Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted there by the devil. 2 For forty days and forty nights he fasted and became very hungry. During that time the devil came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become loaves of bread.”
But Jesus told him, “No! The Scriptures say, ‘People do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’
Then the devil took him to the holy city, Jerusalem, to the highest point of the Temple, and said, “If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say, ‘He will order his angels to protect you. And they will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.’”
Jesus responded, “The Scriptures also say, ‘You must not test the Lord your God.’”
Test of doing good
There was a test concocted by social scientists, those sadists, in the late 1960s. They gave someone a sheet to fill out and put them in a room. Some of them were seated in there by themselves, and some were seated with another person, who was in on the test.
The woman who had given him the sheet to fill out went to a supply room. Then the person filling out the sheet heard her fall to the ground, and she moaned and cried out in pain. The test was to see if the person being tested would go over to try to help.
If the person sat in the room alone, then 70 percent of the subjects would go to the supply room to see if they could help. If, however, they were with another person who didn’t look up or show any concern, then only 7 percent of the people would get up 93 percent of people would ignore the cries and sound and just keep working on the paper.
This is the weakness of humanity. If it looks like someone else will come over to help, then others will be content to do that and not see if they need more help. If they see a person fall, they are more likely to help than if they just hear something that might indicate that they need help.
This experiment was conducted because of the case of Kitty Genovese, who was attacked in an alley in New York. She cried out for about 20 minutes, begging for help, in earshot of dozens of apartments, but no one helped her and she died.
Humanity is weak. Despite our mirror neurons and our recognition that we need to treat others as we would be treated, we still excuse this duty. Well, we think, maybe someone else will help. Maybe she’s not really hurt. This work I have to do is more important. Maybe I didn’t hear what I thought I heard. We are weak people.
The Temptation of Jesus
In Jesus, we have the example of strength— a human being making remarkably un-weak choices. There is Jesus, having fasted for forty days, literally starving. And the thought comes up, “Hey, we got stones. We can make bread from them because I am God’s chosen. Why not? Let’s do this.”
Instead, Jesus takes the high road. The road that some would say is impossibly high. Even though he’s starving to death and his body is clamoring for food, he says, “Obeying God is more important than eating. No thanks, I don’t need to do that.” “My food is to do the will of him who sent me.” I’m not sure how he would be disobeying God. Maybe because God hadn’t released him from the fast yet. Maybe because he shouldn’t be using God’s power for his own needs. I don’t know. But he took the high road and didn’t turn the stones into bread.
Then, Satan took Jesus to the top of the temple. Satan quoted the Bible saying that if Jesus jumped, then God’s angels would protect him and then he would float down. Then everyone would acclaim him as the proper ruler of Jerusalem. They would be happy to set aside the high priest and get rid of the Romans. Jesus wouldn’t have to face any persecution, no cross, no gruesome death.
Again, Jesus said, “No thanks. I don’t want to test God by putting him in that tight circumstance between keeping his promise or fulfilling my destiny.” He didn’t want to test God the way that Satan was testing him. Jesus refused to use his life as a character test for God. He took the high road, difficult for him, but easier for someone else. Thus Jesus proved who he was. He was a person of high character.
The Grand Inquisitor
In the Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a parable based on the temptations of Jesus. Jesus visits Spain during the inquisition and an Inquisitor recognizes Jesus and immediately arrests him and tortures him. He explains to Jesus that the Lord and Savior of the church was no longer needed. He said, “You refused bread, accepting only spiritual sustenance. But people are too weak for that. We have to give them bread or they will starve.” Then he spoke of Jesus’ refusal to jump off the temple. He said, “You refused to give the people a miracle, expecting them to have faith. We, the church, give them miracles every day. Frankly, Jesus, humanity is too weak for you. They cannot abide you. Go, and never return.”
I think the Inquisitor was wrong, however. It sounds like a compelling argument, certainly. But it is interesting to me that Jesus separated himself from his disciples. He not only recognized the weakness of humanity, but he accommodated it— at least at times.
The Accommodating Jesus
Jesus refused bread, accepting only God’s word. He fasted for 40 days. But in the Lord’s prayer, we are begging God to feed us every day. “Give us this day our daily bread.” So we wouldn’t miss a single day of bread, not miss a single day’s meal. Jesus commanded his disciples not to fast unless there was a good reason to fast. Don’t fast just for a ritual’s sake, but when there is true mourning.
Jesus said that God would provide our meals and we wouldn’t need to worry about our food at all. Just do God’s work and we won’t have to exchange it for our meal. Work for God and God will provide for us. Jesus understands our weakness about food. And he says that God will accommodate our weakness.
Jesus didn’t want to test God. He would rather harm himself rather than allow God to be put in a tricky position. Jesus would accept a test himself rather than test God. But that isn’t what he told his disciples. He told his disciples to pray, “Lead us not into the test.” We are tested all the time. But Jesus is asking for us that we not be tested. Jesus knows we are weak. In the time of his great test, Jesus says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” How we want to be spiritual giants. How we want to be the kind of person who would help, even if someone else doesn’t seem concerned. How we wish that we would do what is right, no matter what circumstances.
But Jesus knows us better. So we ask, “God, perhaps it is better not to test our faith at all. Perhaps we can just do the best we can, without the test, okay?”
The Greek word for “temptation” is pierasmos. We spoke before that words have a range of meaning. And pierasmos can mean a situation in which we are tested between what is good and what is evil, and we have to make a choice between them. But the broader translation of the word, the range of meaning, is actually “test.” A temptation is just one kind of test— between good and evil. That is kind of like a SAT. There is one right answer and you have to choose it. But a pierasmos— a test— can also mean something like a personality test. There doesn’t always have to be one right answer. Rather, it displays who we are, what kind of character we are.
Jesus went through his test, and there were certainly wrong answers before him. He could have refused to do what God wanted him to do. But in that context, generally, is it wrong to eat instead of fasting? No, Jesus says it is okay to eat. Is it wrong to avoid suffering? No, Jesus said to flee persecution when you can.
When I was just graduated from college, I convinced one of my Greek teachers to let me be his teacher’s aide. I wasn’t good enough at Greek for that, but he hired me anyway. The toughest class in the three year program I took was Syntax, where you analyzed each word to determine what kind of grammar it was. Not just identifying number or person, but one of the thirty different uses a word might have. The teacher gave me the key to the test and I sat down and graded all the students’ papers. And they were horrible. So many wrong answers. But I knew the teacher was an easy grader, so I figured he’d grade on a curve. But what he did was sat down and worked through all the tests again and said, “Oh, yeah, I can see why she put that. That’s not wrong. And that’s not really wrong either, I’ll give it to them.” And before my eyes, all these tests that were failures according to the narrow key I was given became passing grades. Because grammar isn’t so black and white as all that.
Even so, life is a test like that. We focus so hard on a key, and determine right or wrong based on a black and white determination. But I don’t think that life is actually an SAT where one answer is right and all the others are wrong. Rather, I think that life is more like a Meyers-Briggs test.
I wonder, just wonder. Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” And “Abraham saw my day and was glad.” I just wonder if after Abraham tried to obey God by killing his son, I wonder if Jesus might have had a conversation with Abraham. This is just speculation, mind you, but just imagine with me. Maybe Jesus said,
“Abe, you try so hard. You’re such a good guy, but you are just wrong-headed sometimes. Yep, we tested you. And I can’t say you failed. You didn’t fail, because there is no failing this test. You just showed me who you are. You are a person who will obey God no matter what. You will put all your effort in the faith that God would never present you in a contradictory position. I hate to tell you, Abe, but that’s exactly what this was. Your faith was compromised. Because you thought God’s command was more important than someone else’s life. I wish I could have more clearly told you which way to go. But then it wouldn’t have been a test, huh?
“I wonder if perhaps tests just aren’t for people. Abe, you’re one of the best people I know, but it didn’t take much for you to be ready to kill the person you love most in the world. Maybe we need to recognize that humanity is weak. They make wrong choices for the wrong reasons all the time. Maybe humanity should spend their time begging God never to put them in a position like you were in. People shouldn’t be tested like this. It’s too hard.”
So Jesus teaches us: Just ask God to test us through Meyers/Briggs, through the Enneagram, but not in tests of our faith, or tests that examine the rigor of our morality. Let’s ask him to help us to opt out of that particular SAT.
Love is Hard
At the beginning of this month, many of us participated in a discussion about love and situations that are really difficult for us to love another person. Like when people have done us wrong, or when people have judged us as bad people. It is hard to love. Sometimes it is almost impossible to love.
When we ask God to not lead us into temptation, we are asking, for one, that we not be put into a place where it is impossible for us to love. God’s will is to love, to love completely. But God knows our weakness, and how often we are in the position of the ninety- three percent, of those who are put in a situation in which we don’t love even when we should.
I wonder if this is why we should work in community. We love in different ways and have different abilities. I don’t have the capacity to do medical work— I don’t have the training for that. But others here do. So they should do the love of medicine, and I should not. On the other hand, I am more than happy approaching camps on the street and have training in that. Others don’t and some shouldn’t. So I should love in that way.
I have been tested to make medical decisions, but I pray that I would not, because I’m an idiot in that area. That is really what this prayer is all about “lead us not into temptation.” We pray that we would not be put in a position where we have to love when we can’t or are unable to. And the corollary to that, I believe would be asking God to send people to love who can do that act of love. Who have the capacity and the ability to love in the difficult situations of love that we cannot. Because sometimes we really shouldn’t.