It would be easy, wouldn’t it, if all temptations came with some kind of tangible warning sign – perhaps flames of fire surrounding them, or with a flashing neon light, or had a warning sound, blaring like a police siren, or even the vibration of a phone app to tell you “Stay away – this is dangerous stuff. Somethin, anything, would be helpful to give you the heads up that you are flirting with the devil. We’d be so on top of our sinfulness, wouldn’t we? We’d be so ready to be successful as Christians. But they don’t, do they? So how do you know when you are being tempted?
Today’s gospel gives us some insight into that. The way that the devil tempts Jesus will be the way he will tempt us. His attack is threefold.
1) Forget who you are and whose you are!
That is how the devil starts. He knows if he can get Jesus to doubt that he really is the Son of God, and what that implies, then everything else will be easy. So, too, for us. The first temptation is to get us to forget who we are – made in the image and likeness of God, baptized into his grace, adopted as his children. That is who we are – so loved by our God. And if we forget that, then there are a whole slew of arenas where temptation surfaces.
• IF there is no innate dignity to people, then I can use them, and they can use me. It comes out as pornography, promiscuousness, unhealthy relationships.
• It will surface in the beginning and end of life issues – if we are not made in the image of God, then it is okay to take a life in the womb, and to end a life to ‘stop’ the suffering.
• If I am NOT made in the image and likeness of God, then I don’t need to take care of my body, worry about what I eat, what I read, any disciplines of health. Binge drinking is fine, objectionable lyrics – no problem. All of that flows when we forget who we are.
Jesus tells the tempter – my food, my identity, all that strengthens me for the journey, comes from God himself – and it is only in relationship to him that I am fed. So, too for us. ANYTHING that tries to make us treat ourselves/others as objects, as unworthy of love, as lacking in dignity; anything that tries to tell us another truth but the one that says we are God’s beloved sons and daughters, even in the midst of our failures, is a lie. Don’t fall for it…
2) Who is at the center?
You heard me talk on Ash Wednesday about the pope’s decision to step down from the papacy. It is a perfect example of keeping God at the center of each decision and choice. The easy thing for the pope to have done was to keep on pushing on, through the weakening of his mind and body. His prayer, though, asked the opposite – “Is this what God wants me to be doing?” God is in the center of my life, not my ego, nor even a precedent set by 259 of the last 265 popes. Jesus says it this way: “You shall worship the Lord, and him alone shall you serve.” If the choice before you puts anyone but the Lord in the center of your life, then beware…
3) Normal rules don’t apply to me.
There was a prominent athlete in his sport, who made some very public mistakes that hurt a lot of people. In his apology he said a very insightful thing. “I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules did not apply. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled.” If the devil can’t get you to forget who you are, and who is in the center of your life, then he’ll appeal to exceptionalism – normal rules don’t apply here.
He says to Jesus: “If you are the son of God, then throw yourself down… Gravity doesn’t even apply to you.” To us he says: “Normal rules are not for you, not for someone who knows who they are and has God in the center.” They are for weaklings, for people who need them, not for one such as you. Yet, we know, innately, don’t we, that some behaviors are wrong – cheating on our spouses, lying to friends, using people in relationships. In my own life, it sounds like this: “You are a priest, you are already holy. You don’t need to spend time in prayer…” We get caught when we tell ourselves those rules don’t apply to us…
Temptation would be easier to resist if the devil appeared with fire or sound or light or vibration. But as we know, the devil is not so obvious a figure as he appears in this Sunday’s Gospel. However, we know that he will come after us the same way he went after Jesus. So this Lent, live with a little phone-like app in your head that goes off to warn you. Any time the rules don’t apply, you are in the center and you forgot who and whose you are – know the devil is near. And ask for the grace to resist…