by Linda McMillan
Read in this light the temptations of Jesus begin to look a lot more ordinary,
and a lot more like the temptations we face daily.
The Bible story appointed for today was practically written for the stage. It’s got good and evil, dramatic scenery, temptation and testing, betrayal, heroism, even some heavenly beings… It’s got all the right stuff for a great, great opera. And, were I a great librettist, there’d already be an opera about it. Alas, I am a simple essayist and I see a much simpler story than the one that will surely make its way to La Scala and the grand opera houses of the world.
Let’s forget about Jesus standing on the top of the temple and doing cosmic battle with the devil for a moment and examine what this passage is really about. Dramatic as all that other stuff is, it might cause us to miss the fact that this passage is really about Jesus coming to terms with himself, and how we might come to terms with ourselves too.
The Lectionary had us in Matthew 17 last week, but now it has thrown us back to Matthew 4. So, let’s back up and get this in perspective: Jesus was born, Herod was mad, Jesus and his family became political refugees for a while, eventually settling in Nazareth. There is a gap of several years in which we don’t know much about Jesus. Then we hear about Jesus’s cousin, John the Baptist, all grown up now and preaching in the desert. John baptized Jesus and the Holy Spirit came down and proclaimed Jesus to be the Son of God in whom God was well pleased. That scene was so dramatic that many stained glass windows have depicted it over the years. It’s easy to believe that the Holy Spirit really does look like that stylized dove you see so often. Those images aren’t actual photographs, of course, but it was no doubt a moment of spiritual opening and renewal for Jesus.
You would think that things would sail along pretty well after a spiritual experience like that. But people who have had close spiritual experiences will tell you that they are not the comfortable little things they are sometimes made out to be in stained glass. The very next thing that the Holy Spirit did was lead Jesus up into the wilderness to be tested for 40 days.
Whenever we see the number 40 in the Torah we know that it has to do with creation and evolving spirituality. You might be able to deduce this from just looking at a list of all the times someone spent 40 days or 40 years doing something, but it’s helpful to know that the Hebrew letter mem is assigned a numerical value of 40. Mem reminds us of water. The first reminder is in the waters of creation, the waters above and the waters below, male and female creative elements. There are also the 40 days of rain in Genesis, which purified the world. The Zohar connects the waters above and the waters below with the deluge saying that because that generation perverted the sex function those male and female waters came together to destroy the world. Also, did you know that there are 40 measures of water in the mikvah? And just as we emerge purified from the mikvah, the world emerged purified after the great deluge, and Jesus will emerge purified after the end of his 40-day sojourn too.
I think that’s pretty interesting for us since we have just entered into our 40 days of Lent.
The temptations of Jesus are presented in pretty dramatic — shall we say “Biblical”– proportions. But the heart of the matter is more about what is being created, what will emerge. We know this because of what we’ve learned about the nature of the number 40.
It is too easy to imagine Jesus, meek and mild, being led up to the high places and tempted by a slithery creature with an evil laugh. The more likely – and less dramatic — scenario is that left to his own devices Jesus began to wonder about what the Holy Spirit meant when she called him God’s son, and what it meant that God was pleased with him. And, he might have had doubts about himself, or even about God. The temptations presented to Jesus are not that different from the kinds of things that tempt us.
The first temptation was to turn a stone into bread. I am sure Jesus would have been more comfortable with a full belly. And it was well within his power to raise up sons of Abraham, or bread, from the stones around him. But this temptation is not really about eating. If we read carefully we can see that this temptation goes to the heart of identity. Satan – or the doubting part of Jesus’s own heart– said, “IF you are the son of God…” In this very first temptation Jesus has to stake his identity in what the Holy Spirit said about him, not in his ability to perform a spiritual magic trick. For Jesus it was enough to believe what the Holy Spirit said and leave it at that. He didn’t need to be a magician too.
The second temptation was that Jesus should throw himself off a high place and float effortlessly down to earth. The devil even used scripture to try and convince Jesus that he could do it! The temptation here is to claim a special status because of your relationship with God. People do this when they claim that Jesus has landed them a prime parking place while the wretched sinners have to park on the back lot. Another example is when we beg God to save us from our own bad decisions. We might call it the, “Hold my beer and watch this…” temptation. It seems harmless to pray for parking spaces or to ask God to get you out of a jam you made yourself – Hey, I’ve done it too — but it is a form of spiritual grandstanding. In refusing this temptation Jesus was saying that he doesn’t need special favors, and he refuses to make bad decisions even if God and the angels might get him out of it.
In the last temptation, Jesus is offered all the kingdoms of the world if he would only bow down to Satan. One wonders if maybe Jesus didn’t see into the 21st century and decide that he just didn’t want it! But, like the others, this temptation is subtler. The darker side of Jesus was considering the commandments, and specifically the one about honoring your father and mother. The kingdoms of the world are a ruse, don’t be distracted. Satan wanted Jesus to agree to break the commandments. In a state of disobedience we are like putty in the hands of evil influences. But, Jesus saw right through it and said, “It is written, Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Later Jesus emphatically said that not one little bit of the Torah will pass away.
Read in this decidedly less dramatic light the temptations of Jesus begin to look a lot more ordinary, and a lot more like the temptations we face daily. The temptation to question our real identity as children of God, the temptation to appear better than we really are, and the temptation to break just one little commandment. Yet Jesus has shown us how to overcome.
Here’s the thing: Jesus didn’t overcome in a day. It took 40 days. We are only on day five of our 40-day Lenten journey. It is possible that you are not feeling much like an overcomer today. Some of us are just now deciding what we will give up or take on. Lent may have come as something of a surprise. After all, Epiphany is such a season of light it’s hard to think ahead to more penitential times. And on Sundays like this one when Jesus appears in operatic scenes, and last week when he was positively afire, it’s easy to forget that he is more than an operatic character. Jesus is also our spiritual companion and guide. He has already been to the driest desert, faced down the toughest demons, and emerged victorious. Oh, and the toughest demon is often yourself.
Our own stories might not be the stuff of operas, but the temptations we face are pretty much the same. The gift of Lent is that we have enough time – 40 days – for renewal and rebirth. Let the waters of teshuva – or turning – wash over you, allow yourself the luxury of these 40 days to say no to your own doubts and insecurities. Wait… as that is a traditional Lenten theme… Wait, and see what might be born in your own heart, see what may emerge. Most of all, believe what God has already said about you: Beloved!
Linda McMillan lives in Yangzhong, China – Home of the pufferfish!
Image: Screen shot from video 40 – A Video Of Jesus In The Wilderness
Some Notes of Possible Interest
There is the opera, Christus, by Anton Rubinstein which contains a scene from this passage. It’s one scene of seven from the life of Jesus. It is based on a poem by Heinrich Bulthaupt.
The saying by R. Johanan and R. Eleazar is in Menachoth 99b. It’s in the Talmud.
There are a lot of other reasons to pay attention when you see the number 40. For one thing, there is the sheer number of times it’s mentioned in connection with some spiritual advancement or new beginning. Moses’s life is said to be neatly divided into three 40-year sections. There are the spies who spent 40 days in the Promised Land. There are four letters in the Tetragrammaton. There are four sides on the letter mem. It takes 40 days for a fetus to form. You should be 40 years old before you start learning kabbalah… The list goes on and on. I am sure you can think of others. I’ll tell you one more interesting thing, and most Christians don’t seem to know this: Chazal teach that all time will cover only 6000 years – which is odd since the earth is already a lot older than that, but you have to just go with it – Anyway, they divide the six thousand years into three sets of two thousand, and two thousand is 40 sets of Jubilees. A jubilee is 50 years. You are supposed to connect this with Moses going up on Mt. Sinai three times for 40 days each. This is a great story and the fact that the earth itself is already over 4 billion years old shouldn’t stop you from believing it if you feel like it. There is more than one way to think about time, after all. – The upshot of it all is that 40 days is the completion of the world in miniature. Something is being created. It’s a very big deal, not just a coincidence of number. I mean, does anyone really believe that all this Bible stuff just coincidentally happened in 40 days or 40 years? Of course not! It’s a literary device. The message is very important. Certainly more important than leaping from tall buildings as Jesus will soon be tempted to do!
Google claims that the earth is 4.543 Billion years old.
Matthew 5:18… For verily I say unto you, Till. heaven and earth pass, one jot or one. tittle shall in no wise pass from. the law, till all be fulfilled.
Teshuva is just the Hebrew word for repentance. I use it a lot, though, because there are subtle differences in how it’s practiced. Well, actually, not so subtle. You can read more about it here. Or, just Google teshuva or teshuvah.