“All of the kingdoms can be yours,” the devil tells Jesus, “if you will just lord your power over others and take up the sword of the nations. Take charge of the biological weapons, deploy some troops, command the implementation of a ‘Star Wars’ missile defense system. All the kingdoms can be yours—if you will just use the world’s means of power: domination and violence.” Charles Campbell
There is a call in life to come to terms with who we are in relation to the universe, to give ourselves to something ultimate, to live in right relationship with the Ground of Being, to fulfill our destiny, to enter into the Great Mystery. But we hear other voices as well, voices that we have internalized from our families and cultures, which we hear as our own. These voices tempt us. They present us with a choice: to be true to ourselves and live as free human beings or to be ensnared by desires that reflect the values of our culture and end up being possessed by them.
Jesus, too, experienced this conflict. After John baptized him in the Jordan River, Jesus saw a vision in which the Holy Spirit descended upon him as a dove and heard God saying to him, “This is my beloved Son; with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17). This revelation led him to a time of testing in the wilderness, during which a spiritually strong but very human Jesus strove to find clarity about his identity and calling (Matthew 4:1-11). He especially struggled with what it meant to be “son of God.” This was a well-known designation in the ancient world. The term “Son of God” was applied to the Roman Emperor, who possessed status, wealth, and worldly power. Jews who awaited the Messiah were hoping for the coming of a king like David who would embody these characteristics. Not surprisingly, these were the very things that tempted Jesus.
“If you are the Son of God,” said the voice of temptation (the “devil” or “tempter”) to Jesus, testing him. If you are the son of God, then prove it… by refusing to be bound by human limitations, by ignoring the laws of nature, by choosing a path that will lead to fame, fortune, and power over others. But each time Jesus refused, choosing instead to be faithful and to entrust himself to the will of God. We are called and empowered by grace to do the same.
Theologian Walter Wink demythologizes “the devil” or “Satan,” relating these concepts to the “interiority” of a culture at a particular time in history: “Satan is the real interiority of a society that idolatrously pursues its own enhancement as the highest good. Satan is the spirituality of an epoch, the peculiar constellation of alienation, greed, inhumanity, oppression, and entropy that characterizes a specific period of history as a consequence of human decisions to tolerate and even further such a state of affairs.”
These words were true of the time in which Jesus lived, when the “Roman Peace” was imposed and enforced throughout the Empire, but they are also true today. Clearly, the United States is a society that “idolatrously pursues its own enhancement as the highest good.” The present culture of unrestrained corporate capitalism, enforced by mass incarceration and endless war, exalts nationalism, pays tribute to wealth, promotes consumption, bows to worldly success, glorifies violence, and vilifies people who have not attained these things. The “alienation, greed, inhumanity, oppression, and entropy” that characterize this time in our history are made possible by the personal decisions of many individuals to tolerate or even further this state of affairs.
The temptation of Jesus set the stage for the events that led to his death. By choosing a path of deep integrity instead of adopting the cultural values of his time, Jesus set himself against the religious, political, economic, and military rulers of his day. It’s no wonder that the religious elite, who benefited from the Roman occupation, collaborated with the Roman authorities in targeting him, plotting against him, and finally putting him to death.
And it’s no wonder that those of us who live here in the United States are often tempted to submit to cultural expectations. Today’s ruling Powers have a million ways to reward and punish based on whether or not we comply. But there is a deeper way to live, which offers immeasurably greater rewards.
There is always temptation, especially in our consumer culture. It might be easier to come to terms with who we are and who we are called to be if we could go out into the wilderness. That is what the season of Lent is about—a season that involves taking time out to reflect on what is ultimate and to accept the responsibility and privilege to make a conscious choice.
We do have a choice. We do not have to surrender to the Powers or be driven by desires to conform and excel in their service, at the expense of other people and the earth itself. We can refuse to submit to social pressures, resist cultural possession, and live in freedom as fully human beings, as beloved children of God.
There are many paths to freedom, and divine love is universal, offered to all people and all creation. I choose to follow and live in the Spirit of the one who calls me, Jesus Christ.
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