Alone in the Wilderness – Part 2
The First Temptation
The first temptation centers on Jesus’ hunger, and at the very least it is the physical hunger he feels due to his fasting. Consider that fasting is a spiritual discipline, a practice taken on in order to cleanse and strengthen one’s soul, and we have a better idea of why the Spirit led him into the wilderness. Anyone who has taken up such a practice knows the inner voice that offers excuses to take the easy way out, to give in to our desires for immediate gratification and temporary comforts rather than persevere in our devotion to greater principles. That’s the first role in which the character of Satan makes his appearance, but what could Jesus possibly want that would give Satan an avenue to tempt him this way? Is it merely physical hunger? As we saw in part 1, it’s not too hard to imagine that Jesus is concerned about the risks he knows await him if he follows through with challenging the authority of religious, political and economic powers to come between us and God’s peace. So it is that I think his encounter with hunger leads Jesus to specifically face the challenges of the economic powers in his own psyche.
In both societal and personal terms, economic powers are concerned with acquiring wealth not merely for the basic needs and comforts of wellbeing, but for protecting oneself and one’s acquisitions, for the power to help and influence others, and also for indulgence in luxuries. In his own hunger, Jesus must sympathize with the hunger of others. It surely occurs to him that he can turn his energies, whether miraculous or not, to the development of economic power, all with the very noble intention of improving the lives of the poor and hungry. Such a temptation would likely be amplified by knowing that his life and the lives of his loved ones can be made much more comfortable by taking a nice percentage all to themselves. Perhaps in these thoughts he is not unlike many of us who aspire to make a living through philanthropy and humanitarian service. Yet Jesus holds fast, reminding himself that “Man shall not live by bread alone.” After all, it was not in a shower of coins that God’s love descended upon him after baptism, but as a dove of spiritual peace.
None of this is to say that economic power is in itself evil, or that we must all follow a path of poverty like Jesus, although arguments have sometimes been made for both ideas. To me it seems a simple fact that we all need and want things economic power enables us to more easily acquire, while most of us would also agree that we can pursue such things to excess, and that to do so usually, if not always, becomes destructive in some way. Despite the universal nature of such temptations, in the most immediate sense we are each alone in feeling them, alone in deciding how we will respond, and alone in our accountability for our decisions. This does not mean that no empathy, understanding or support is available from anybody else, but simply that nobody else can step into our skin, into our souls, to directly encounter and manage what we’re facing. The desire to escape the reality of that aloneness and responsibility is often what fuels a pursuit for physical and emotional pleasures to excess and even addiction. Thus we see that vices of economic power have at their root an anxious sense of inadequacy, an existential emptiness, and an often unacknowledged spiritual hunger, all of which we try to soothe with things like drugs, food, possessions, and experiences of all sorts, including personal relationships and the acquiring of knowledge.
So, through the discipline of fasting alone in the wilderness, Jesus has put himself on a collision course with an opportunity to realize the significance of emptiness. When it arrives in full force, his key realization is that the greater issue is not his physical hunger, which could easily be satisfied with a piece of bread, but rather it is a deeper hunger that we all share and that no amount of “bread”, literally or figuratively, can ever satisfy. But what could possibly satisfy such an emptiness and hunger?
In some versions of the New Testament, Jesus is reported as saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word of God.” This statement is a more complete reference to Deuteronomy 8:3, which is found in the context of an admonishment to live according to the commandments of the Torah. So a common interpretation of Jesus’ words is simply as a declaration of the importance of scripture, but there is more depth available to us. Deuteronomy 8:3 draws a direct connection between the word of God and manna, which by the time of Jesus had long been used as a symbol of spiritual nourishment received through God’s grace. This latter inference is most consistent with one of the central teachings of Jesus upon his return to civilization, which is essentially that the spirit of the law supersedes the letter. In short, God’s love is our most essential spiritual nourishment.
It’s easy enough to give a religiously correct answer like “God”, or something with even broader appeal like “love”. But if that’s all there is to it then there should be a lot less trouble in our world with angst about our emptiness and spiritual hunger and with the economic vices such angst can breed. It seems clear that a faith based solely on doctrinal assertions isn’t enough, and here is where we find more relevance to the practice of mysticism. While they have many differences, one thing agreed upon by existential therapies and the mystical traditions of many religions is that emptiness and spiritual hunger are facts of our being we all share, and they cannot be eliminated through any of the usual means of seeking security and comfort. From this point, a further agreement is that, rather than trying to fill our emptiness and spiritual hunger, we must somehow accept them and come to some kind of peace with them. By being still in meditation and mindfulness with our perceived lacking, and giving up the presumption that we can correct it, even giving up the idea that it is a wrong that needs to be corrected, we can begin to realize our emptiness and hunger not so much as a lacking, but as an openness to the countless possibilities of a wonderful mystery in which we all share. The emptiness can thus be welcomed as our freedom, our liberation, and the hunger as our will to live it. In learning to love our emptiness and hunger in this way, we find ourselves prepared to receive the contemplative realization of a more profound unity with the Transcendent Mystery we Christians call “God”, and this unity is Light, Life and Love itself. The emptiness is realized as fullness.
We’ll examine the second and third temptations of Jesus in part 3.
When I imagine the temptations of Jesus in the desert, It occurs to me that this story exemplifies watchfulness. A heart so well guarded that even the seemingly natural urge for nourishment of a body starved, is judged to the very source. The voice of temptation “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread” was clearly not merely his stomach talking. Is it not the responsibility of every person called to spiritual sonship to exercise watchfulness/judgment with such an exacting degree of certainty?
I enjoyed your comments Chuck. Certainly, this story has a lot to do with a healthy detachment from worldly pursuits and pleasures which, ultimately, offer us little satisfaction. Actually, one could argue that there is never really enough to satisfy our physical and emotional cravings.
I like to also think of this “temptation” as a bit of an identity crisis for Jesus. The devil says (more than once I think) “If you are the Son of God..” To me this indicates Jesus’ struggle with his own mission on earth. He certainly realizes that he could allow this cup to pass from him, along with all of the hardship and suffering that will follow. And, he does give this some serious thought (forty days is a “long time” in the Bible).
In the end of course he does acknowledge and accept his Father’s will, and the devil departs from him.
Are we not all called to a purpose which we question and fear? In the end we must heed the call of the spirit into the desert. “Many are called but few are chosen”.
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