above the Jordan resemble in size and shape loaves of bread; why not satisfy his curiosity about his identity and his hunger at the same time? If he really is the son of God, couldn’t he turn these loaf-like stones into real loaves and get his answer to both questions at once? His parched mouth begins to water at the mere prospect.
He is just about to test his theory when some inner voice of misgiving makes him pause. Jesus has believed from an early age that he has some destiny to fulfill in service to God. He doesn’t know what it is, but that sense of mission has sustained him since he was a child. It’s what brought him to the Jordan in the first place—to learn from John and undergo baptism by his hand. And it always kept his nose to the grindstone, studying the Hebrew Scriptures while most of his friends had forsaken the classroom to play “Legionnaires and Barbarians” in the dusty street. Now a memory from those hours of study rises in his mind; a verse from Deuteronomy: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (v. 4; Deut 8:3). Remembering that helps him resist the urge to assuage both his physical hunger and his curiosity about his identity.
The unfortunate thing about temptation is that there is no such thing as a final victory. When you succumb, you know you have lost, but to win you have to keep resisting. It’s a lot like an alcoholic in recovery: you have to take it one day at a time, one test at a time. It is the same with Jesus. No sooner has he successfully resisted the stones-into-bread temptation than another thought comes into his mind. Or, one could say that it’s the same test in a different form.
This time Jesus travels in a vision to the temple in Jerusalem, and pictures himself on the highest spot, the pinnacle. He thinks of Psalm 91, which says, “[God] will command [the] angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone” (v. 6; Ps 91:11–12). He knows that the psalm refers to Israel, God’s "treasured possession,” but he wonders if it might also refer to him specifically as God’s beloved son. What better way to prove once and for all that the voice he heard was real, than to hurl himself into space, trusting the angels to catch him? If they do, he will know for sure that he is God’s chosen one. If they don’t, he supposes he will know for sure that he’s not, at least in the split second before he hits the pavement. Either way, this terrible uncertainty will be at an end. And if the angels do catch him, what a way to kick off his messianic mission! A spectacle like that would win him a following that would give even the procurator, Pontius Pilate, reason to fear.
But again, that nagging voice in his head speaks up, calling to mind another verse from Deuteronomy: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (v. 7; Deut 6:16). Massah is where the Israelites complain to Moses that they have no water; this just after God has answered their complaints about having no food by sending them manna from heaven. Massah is synonymous with faithlessness and ingratitude. It suddenly occurrs to Jesus that even if the angels catch him, he will have failed the test, by having put God to the test. At Massah, God does provide the people with water, but none of that generation ends up entering the promised land. What good would it do, Jesus thinks, to prove to himself that he is God’s beloved if in doing so he invalidates the very relationship he is trying to ensure? He doesn’t jump.
The seed for the third temptation, or test, is planted the moment Jesus hears the voice from heaven: “You are my beloved son.” Jesus knows from his study of the Scriptures that the kings of Israel and Judah were often referred to as the “sons of God.” Throughout his forty days of fasting and meditation, he has kept coming back to that idea. Maybe the voice meant to tell me that I am a king, Jesus thinks. And if I am a king, then I should have a kingdom. So he laboriously climbs, in his weakened state, to the top of a ridge from which he can look down on the Jordan valley with its pasturelands and towns. He follows the silvery thread of the river southward, and sees in the faint distance the shimmering gold and marble of the temple and the ancient capital of his people, Jerusalem.
Suddenly, however, the scene shifts or, better, the world reorients itself, and instead of just Jerusalem Jesus sees a panoply of the kingdoms of the world, spread out at his feet as far as the eye can see. He has to cling to a boulder to keep from falling as in dizzying succession he sees Tyre, Alexandria, Carthage, far-off Cush, exotic Persia and Cathay, and finally the eternal city itself, Rome. The splendor and riches of all these places appear to him, each close enough to grasp. All he would have to do would be to reach out his hand and….
He stops himself as that inner voice once again snaps him back to consciousness. His experience of the world’s kingdoms has been limited, growing up as he did in Nazareth, but he has been to Sepphoris, the sparkling city that lies only a few miles from his hometown, and when his work has taken him to the fishing villages around the Sea of Galilee he has seen Tiberias, capital city of Herod Antipas. He has traveled with his family to Jerusalem for Pesach and Sukkot. In each of these places he has seen the palaces of the rich and the slums of the poor. He has seen the contrast between the patricians and the plebes, the haves and the have-nots. It occurred to him at an early age that cities are built on a foundation of injustice and greed, and the gaudy displays of wealth and luxury come at the expense of the common people's sweat and blood and lives.
Besides his own observations, Jesus knows from the prophets that God condemns that sort of conspicuous consumption, demanding instead adherence to the laws of compassion and righteousness, insisting that every person is created in the image of God and therefore has infinite worth. He remembers that even the greatest of all Israelite kings, David, built his kingdom on violence and intrigue, and his son Solomon enslaved his own people. Everything Jesus has ever learned from the Scriptures and traditions of Israel tells him that no one is expendable, and everyone has value in the sight of God. But everything he has witnessed or learned about the kingdoms of the world tells him that they are founded and maintained on the exact opposite assumption. It occurs to him that to claim those kingdoms for himself would require him to compromise with evil; to become an agent of the domination system; in essence, to bow down and worship the devil. He is so incensed by this realization that he blurts out, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him’” (v. 10; Deut 10:20).
The real choice Jesus makes in this passage is to forgo certitude and content himself with the life of an ordinary human being. He chooses to live with limitations and not press to solidify his identity as the beloved Son of God. He may never know if the voice he thought he heard at the river was real, or if it was only a figment of his imagination. He makes the conscious decision to live a life of faith, trusting God to guide him and not demanding to see the road map for himself. He will let the mission unfold as he goes, and so will need to continue in prayer and obedience, seeking God’s will and wisdom at each turn.
Contrast this with the way Adam and Eve respond to temptation. The woman notices one day that the serpent eats some of the fruit from the forbidden tree and does not die, and a seed gets planted in her mind: is God trustworthy, or deceitful? She begins asking herself, “Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” (v. 1). Did God really say we would die if we ate that fruit? I think maybe he’s putting us on! God just doesn’t want us to be like him; God doesn’t want any competition. She shares these thoughts with the man, and they both begin to doubt God’s veracity.
Suspicion grows. Resentment builds, until finally they decide to take a chance. The woman eats the fruit, and gives some to the man, who is with her—a point that all those men who want to blame women for the state of the world conveniently forget—and together they give in to temptation. They fail the test. Instead of resting content in their status as created beings dependent upon God, they reach for independence. For knowledge of good and evil. For certitude. For divinity. The result is that their eyes are opened, they experience shame for the first time when they realize they are naked, and they proceed to cover themselves to hide from one another and from God.
They think they will discover the truth by giving in to the temptation to eat the forbidden fruit. They do, but the truth they discover feels more curse than blessing. The innocence in which they used to walk in the garden, conversing with God in the cool of the evening, is gone forever. In its place is guilt, suspicion, and shame. The certainty they had hoped for turns out to be an illusion; they only thing they are sure of is that they have lost something vital. In reaching out their hands in an attempt to be like God, they lose God.
The season of Lent is for us a time of testing, of trial, of temptation. Like Adam and Eve, like Jesus, we will be tempted, and the truth will be discovered. We will be tempted to take the easy road, to curry favor with the powerful or to neglect to speak out on important issues when the consequences may be uncomfortable. We will be tempted to respond in kind when we are faced with hate or bigotry or violence. We will be tempted not to keep the commitments we have made, whether to a lenten discipline or to our church or to a spouse or significant other. We will be tempted to do whatever we can to avoid suffering, to short-circuit the chastening and purifying work of the Spirit, to skip over the cross and go straight to the crown. We will be tempted to usurp God’s place, seeking autonomy instead of dependence, certainty instead of faithfulness.
When we face these trials, how will we respond? When we are tempted, the truth will be discovered. What will that truth be?
Difford, Chris and Glenn Tilbrook. 1981. “Tempted.” East Side Story by Squeeze. A&M.