Most of the time, without any real thought, we do what we want to do and make inferior choices. We trivialize sin when we think of it as an error in judgment. Sin is a flawed approach to decision making that leads us to the worst decision with which we can be comfortable. In a thousand ways we get used to making lesser choices. We’re so used to choosing what’s easiest that deciding to become more than we are doesn’t occur to us.
Yet it’s always possible to be true to the higher calling. Jesus is baptized in the muddy water of the Jordan River. The voice from heaven proclaims, “You are my child, my beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Then Jesus goes to the middle of nowhere to decide what kind of child he’s going to be.
The wilderness is hot and barren. The hills are dust heaps. The rocks are jagged. The wind howls at night. Jesus is so weighed down with the burden of choosing the direction for his life that he doesn’t even think of food. It’s been days, weeks since he has eaten. It’s a great understatement when Matthew writes, “and afterwards, he hungered.”
The silence is broken when from somewhere there comes a voice—a whisper, a screaming whisper: “If you are God’s child, command this stone, so that it becomes bread.” Jesus remembers John, the River Jordan, the sky opening and the voice saying, “You are my child, the beloved.” Now it’s a different voice, “If you are God’s child.”
Jesus was the first person tempted by fast food. A rounded stone becomes a loaf of pumpernickel; a flat rock becomes a tortilla. Who will it hurt? If he is God’s child, then why shouldn’t he have what he wants?
We struggle with the attraction of doing what’s easiest. This first temptation is to make our decisions on the basis of what requires the least effort. We often pass on what’s eternally best for what’s momentarily satisfying.
We’re tempted to choose the easy way when we realize how hard it is to forgive the guilty, listen to the lonely, and share what we have with the poor. It’s much easier to settle for a tepid faith. We get so used to choosing what’s easiest that we seldom consider the hard way of sacrifice. We’d like to believe that an easy life is a sign of God’s approval, but if we’re comfortable, then we’ve missed what’s best.
Jesus understands the temptation of the easy way; “One cannot live by bread alone. Obedience to God is more important than my own comfort.”
Satan tries again like a con man with an arm covered with Rolexes. This time it’s from the steeple of the old First Church, “If you are God’s child, throw yourself down. You know that the Bible says, ‘God will protect you.’ ”
The first-century Jews believed that when the Messiah came, he would reveal himself from the temple roof. The tempter is reminding Jesus that he can be the Messiah the people want. He can be a great religious teacher and skip the hard parts. Jesus could have modified his ministry ever so slightly and been what they wanted him to be.
When Monty Hall offers us what’s behind door number two, it’s the temptation to look spiritual. We can keep up appearances even as we lower our expectations. In T. S. Eliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral, the tempter comes to Thomas Becket and offers the temptation of being a martyr, a religious hero. Becket understands, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
We’ve figured out that we can look religious without truly seeking God. It’s easy to meet people’s religious expectations. We know how to pretend that we are living as God’s children.
The screaming whisper returns with an offer of palaces and kingdoms, “Compromise and it’s all yours.” This is Frodo Baggins offering the one ring that rules them all. To worship Satan is to choose success. This third temptation is to want what everyone wants.
The evil one doesn’t appear for us in a readily identifiable red suit with a pitchfork. The tempter appears as reasonableness. Evil’s nagging voice is the desire for a little bigger house, a little more in savings, and a little better job.
Have you ever learned that someone who does the same job you do makes more money than you make? We know it doesn’t do us any good to think about it, but we keep thinking about the injustice of it all and what we would do with the extra money. We choose to hang on to greed until it starts to crowd out things that matter more.
O.A. Battista wrote, “You have reached the pinnacle of success as soon as you become uninterested in money, compliments, or publicity.” By that standard, most of us are still some distance from the summit.
Through cracked and bleeding lips, Jesus answers the master counterfeiter, “Bow down to God alone; worship only God.”
The adversary retreats temporarily, but Jesus never stopped being tempted to make it easier for himself. Jesus faced the same temptations to compromise that we face. We choose every day between what seems okay and what’s true to the gospel.
We need to remember this story of Jesus in the wilderness. There were no witnesses. Jesus must have told the disciples because he hoped that they would remember. Maybe you’ve had the experience of meeting someone so kind and caring that they made you want to be kind and caring, too. Remember that there was one who lived beyond comfort, praise, and affluence.
Remember whose we are. The voice at Jesus’ baptism was the voice of assurance, “This is my beloved child.” God has assured us that we too are God’s children. We come to this Lenten season of repentance confessing our longing for the paths of least resistance and asking for new and honest hearts.