Week Three – “The Lure of Upward Mobility” – The Temptations of Jesus
Last week we looked at Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him. This is not an easy walk, but the good news is, we do not have to take this walk by ourselves. We have been gifted with Jesus’ example, Jesus’ presence, the community of faith, and the Holy Spirit. This empowers us to do things we could never do by our own powers. The call is challenging and difficult, but it by no means impossible.
What we find today though, is there are plenty of thing to tempt us away from Jesus and his way of life. We see that in today’s Scripture.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”
Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
The battle is on! Like Jesus, we too face the temptations of Satan, and like the last verse of our Gospel states, Satan doesn’t try and defeat us once with his temptations and then walk away. Satan will keep coming back. Satan will wait for an “opportune” time to tempt us away from our call of downward mobility. His greatest weapon is to hypnotize us with the bright and alluring life of upward mobility.
Let’s take a close look at Satan’s temptation of Jesus and learn from it.
The allure of the first temptation is to show the world that we are relevant. “We want people to think of us as important, as having a vital role to play in society. We want our work to be appreciated by those around us. We fall prey to this temptation because that’s the way we’ve been brought up! We have been taught to believe that we are called to be productive and successful people,” writes Henri Nouwen. We fall prey to losing what is essential in our lives and working for that which is only important.
Jesus points this out when tempted to turn stones into bread. He says to the tempter: “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Nouwen says, “Jesus did not deny the importance of bread, but rather relativized it in comparison with the nurturing power of the Word of God.” What we do for a living is important, but Jesus reminds us that it should never be the basis for our identity. We are more than our jobs.
Nouwen concludes, “To be a Christian who is willing to travel with Christ on his downward road requires being willing to detach oneself constantly from any need to be relevant, and to trust even more deeply the Word of God.”
Take a close look at your life; are you giving too much of yourself to the “important” and not enough to the “essential”?
Why do we have such a need to be important?
Can you be content to find your identity solely in the phrase “child of God”?
The second temptation Jesus faced (and we face), is the temptation to be spectacular. After the devil takes Jesus up to the pinnacle of the temple he says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for the scripture says: ‘He will put you in his angels’ charge, and they will support you on their hands in cares you hurt your foot against a stone.”
Satan is trying to force Jesus to do the unusual, the sensational, the extraordinary which would “force” people to believe. But Jesus doesn’t work that way. Jesus is content to do his ministry in a quiet way, to ordinary people. He believed that the love he showed the world would be enough – he didn’t have to resort to the spectacular, the gimmicky. Jesus didn’t have to do things under the bright lights for all to see.
We can all understand this temptation today. We are often tempted to show off and have the world applaud us. Our egos love that. And if the world doesn’t notice our acts, isn’t it true we often tell others what we have done? The temptation to be noticed and considered exceptional is alive and well. Nouwen points out, “It is important to realize that our hunger for the spectacular – like our desire to be relevant – has very much to do with our search for selfhood.” Upward mobility tells us that we are only relevant and important when we do something spectacular. The quiet and the doers of small acts, need not apply. Nouwen goes on to say, “Our true challenge is to return to the center, to the heart, and to find there the gentle voice that speaks to us and affirms us in a way no human voice ever could. The basis of all ministry is the experience of God’s unlimited and unlimiting acceptance of us as beloved children, an acceptance so full, so total, and all-embracing, that it sets us free from our compulsion to be seen, praised, and admired and frees us for Christ, who leads us on the road of service.”
When we know that God accepts us, we are free from the need to “do things” to convince people of our importance. We become free to move in the world uninhibited by a need to be seen – we have the freedom to simply do acts of love wherever we are, to whomever we meet, knowing that the sharing of Christ’s love is enough. “Such a discipline will not reward us with the outer glitter of success, but with the inner light which enlightens our whole being,” says Nouwen.
What freedom would we find in your life, if you stopped trying to impress the people around us and just live in God’s grace?
The third temptation is the seductive temptation of power. Today, our country worships power. Look at our hero’s – they are always powerful people. We find that little good comes about through powerlessness. The problem with power, Nouwen points out, is that it is an illusion. “Power can take many forms: money, connections, fame intellectual ability, skills. These are all ways to get some sense of security and control, and strengthen the illusion that life is ours to dispose of.”
We were deluded into a belief that our country was so big and so powerful, and so smart, that acts of terrorism could never happen on American soil. On 9/11, more than two buildings came down, our illusion of being impervious to evil collapsed as well. Suddenly we were left feeling very vulnerable. Then notice our response? An act of power which we titled, “Shock and Awe.” This response came about because as Nouwen points out, “Despite our experience that power does not give us the sense of security we desire, but instead reveals our own weaknesses and limitations, we continue to make ourselves believe that more power will eventually fulfill our needs.”
Yet, Jesus lived by something other than power. He taught that the only thing that can really change lives, is when we change the heart (ours and others). The mystery of our ministry is that we are called to powerlessness, for it is through powerlessness that we can enter into solidarity with our fellow human beings, form a community with the weak, and thus reveal the healing, guiding and sustaining mercy of God. We are called to speak to people not where they have it together, but where they are aware of their pain; not where they are in control, but where they are trembling and insecure; not where they are self-assured and assertive, but where they dare to doubt and raise hard questions. In short, we minister in the face of those broken by the lie of power.
Take a close look at the Gospel and you will see those most changed by Jesus’ ministry were the poor, the lost, the outcast. Having no power, were free to walk up to Jesus, get down on their knees and beg for mercy and help. The powerful couldn’t do that. They just couldn’t acknowledge that they powerlessness, so instead of turning to Jesus they doubled-down on try to attain more power.
Nouwen ends this important section by stating: “We do not belong to the world. We belong to God. We always will be tempted in one way or another to reclaim the old self, to return to Egypt, and to reject the foolish way of the cross. But we become true followers of Jesus Christ each time we take his words on our lips and say to the tempter, “Be off, Satan ... you must worship the Lord your God and serve him alone.”
How hard is it for you to give up power and live as a servant to others?
Why is power so important to us?
What freedoms are given you if you stopped playing the “power” game?
What tempts you the most? To be relevant? Spectacular? Powerful? What do you need to thwart these temptations?
Are you ready to get on admit your powerlessness, and ask for Jesus’ mercy, strength and love? If so, what does that mean for your life? If not, what will you do when these three “gods” fail you?