Temptation -- a Lectionary Meditation

Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7

Romans 5:12-19

Matthew 4:1-11


“There are several good protections against temptation, but the surest is cowardice.” (Mark Twain)
Two stories of temptation lead off the Lenten journey, reminding us that temptation is an ever present challenge. Though, as Mark Twain notes, there are ways of dealing with temptation, the most effective being – run for the hills! Or better yet, never take risks, and you’ll not have to deal with problems such as this. But if we want to live fully and put ourselves in a position to grow and mature in our faith, then we must face the prospect of falling prey to temptation. It is, in fact, the central theme of the biblical story. Richard Rohr writes:

It is not that suffering or failure might happen, or that it will only happen to you if you are bad (which is what religious people often think), or that it will happen to the unfortunate, or to a few in other places, or that you can somehow by cleverness or righteousness avoid it. No, it will happen, and to you! Losing, failing, falling, sin, and the suffering that comes those experiences – all of this is a necessary and even good part of the human journey. [Richard Rohr, Falling Upward, (Jossey Bass, proof copy), p. xxii]
It is important that as we take in these stories that we not forget that falling down is part of the journey, but growth comes as we get up and move forward in the presence of God. In this week’s lectionary readings there are two stories of temptation – one referring to Adam and Eve and the other to Jesus. In the middle we come across Paul’s meditation on sin and redemption – through one man sin comes into the world, through the second man its effects are overcome. In Genesis God puts a tree into the middle of the garden and says – don’t eat or you’ll die. In Matthew, Jesus is baptized by John and then is immediately driven into the Wilderness by the Spirit so that he might be tested. Are we ready to be tested? That is the question.

In the first story God puts a man in the garden and tells him to till it and tend to it. He can eat of all the trees in the garden, except one, and if he eats of this Tree of Knowledge he’ll most assuredly die – though Genesis doesn’t tell us how this will occur (Gen. 2:15-17). But, as you read this warning, you have to know that something untoward is going to happen. You can’t put a tree in the middle of the garden that has really good looking fruit on it and then say – don’t eat. You know he’ll eventually bite into the fruit. With this warning in place, the lectionary guides have us skip over the section where God creates the woman as the man’s companion, and takes us to the encounter between the woman and the Serpent, who according to the writer of this text is the craftiest of God’s creations. Note here that the reference isn’t to the devil, though later interpretive tradition will make this connection. The Serpent says to the woman: “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden?” Of course, God didn’t say anything of the sort. God said you have all that you need, so stay away from that tree in the middle of the garden. If you eat it, you will die. The woman knows the truth and responds accordingly. But the key to the discussion is the suggestion by the Serpent that the reason God doesn’t want them to eat of the fruit is that upon eating it they will be like God, knowing both good and evil. The Serpent promised wisdom, but God asked for trust, trust that was quickly broken. And upon eating the fruit, the eyes of both are opened and they discover that they are naked, and so they cover themselves with fig leaves. Yes, shame enters the picture and the two whom God created to be companions are now alienated from each other. And as the story goes on, they hide even from God, suggesting that alienation from God had also crept into the picture. While we talk about sin here, the real issue is one of broken trust. But, as Rohr points out – that is part of life. The question is – how will we respond to the realities. Will we get back up and seek reconciliation? Will we allow that original trust to be restored?

Before we turn to Matthew’s temptation story, we turn to Romans 5, where Paul talks about the consequences of the man’s transgressions. Although the woman is often blamed for the Fall, Paul is of the mind (maybe it’s his chauvinism) that the man is responsible. Of course, Paul is also concerned about creating a parallel situation. Adam is seen as the one who breaks trust with God, and therefore allows for sin and death to enter the picture. The passage opens with one of the most pregnant verses in the New Testament. Taken literally it seems to give support to the doctrine of original sin. Paul writes that it was through a man (Adam) that death came into the world because of sin, and death spread to all humanity because all sinned. Paul is reaching back to Genesis 2-3, and offers his explanation as to why sin is so prevalent and why death is experienced by all. Because of Adam we all die, and the culprit has traditionally been seen as original sin. We sin because of Adam and we die because of him. It seems so genetic, but not so fast. Note that Paul says that death spread to all because all sinned, not because the man sinned. Sin was present since the beginning of human history – that is the implication of the text, and it has had devastating effects. It is also clear that sin is not simply disobedience of the Law, because sin and death existed prior to Moses.

The key point in all of this is the role that Adam (the man) plays in the story. Paul says that Adam is the type of the one to come. And while sin and death was introduced into the world through the actions of the first man, through the work of the second Adam (Christ) comes grace. Thus, if many die because of the first man’s sin (setting the world in motion toward disobedience), so in the second Adam’s obedience this is turned around. In a statement that almost sounds universalist in intent, Paul says that “because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through one man, Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:17). We must face the reality of sin – however it may have come into the world – but the good news is that in Christ its effects have been overturned. Forgiveness is ours.

When we read Matthew’s Temptation story, it’s easy for us to discount the threat to Jesus’ identity. We just assume, or at least many assume, that Jesus is divine and therefore there’s really nothing to be concerned about. It’s all just a test, to which all the answers have already been given. There’s really no chance that Jesus would actually have failed or fallen. But if we take such a view. If there’s nothing really at risk in the incarnation, then what’s the point? Is it a mere exercise for our enjoyment? Is the devil too stupid to know that Jesus couldn’t fall, so God was having a good laugh? If these tests are real and God’s purpose could have been thwarted, then Jesus is – in Paul’s terms – the Second Adam. In his obedience he shows us the way to rebuild trust; how to walk in righteousness. But as the story goes, the devil gave it his best shot, but it wasn’t good enough. The temptations were truly seductive. Bread to end hunger; a spectacle to draw followers; rule over the world in exchange for a small bow. And yet in each case, Jesus stood strong in the Spirit. Jesus chooses to live by the words that come from the mouth of God; chooses not to put God to the test; and Jesus chose to worship God and not the devil. In the end the devil goes away, and the famished savior is tended to by the angels. It is in the obedience of the Second Adam that the disobedience of the First Adam is reversed. But obedience is more than playing it safe. Obedience involves taking necessary risks so that one might grow in faith and practice.

Temptation is part of life. We will fall, lest we believe that perfection is something to be guarded to such an extent that we’re not willing to live life in the presence of God. That is not, I believe, what God calls for us to do. It is in reality the way of death and not life. Let us then pursue God’s purpose for our lives, by living boldly in the world.


Allan R. Bevere said…
Excellent substance and well articulated! Thanks!
Sunyata said…
Jiddu Krishnamurti telling a joke...

“There are three monks, who had been sitting in deep meditation for many years amidst the Himalayan snow peaks, never speaking a word, in utter silence. One morning, one of the three suddenly speaks up and says, ‘What a lovely morning this is.’ And he falls silent again. Five years of silence pass, when all at once the second monk speaks up and says, ‘But we could do with some rain.’ There is silence among them for another five years, when suddenly the third monk says, ‘Why can’t you two stop chattering?”


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