A couple of months ago, we celebrated the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This event inaugurated the most public period of Christ’s earthly ministry, and revealed him as the one who shares in the very essence of God. The second significant milestone in Christ’s life occurred immediately following the baptism; and that was his 40-day-long period of testing in the wilderness. Our season of Lent, when we give up some of our small comforts, mirrors the time that Jesus spent in discernment before he chose to sacrifice his whole existence for the sake of the world.
We can only wonder to which extent we are to take our today’s Gospel story literally: what kind of physical conditions Christ has encountered during his time in the desert, whether his temptations took place only in his mind’s eye or in real places, and with what being did he converse in the wilderness. One thing is clear: as one who was fully human, Jesus has heard the very same voice that we, from time to time, hear quite tangibly whispering in our own ears; the voice of deceit, whose chief purpose is to distort the goodness of our nature and rob us of our freedom to choose others over ourselves.
Where does this voice come from? Every sin we commit is a misdirected use of something good that God has given us, and the consequences of such evil are very real. But is the source of such impulses also a real being outside of our own? Interestingly, the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky names this deceitful voice “the spirit of self-destruction and NON-being.” Other artists and writers throughout human history have provided us plentiful representations for this spirit, from a disheveled tiny old man, to a mighty winged being, to an androgynous woman. We have named them not only Lucifer, but also Loki, Hades, Mephistopheles, Voland, Screwtape, and so on. But, does the actual source of our temptation lie within ourselves - in the ambiguity of our human nature and its freedom?
To continue with Dostoyevsky, his novel “Brothers Karamazov” is, among other things, a fascinating collection of expositions of various Gospel passages. One of its chapters consists of a conversation between Jesus and the mysterious Grand Inquisitor who questions Christ about his desert experience, and insinuates that Jesus was all wrong in hoping that such “weak and vile” beings as ourselves would follow him based on his choice to refute Satan’s advances. He says, famously, that in doing so, Jesus expected too much of humankind: “Respecting man less, Thou wouldst have asked less of him. That would have been more like love, for his burden would have been lighter.”
As you recall from our Gospel reading, in the desert, Jesus was faced with the three temptations: to satisfy his hunger by turning stones into bread, to throw himself down from the top of the temple so that to create a public display of an angelic host that would come to his rescue, and finally, to worship the devil in exchange for the world’s riches. A classic interpretation of this passage sees each of these temptations the perversions of our God-given virtues -- courage, prudence, and temperance. In Dostoevsky’s interpretation, however, Jesus has only one temptation to overcome: that is, to make the world better for its inhabitants by taking away their freedom of choice. Sometimes, don’t we all wish that he would just provide limitless bread for everyone, ride into the midst of our war-torn world upon angels’ wings, and ensure peace on earth once and forever by ruling over all its kingdoms?
Now, of course, Dostoevsky had his own concerns when he used the episode of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness to dramatize the dialectics of human freedom, so near and dear to the Russian heart and mind. But I think that what we can take away from his interpretation is that in the desert, Jesus was discerning for himself the difference between the true image of God that dwells in all of us, and in him most fully, and the highly attractive, but utterly fake, image that would be a lot easier to assume. This knowledge, I’m sure, came quite handy once Jesus got the taste of his divine power, applied it for three years for the benefit of his people, and yet when faced with one final temptation, refused to use it to let his own cup pass.
As we go through life, our own main temptation is always to conjure up for ourselves a distorted image of both ourselves and our God. We are still waiting for a savior that would indeed come to multiply the fishes and loaves, wear the royal robes, and impress us with miraculous healings. But, he would not sustain the human family that way. Rather, he sets an example for us of what it means to have the ultimate freedom of choice, so that WE choose to build a world which is based on self-giving. Did Jesus overestimate the goodness of our nature and our capacity to choose? Maybe now is the time for us to believe in ourselves and in our own power to change the world, one act of kindness at a time, just as he believed in us.
These are the questions to pose to ourselves as we go through Lent. We know exactly the spiritual weapons that Christ used in his wilderness journey: it was by prayer and the power of the scriptural word that he steadied himself in his discernment. These tools have been given to all of us for precisely the same purpose – let us find some new ways to make them our own over the next few weeks.