When I was a teenager, my father always took me to school in the morning. He always had the radio playing in the car, and every day I would wait for the clock to read 7:30am because that’s when the comedy slot would play. One of my favourite clips from those days was a hilarious routine by Flip Wilson called “The Devil Made Me Do It”.
I can’t help wondering if that’s not how we view the Gospel reading for this first Sunday in Lent. To begin with we read that Jesus was “led by the Spirit into the wilderness”. This is the same spirit that has just descended on Jesus at his baptism, and which was accompanied by the voice of God affirming Jesus. Now, as if he had no choice in the matter, Jesus is led by the Spirit into this time of testing. Once in the wilderness, Jesus is tempted by the devil (The Greek word here is diabolos, of which the Hebrew equivalent would be satanas. Both have the connotation of accuser, one who tests, or a prosecutor in a court of law). Again, it is as if there is no choice or volition on Jesus’ part. This is something that is done to him. Although he successfully resisted, the thinking is that the devil tried to make him do it.
When we read this passage in this way, it can begin to appear as if Jesus was a pawn in a cosmic chess game played between the Spirit and the devil, not unlike the image in Chris De Burgh’s song Spanish Train. Two forces, one good and one evil, both outside of Jesus, work their influence on him and he must choose between them. It’s a wonderful plot for a Hollywood thriller, and even coincides with a basic understanding of the words, but, if taken at face value, this picture of God’s guidance and the devil’s tempting can lead us into the kind of dualism and dissociation that brings much suffering to ourselves and the world. It’s tempting to read this passage and feel that we need take no responsibility for evil, that temptation and sin are outside of us, and that it is really the devil who makes us do it.
But, if we look a little closer at what’s happening here, a different picture begins to emerge. It seems clear that Jesus has had a sense of calling for a long time. It may be that he came to the Jordan in order to see if in some way his cousin, John, could confirm the promptings he was already feeling. He was certainly drawn to the Scriptures, to teaching and to some kind of service, since even as a boy he had enjoyed “talking Torah” with the priests in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52). He must have absorbed his mother’s sense of his uniqueness, and when he was baptised, he must have felt the calling being confirmed, and that the time for him to begin his work had come. Paul felt a similar thing after his conversion and was also “led” into solitude and reflection before beginning his work as an apostle (Galatians 1:16-18). It seems that, when faced with such a calling, it is a natural and healthy reaction for the one called to seek a space to come to terms with their mission and to “be tested” before launching into the demands of ministry. So, in an important sense it was not the Spirit as an outside force that drove Jesus into the wilderness, as if he could not resist it. Rather, it was the promptings of the Spirit within – his own sense of calling and purpose – which he could choose to follow or not, that drew him, allured him, into this time of preparation and testing.
The same principle can be seen when we look at Jesus’ testing. This is not some outside force seeking to lead him astray into actions that he would never have dreamed of doing. Rather, it was the very nature of his calling that was also the point at which he was tested. Everything he was tempted to do here was something he had come to do. Each test was focussed on an aspect of Jesus’ mission that he was called to fulfill and that, in time, he would perform. He was tempted to use his power to provide food for himself, but one day he would feed over five thousand hungry people. He was tempted to demonstrate his relationship with God by being saved from the certain death that would come if he threw himself off a high place. Yet, in just a few years, he would be lifted up on a cross to die and then be saved from that death and brought back to life. He was tempted to win over all the nations and their glory – something that he knew was a Messianic promise from Psalm 2:8 – by simply switching allegiances from God to the power that controls the world. Yet, in time he would be able to say “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). What is really tempting Jesus her is his own purpose, his own longings, his own mission. He is being tempted, not to do anything different from what he had been called to, but to do it in his own way, in a quick-fix, avoid-the-real-suffering way. He is being tempted to impose his own timing, his own methods and his own agenda on his mission. He is tempted by his own capacity to do the right thing in the wrong way. He is being tempted by the drives within himself for satisfaction of his appetites, for fame, power and approval, and for comfort and wealth. For Jesus, as for us, temptation comes, as James says, “from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away” (James 1:14). The three tests signify a sense of completeness. Jesus, by confronting these internal desires has truly “faced all of the same testings we do, yet He did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
In terms of Matthew’s purpose in the Gospel of portraying Jesus as a new Moses, there are significant resonances with the Israelites – God’s chosen people, called to be a blessing to all nations – being led out of Egypt, through the waters of the Red Sea, and into the wilderness to learn to be a community, a nation, a people of God. And as we follow their story we see the same basic pattern playing out. They are led into the wilderness by their desire for freedom, their longing to be the people God has created and called them to be, and they are tested by their own struggle to live up to this calling, and their need for quick-fixes and certain security. This same story is repeated in every life, and in the comparison of Jesus with the Israelites we are given a picture of the consequences – both good and bad – of the choices we make.
What does this mean for us, as we begin the Lenten journey, as we journey with Jesus through this wilderness experience? It means that we must look within and be prepared to confront our tendency to make the end justify the means. It means we must recognise that our light – our sense of purpose and calling – can be as much a temptation as our darkness. It means being prepared to allow the light of God’s Spirit and God’s word to shine on our hearts and reveal our duplicitous motives, our expedient methods and our arrogant determination to control God’s work in and through us. It means that we must recognise that the life we live is always a product of the choices we make, and is not the result of some outside force over which have no control – be it good or evil.
If we are truly to follow Christ through Lent, it’s going to be a journey of honest and painful soul-searching. If we choose to lay all the blame at the door of “the devil” we will find that our mission is compromised and our lives are plagued by the broken desires and attitudes that we have refused to confront. If, on the other hand, we will face our true selves and take the time to understand God’s timing, God’s methods and God’s agenda, we will find ourselves freed to live as people of integrity, purpose, creativity and vibrancy. It’s not the devil who makes us do anything. The choice is always ours