Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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            What would life be without temptation? That could be the sort of ridiculous question that you might find printed on the front of a birthday card of questionable taste. You can imagine the inside reading something like, “Don’t let your age get you down. Give in! Happy Birthday.” Yet, it is actually a very serious question. What would life be without temptation? It would not be what most people might think, and the difference wouldn’t be because of the fun side of temptation. Temptations and trials and tests are inseparable from a full and many-dimensioned life. Life without them would be flat and dehumanizing. Now, since that is a pretty bold statement, let’s take time to think about it.

            This last December, Pope Francis told an Italian TV interviewer that he would like to see a rewording of the way that the Lord’s Prayer is translated with respect to the petition, “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Both Italian and English traditionally say it this way. In order to explain himself, he went on to say that it is not a good translation, because it implies that God actively pushes people into temptation. “I am the one who falls,” he said. “It’s not God pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that; a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation – that’s his department,” he added.  Now, these comments caused an immediate uproar among the conservative faithful who dislike changing the wording of most anything. Fortunately, when the noise quieted down, wiser heads suggested actually checking the Bible to see if the current version is a good translation or not.

            As it turns out, while Pope Francis is a wise and compassionate man, he is not a very good judge of biblical translations. The relevant passage from Matthew is literally translated as “lead us not into temptation.” The only possible variations are substituting “trial” or “test” for “temptation,” and making the tense of the verb more evident – such as “may you not lead us into temptation.”  The phrase is not idiomatic, needing additional context. So, at the end of the day, anything else than what we currently have or something very near it would just be a matter of replacing a real translation of the text with an interpretation. That is what Francis seemed to be doing.

            But even with respect to interpretation he was not on firm ground, since he seemed to confuse being led in such a way that one encounters temptation, with actually being tempted. No, God does not tempt us. God does not want us to fall. That would make us God’s playthings. But God is serious about our lives, and to grow in faith and have a full life inevitably means having to face temptation or trials. For God to get us from baptism to fullness of life, he leads us in some ways that are not easy garden paths. We do not look forward to such trials; Jesus knows that better than anybody. So, he teaches us to ask, now that God is leading us in our lives, that, if it is possible, we not be directed in those ways of trial. Should we face trials, however, God cannot be said to have ignored us or blown us off. We ought to know that. That is why, I presume, we immediately add, “but, deliver us from evil.” So, as far as translation goes, if you want to flesh out what we are bid to pray, you might say, more fully, “May it be that you do not lead us into temptation, but, in any case, do deliver us from evil.” But that’s about it.

            Upon reflection, though, God leading us into temptation is not such an odd thought. It is actually pretty biblical, as God leads any number of biblical heroes into a time of temptation in order to get them to where they will finally be fulfilled. In the Old Testament, God allows Satan to test Job. That was not pleasant for Job, but at the end, he confessed that now he understood fully and not just by hearsay, now he saw God face to face. God also put Abraham to the test, and it was what allowed Abraham to hold God’s promise with the full confidence of faith. And, as we begin Lent, let us remember that no sooner was Jesus baptized, then the Spirit -- that is the Holy Spirit, folks, the third member of the Trinity and God himself -- led Jesus out into the desert to be tempted by the devil. The whole rest of the story, that there is even “a rest of the story,” hinges on how Jesus deals with these temptations. It doesn’t end there, either. The disciples in continuing Jesus’ mission, regularly find themselves put to the test. Sometimes they fail, as Peter did when he denied Jesus three times. But, in the end, they are all faithful, and God is faithful to them. God isn’t testing them so that he has an excuse to abandon them. They face trials so that they can grow and God can embrace them more fully.

            Here, we have clearly now gone beyond issues of translation, and into something much deeper. So, let us ask directly, why is this so? Why would life be less if there were no temptations?

            Well, the answer is simply because we have souls. By that I don’t mean simply that we have the power of choice. I mean that we have the possibility of love, and of being loved, and that we are capable of the great wisdom that comes from knowledge being transformed by love. But because we have souls that are capable of love we also have to learn to love, to learn what to love, and what not to love. The deepest and most important sort of love does not come naturally to us. Whatever else may be involved, learning to love is what is at stake whenever one deals with real temptations. If you are going to love well, you will have to struggle with what to love and what not to love.

            To have a soul is to be capable of depth – it is to have an inside, and to have more than one dimension to life. It means having the possibility of losing one’s soul, but it means possibly gaining it, too. It means the possibility of tragedy but also the possibility of transcending joy, and not just pleasure. Realizing this, the British cultural critic, Terry Eagleton, recently has complained that, in contemporary culture, there has been nearly a systematic erasure by intellectuals of anything like an inside to the human subject. Scientific determinists argue that there is no free will, and life is simply one physical cause linked to another with nothing behind it. For their part, many intellectuals have tried to suggest that anything like a soul is an illusion.

            Now, there would appear to be some benefits to the loss of soul. Eagleton points out that, on this account, if there is no real self then there would be no tragedy, for tragedy is what it is because it involves the possibility of an irretrievable loss of self. But, of course, if there is no self, well, you can’t lose what you don’t have. But that comes at a price. If there is no tragedy, there is no great joy, either. There is no God, for he points out, there is no longer any secret interior place where God might instill himself. Perhaps that is freeing; it would mean that we can choose as we will without guilt or hindrance. But if so, then there is no transcending love, no love that is deep enough to require self-sacrifice. There is only a sort of pragmatic egotism. That sort of life, ultimately, is mono-dimensional. It is flat, although one may not know that.

            But, if we are souls, life looks a lot different. It has texture, it is three dimensional. There is a possibility of tragedy – of losing one’s soul, but there is also the possibility of gaining it. There is the possibility of loving and being loved in some earth-shaking ways. There is a reason to care and to give of yourself, for there is something to give. There is a space inside to be filled with God himself.

            If you understand that, you will then understand what Christ’s temptations were all about and what their importance to us is. For Christ’s temptations were about love, the bread of souls, and its glittering substitutes, the bread of the soulless. His resistance to these temptations was a matter of holding out for a transcending love and for the transformation of human life, for its becoming one with divine life.

            Consider the temptations. While Mark doesn’t tell us what they were, Matthew and Luke do. First, they tell us that Jesus was offered unlimited bread; it is not too much to say that given what “bread” can mean in today’s parlance, he was given the possibility of unlimited wealth. Then, he was offered security; nothing would ever threaten his life if he were to accept it. Finally, he was offered unlimited political power, for the Devil says, that is his gift to give. Any man who had any of these things would be set up for life. A good man who had them could do a lot of good with them. He could stop world hunger, for example, or illiteracy or wipe out a disease or two. He could ensure world peace, and by accepting power, he could rid us of our corrupt and worthless rulers. But given the conditions of the gift, it would have been at the price of the human soul. For money can do a lot of good, but by itself, and as a solution to human problems, it is insidious. It is smooth; it is elegant, and, unlike power, it is often well-mannered. But that is its potential deceit. To count on it, and counting on it is the real issue here, is to find that, in time, when you do count on it, it corrupts because it overshadows all other values. In time, what it can’t buy one comes to think of as worthless or pointless. Security, for its part, has a lot to say for it, but counting on it will mean in time that you will cease worrying about anybody else. You will have no sense of awe or fear. You will become careless and arrogant. With respect to power, well, its corrupting tendencies hardly need remarking. The devil offers it on the condition that Jesus worship him. In a way, that almost goes without saying. That is the way it always has been with excessive power.

            Now, we should realize that it is not that Jesus approaches money, security, and power as evil traps to be avoided. None of them are evil in themselves. The problem is that they are offered, quite subtly, as substitutes for the divine love at a time when he is hungry, empty. They are meant to fill him up. As such, they are offered as another way of life than the one Jesus sought praying in the desert. So, in refusing them, what he is refusing is to treat them as the deep solutions to life. They won’t feed the real hunger. So, Jesus holds out for the values of the soul. He holds out for love, for redemption, for growth. None of those things that he is offered, money, security or power, even though they do have a certain place in our physical lives, will ever give love, redemption, or spiritual growth. Jesus understood that, and it was because he did that he understood what really was at stake in choosing to go on to be the savior of women and men. He chose to love them, and not just to find an instrument to solve their apparent problems.

            That should tell us then a lot about the nature of temptation. We often think of giving into temptation as making a bad choice, or somehow failing at some endeavor that we would have succeeded at otherwise. We think of it as something that will go on our record and affect our resume. We think that if we don’t fail we will succeed.  Well, some temptations are like that – chocolate when we are on a diet, a smoke when we are trying to quit smoking, partying instead of working or studying. But those are really fairly trivial. We wish we could avoid them, because, interesting as they are, giving into such temptations makes us look bad, or makes us start over. But they are trivial because they don’t go to the issue of what it means to have a soul. They rarely touch on what it means to change your life from the inside, or to maintain your inner integrity, or to really grow. You probably won’t lose or gain your soul with any of them.

            When you try to love, you are at a life-determining crossroads. What is it that you will love? What have you loved in the past that keeps you from loving better, more fully more generously? Can you even imagine great love and do you dare it? Those are the challenges of temptation. Spiritual temptation is not a matter of avoiding the fun, but wrong choice; it is a matter of choosing love in its fullest sense over all substitute values. That is why life would be a lot less were we not to have temptations. It is not that temptations make life interesting; it is because life is interesting and worth loving, or should be. It is because we have souls that are bid to love absolutely that in trying to love we will face temptations, temptations to love less fully than souls are meant for, temptations to take the easy way out. We will face temptations to accept one dimensional lives instead of three dimensional ones.

            As we now enter into Lent and head toward Good Friday and Easter, we are headed toward the triumph of soul, for we are headed toward the triumph of love in its greatest forms. These forty days are our chance to participate in that triumph of love more fully. They are a chance to live more fully. Seize them. Learn love absolutely.