“The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Isn’t that how the old saying goes?
I cannot help but be reminded of that as we begin the Lenten journey and hear this story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The more you pull apart the story, and the more deeply you look at the events, the more you come to the same conclusion.
Truly, nothing has changed.
There is something elemental about this story, which the Lectionary committee helps us see clearly in pairing this story with the story of Adam and Eve.
We hear the Serpent’s words in that story of another time and another temptation. In the story of old Adam and Eve, the crafty one offers half-truths and lies that are difficult to resist.
“You will not die,” the serpent hisses, “You will become as God, knowing good and evil.”
It is the first use of “Spin” to convince and break down resistance, so you can picture the Adversary here as a Serpent, or you could imagine James Carville, or Kelly Ann Conway, or any other notorious “spin” artist — take your pick. They are all employing the age-old technique of infusing doubt and redirecting your attention. So it is that Genesis records:
“So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, (as opposed to being forbidden!) and that it was a delight to the eyes, (as opposed to being off limits) and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, (to become as the creator as opposed to being content to be the one created) — she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her,”
It is that last point that is always my favorite thing to point out.
Another “spin” given the story is the old “blame game” where Eve takes the fall for “The Fall.”
That is not the case. Adam is standing right there beside her within earshot, being taken in as well, tempted with the same spin and pitch!
It worked on Old Adam, surely it will work on New Adam as well, on Jesus the Son of God, born of Mary. So, Satan assumes Jesus will not be able to resist the old “spin and redirect” either.
This is the bill of goods that is sold, or that is tried to be sold on Jesus. The same one that worked so well on Old Adam and Eve. Spin and redirect.
The temptation comes for Jesus to “take care of yourself” first and foremost.
We cannot seem to say no that, so why should Jesus?
“Turn these stones into bread…” Satisfy your own hunger Jesus, for you are famished, and you really need to keep your strength up to do this Kingdom of God stuff you’re about to announce.
Go ahead, just take care of your needs first, and then worry about other folks.
The first temptation is one with which we are well acquainted. It comes to us daily.
Let me get my earthly needs met first, then I’ll worry about the cosmic sphere of things later.
It’s the same temptation as “You will not die.” Take care of yourself first, figuring out good from evil and you’ll make all the right choices from then on.
And so, our eyes sparkle brightly, captivated at the possibility of what is offered. We are so self-assured that given the chance we will certainly always choose the good. We stake our claim willing to reach out for that thing that should be off limits or forbidden, the thing that seems to hold the promise of making life better, that thing (whatever it is ) that would “satisfy” us, keep us from dying.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The same old temptations hook us time and again.
But not Jesus, and not because Jesus is somehow immune to the devil’s spin. Quite the opposite, I believe.
Jesus’ hunger is real.
This temptation is real.
Jesus, however, sees with greater clarity where the temptation will lead, the compromise made.
Satisfy myself first? When does that ever really happen?
The truth is I am never satisfied, none of us born of humanity are. We will always want more.
I will never eat “just one” as the old Lay’s potato chip commercial used to tease.
Looking after my own interests first, satisfying my own hunger, that is what hooked Adam and Eve from the very beginning, and it comes back to catch us again and again.
Better to come to terms with that up front, and so Jesus reminds himself, (and the tempter) “It is written, One does not live by bread alone….”
There is more to life than just getting your own needs met, and more at stake than just worrying about yourself.
The check on that comes in remembering that you are in relationship with God. That God has something to say about who you are and what you are, and that God is meant to be the one you are listening to, and not the “spin” of the tempter.
“One lives,” Jesus says, “by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Which is to make a different choice than the one made back there in the Garden, when the voice of God was heard and old Adam and Eve hid for fear of nakedness. Preferring instead to listen to the “spin” from the serpent than to seek out the voice of God.
The voice of God, the word of God was avoided back there in the garden. The relationship with God was broken, but not so here.
Here the word will be called to mind, and the voice God will be listened to by Jesus instead of avoided or hidden from.
Here the voice of the tempter, while still there and strong, has a counter voice.
In each succeeding temptation then, it is this counter voice of relationship with God that guides Jesus to avoid the trap into which we as humans otherwise fall prey.
When Jesus is offered a reckless reliance on God for personal protection? “throw yourself off the temple, God’s got you!”
The counter voice of not putting this relationship with God to the test chimes in.
Offered unlimited power, dominion over all that he can survey from the pinnacle of the temple if Jesus will but bow down and worship the master of spin, Jesus instead listens to the counter voice of “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”
Tending to the relationship with God is what it takes to recognize and resist the “spin” being put out by the tempter, and that is something that you and I fail at miserably time and again.
And, you know what, that’s not surprising! We are only human.
In fact, nothing about what we will experience from now through the events of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem should surprise us at all.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the disciples don’t understand Jesus, or that they try to dissuade him from going to Jerusalem. That’s what humans do, try to save their own skin.
It shouldn’t surprise us that political power from Pilate and Herod and the Temple Authorities find Jesus’ actions threatening and so they seek to get rid of him. That’s what humans do, try to hold on to their own piece of the pie.
It shouldn’t surprise us that even as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem, disciples are still arguing over which of them is the greatest, and who sits on which side of him, jockeying for position is a very human thing to do.
It shouldn’t surprise us that the disciples run scared and deny him, and that the women, (the overlooked ones in that society) are the ones able to accompany him to the cross, moving in the background unnoticed by those looking for people who “matter.”
It’s not surprising that we can’t resist the “spin” of the tempter.
We are human.
We’re not Jesus.
What we witness again in this journey of Lent is how predictable human actions can be. To read the temptation story as some kind of “guide for saying ‘no’ to the devil” is sure to end in disappointment. We are only human. We won’t be able to catch the spin, resist the impulse, see where our seemingly sensible actions at the time will end.
No, what this story is telling us is not how we can resist the devil, it’s just how “all in” Jesus is in breaking the “more things stay the same” cycles of this world.
In experiencing real temptation, and answering it, Jesus is surprising the devil, and signaling that the cycle of sin and brokenness can and will be changed!
There will be no surprises in the march to Jerusalem.
The devil will employ all the tricks that he is used to using, and we will watch those tricks work on us as we end up being complicit for his suffering, death and crucifixion.
The Pharisees will succumb to the temptation to watch out for their own interests.
The Disciples will make reckless decisions about trusting when they should not and being frightened when they should not be afraid.
The powers of this world will succumb to the temptation to do things for the sake of expediency, or to hold on to their power or to get it by means of betrayal, grasping, and violence.
There will be no surprises there.
The surprise will be that the one who can see through those temptations will still walk through them visited upon him, suffering through them.
As we watch them, hear the story again, will shake our heads sorrowfully as we watch him do that again, and we make the same mistakes again, saying to ourselves, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
We do it all over again. We make the same mistakes, God forgive us!
But God will do more than just forgive.
God will break the cycle.
The surprise will be that Jesus, knowing all the tricks will still suffer through them for us, promising us just one more surprise.
On Easter, the world will change, the power of the tempter finally broken, and the spin exposed for the lie that it is, and always has been.
Then nothing will be the same ever again.