Friday, March 3, 2017

Temptation

1st Sunday of Lent (A)

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The temptation of Christ in the wilderness.
Every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, we ask God to "lead us not into temptation." Yet we know from experience we continue to face temptation every day. Does God not answer this prayer? Of course this is not the case. Our Lord Himself gave us this prayer as the model for all our prayers. What we ask God for in the Lord's Prayer is not to remove all temptation from us, but rather for the strength to resist temptation. To remove temptation entirely would be to remove our free will, for temptation arises any time we are called to make a choice that has moral weight. Even Jesus experienced temptation, though He did not yield to it.

Sometimes we are called to make a choice between something good and something which is clearly evil. These are usually the easiest decisions to make. The hard choice comes when we are tempted to choose a lesser good over a greater good. This is how Satan, the great tempter, operates. We this on display in the readings for the first Sunday of Lent. 

The very first temptation came in the garden of Eden, shortly after the creation of Adam and Eve. God had given our first parents dominion over every plans and animal in the garden. But there was one tree of which they could not eat, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Along comes Satan. The first thing he does is to place himself between Eve and God, causing her to doubt God's word. "Did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden?" And again, when Eve tells him that God said they would die if they ate of the fruit, Satan causes her to doubt. "You will certainly not die! God knows that the moment you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods who know what is good and what is evil."

Satan temps Eve with knowledge. And knowledge is a good thing. So what was wrong with eating of the fruit of the tree? It was not the gaining of knowledge per se, but the gaining of knowledge in the wrong way, at the wrong time. Some theologians have speculated that God intended for Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of knowledge when the time was right, when they were ready. Otherwise why would God have put that tree in the garden? Regardless, God clearly told them not to eat of it. Adam and Eve were called to trust God and instead allowed themselves to be beguiled by Satan. They were tempted by the lesser good he seemed to offer them (knowledge) and allowed themselves to mistrust and then to disobey God, their loving Father and Creator. They chose a lesser good at the expense of the greatest good of all, their relationship with God.

Contrast this with our gospel reading, where we see Jesus, too, is tempted by Satan, who is using the exact same tricks. First, he tries to get Jesus to doubt God. "If you are the Son of God..." he begins each time. But this does not work, for Jesus will never doubt His loving Father. 

Satan also tempts Jesus with seemingly good things. "Turn these stones into loves of bread." Bread is a good thing. Jesus was fasting and so was hungry. What can be more good to a hungry person than food? Satan tempts Jesus with power. He offers to give Jesus dominion over all the kingdoms of the world. Imagine the good that Jesus could achieve with that kind of political power. All that Satan asks for in return is that Christ worship him. And this Christ could not do. He would never worship Satan, a creature, over God, the Creator. Jesus would never choose a lesser good at the expense of the greatest good.

Satan is not creative. He is powerful. He is conniving, He is tireless. But he is not creative. When it comes to temptation, He is a one-trick pony. He tempts you and I in the same way that he tempted Jesus in the desert, and Adam and Eve in the garden. He tempts us first by getting us to mistrust God. Did God really say you shouldn't do that...? Surely God wouldn't punish you for that... Surely God wouldn't mind...

Then he offers us something that is seemingly good. Every sin we are tempted to commit has at its heart a kernel of goodness. Otherwise we would not find it attractive. We want love. We want pleasure. We want power. We want affirmation. We want security. We want all of these things. And all of these things are good, as far as they go. But there are right ways and wrong ways to pursue them. And when we seek these good things at the expense of the greatest good, at the expense of our fidelity to God and to His commands, then we fall. We yield to the devil's temptation.

This Lent we should do two things. First, we should reflect back on our lives and identify those times when, like our first parents, we succumbed to the temptations of the devil. Identify those times we have fallen into sin, like Adam and Even, and repent from them. Turn away from them. Come before God humbly in the sacrament of Reconciliation and receive the loving mercy won for us in Christ.

Second, we should pray, every day, for the strength to be like Christ; to resist every effort of Satan to plant the seed of doubt in our hearts and to pull us away from God. We should pray every day to God to "lead us not into temptation," with confidence in our hearts that, with Christ as our helper, we will have the strength to remain true to our loving Father all the days of our lives; that we will have the conviction to never choose a lesser good over the greatest good of all.

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