by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
March 5, 2006
Scriptures: 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1:9-15
“And immediately the Spirit led him out into the wilderness. And he was in the desert forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the angels served him.” –Mark 1:12-13
In a Victoria Roberts cartoon in the latest New Yorker one of those marvelously complacent characters that the magazine likes to satirize, tells his female companion in a trendy coffee shop, “I’ve tried a lot of life strategies, and being completely self-serving works best for me.” To which I say, “Many a true word is spoken in jest,” and thus we come quickly to the topic of temptation.
Our faith holds that complete self-serving is the essence of sin and accordingly, that all temptation is in the end an enticement to self-absorption, or, in more biblical idiom, a temptation to idolize myself. Sin, as distinct from its multiple symptoms called sins, is the deep orientation of life and will in service of the self and its ambitions instead of God and His will. It is a struggle of wills between the creature and the creator, which the creature is bound to lose.
We shall see today what we might learn of sin and temptation from the Son of God as he sits alone with Satan and the wild beasts, forty-days in the desert, supported by the angels.
However, before we turn to the narrative, sparse as it is, let us consider some salient aspects of the phenomenon of sin and temptation. I treat them as one phenomenon not two, because they are two sides of the same coin, the coin of the disordered will. The phenomenon is essentially something we call “will,” and will can be ordered, when it has God and His purposes for its desire or disordered, when it desires only itself and the self’s own goals. Will is the decision-making aspect of our being, the ability to set our priorities, to choose where to go and what to do, a capacity of freedom. Sin is the bad decision to go always and only to myself, to worship and serve my own godhead, and temptation is the pressure to make that bad decision rather than the good one, to turn the will towards God and the divine purpose, which is the natural law of our being.
In traditional moral theology the will is called “libido,” which may also be translated “desire,” and the three salient manifestations of disordered will or desire, are domination, fornication and accumulation – power, sex and money. It is significant that in France in the 18th century “libido” was changed to “interest;” we no longer had lusts and desires but only interests. How much more civilized! Thus began the journey away from the Christian notion that power, sex and money were temptations to sin that could maim the immortal soul and send it to hell, towards our current moral position where power is good and necessary, sex is healthy and should be untrammeled, and money is the goal and grease of life rather than the root of evil. Greed is good, sex is fun, and power is the stuff of a happy life. Genghis Khan’s prescription for happiness was to “kill their sons, rape their daughters, and ride their horses, in the order of ascending priority. A recent bestseller extolled the Genghis Khan strategy in business.
I do not argue that the traditional Christian ethic is beyond criticism. Powerlessness is clearly a vice, as the women’s movement has taught us; sexual Puritanism is an unhappy and unnecessary burden, as that same movement has shown; and poverty is a misfortune rather than a blessing, as common sense knows. Humility, chastity and poverty are good aspirations for monks and nuns but not for Christians in the world, unless the terms are interpreted for the different context. We should agree, I think, that these traditional virtues can be revised and reapplied by us who live not in monasteries but in a world that is complex, challenging and marvelous. Is there anything to guide that reinterpretation other than the circumstances themselves?
The lesson for today will guide us and give us the principle and the assurance we need to revise and reapply the traditional moral theology. We shall see another case of how the radicalism of the Gospel in its scriptural form purifies and clarifies culturally molded Christian custom. Poverty, chastity and obedience are the fruit of medieval culture, to which the Scripture has something critical and liberating to say.
Jesus has just come from his baptism and the Spirit hustles him out into the wilderness. He has just received the call of God to take up the work that God has for him to do, nothing less than the revelation of the divine love in the Cross and Resurrection for the liberation of the world from the power of sin. The language is clear; the Spirit hurries him away before he can talk to anyone. Catholic legend holds that he stopped on the way to tell his mother where he was going, like any good child, and when he would be back, and less facetiously, to get her blessing. In any case we find him alone with Satan.
So at last we have the answer to the question where temptation comes from; it comes from Satan. You must surely have asked how it comes about that there is this powerful force that uses our imagination to lure our desire away from God and towards the self. Why is it that we find power, sex and money so much more compelling than obedience to God, respect for the gift of sexuality, and constraint on the impulses of greed? The Bible calls it Satan, which is a manifestly symbolic representation of something else. What is the something else? It is the cultural accumulation of the results of rivalry and competition among human beings, the unhealthy atmosphere in which we live spiritually. Why do we desire what the other person desires? Because we are made that way, created always to learn from the other what is desirable and thus always to be in competition with the other, not just for the object but also for the pre-eminence. We want not only to have something but we want to have more of it than anyone else. That is, we desire not only to accumulate and fornicate but most of all to dominate.
Satan is the symbol of this interpersonal, sociological dynamic, the face of competitive desire, the energy of the self asserting itself to the nth degree, the will to power over the other, the alter Iago. So Satan is not someone out there, but rather a side of the self-in-community, a dark side.
In the Persian Empire the great king sent inspectors incognito to check up on the governors, called Satraps, of his far-flung provinces. The Satan would engage the Satraps in clever conversation trying to trip him up and trick him into revealing his wrongdoing, or tempt him into wrongdoing de novo. The Satan tested the integrity of the Satraps. When they returned from their Babylonian exile the Jews brought back the figure of the Satan with them and gave him a place with God in heaven. Now he is the God-approved tester of integrity, as the Book of Job tells us. By the time of the NT the figure of the Satan had taken on a shade of hostility to God, although he had not lost his identity as the tester of integrity.
Alone in the desert with the wild animals Satan tests Jesus’ integrity. Jesus faces the probing questions that search his motives and ambitions. They arise from within, as they would for anyone facing a stupendous challenge. Am I doing this for my own glory? Do I want really to rule the world? And fresh from his commissioning in baptism, Jesus must be asking, “Am I really the Son of God, the Beloved? And what does that mean for the way I should act? We know from the narrative of Jesus in Gethsemane that these temptations were with him all his life. Satan symbolizes their provenance in the humanity of the Son of God, “who was in all ways tempted as we are and yet without sin” (Hebrews : ). In Gethsemane the final answer is given, “Thy will not my will be done.”
This utter resignation to the divine will, this “love of the will of God,” is the heart and secret soul of Christian living. Returning to my criticism of the medieval virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience, I ask now, “How shall we reinterpret them for our time and place?” Each one of us must do that work for himself and herself, and the guiding principle and power must be this love of the will of God that Jesus showed in the desert and in Gethsemane and on the Cross.
This love of the will of God, (amor voluntatis Dei”, is the heart of our integrity, the guide that keeps us focused and fervent to do God’s will not our own, at all times and in all circumstances. This is what Jesus revealed to us during the 40 days in the wilderness face to face with the tempter. We must work out the morality of our actions in the contexts of our lives, but we must always refer those lives-in-context to the will of God, choosing in all circumstances to love God before ourselves
Thus we begin our Lenten observance once again by facing Satan again as he rises from within us to challenge our integrity, trying to trick us into disloyalty, to test us and try us, to tempt us. But we watch with Jesus, and so the angels that sustained him sustain us, and his love of the divine will inspires us to love too the perfection of the divine love.