It is not my intention to advertise it, but Addy and I obtain some of our fruit and vegetables from a delivery service called “the Great Temptation”. With that name they probably wanted to express that their merchandise is of high quality and therefore irresistible. This is just one of many examples of temptation and seductiveness being regarded as something good by our society. In fact, marketing experts spend all day thinking of ways to entice people to spend their hard-earned money on that one article, even if you don’t really need it or can’t afford it. Thousands of shop windows extend their tentacles into our living rooms and we even carry them with us on our mobile phones.
Those in power have also discovered that temptation works when it comes to creating support for new interventions and revolutions that they, in their wisdom, consider beneficial. But is it allways so innocent? Doesn’t temptation quickly become deception, when clever use is made of our own vanity, laziness or, on the contrary, the urge to act, our insecurity or hopelessness? And how can we arm ourselves against that which not only comes from the outside, but which we also maintain from within if we go along with it impulsively and uncritically?
In the Gospel, as in the story of Job, God allowed a man to be tested. Because that’s how you can also view temptation. It is often a scenario that helps us better to know ourselves and others. Unless, of course, your motto is “temptations exists to give in to”. In any case, the moral of the story is that we should come to see that much of what is attractive at first sight or seems to offer a solution to something, is not really helping us, but harms ourselves or others.
Often you can only conclude that something was a test, with hindsight. So if the text says that the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted, that may not have been the main purpose. I think Jesus went primarily to pray, meditate and fast. But if you do something like this properly, some big questions will often arise. Then such a fasting period asks us to make weigh things. Who are we going to put our trust in, how are we going to contribute to a better world? What pitfalls are there?
Everything revolves around me
If you look at the things with which the devil tries to ensnare Jesus, they are remarkably often related to what we as individuals think we need. Do I have enough to eat? Am I safe enough, even if I seek danger, by wanting to jump off the roof of the temple, so to speak? And finally: do I have enough power, possessions or prestige? The devil is almost never really concerned with the actual interests of society as a whole.
Jesus turns it around. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Then everyone will benefit. Everything you need follows from that. To proclaim that message was much more important to Jesus than a few pieces of bread for himself at that moment. Mind you, this was not a matter of “the spiritual is more important than the material”. For Jesus, overcoming short-term interests was a precondition for both the physical as well as spiritual well-being of the population. So when we now hear how much money speculators have cashed in, abusing (and causing) the high prices of grain and gas, it may well make us sad. It means the word of God was disregarded. Human lives have been despised once more. But that is precisely why God’s kingdom and his righteousness must be our priority.
A competition in obedience
The second thing the devil can use to blackmail us is our need for admiration, for the spectacular, and for security at the same time. How sometimes we don’t show off our achievements. And once we’ve been promised protection, we don’t think twice. My parents used to ask us as children: “If someone jumps into the ditch, will you do it too?” Well, we are capable of it. Sometimes we see no danger when it is there, and see danger when it is not there. And by letting others choose for us, we also tempt God, says Jesus. God is not the one who needs to be tested in this way, it is us. And that’s why Jesus didn’t jump off the roof of the temple, even though that would have been quite spectacular.
Allow me to expand a little on this subject of one’s own choice. Nowadays, more and more decisions are made automatically, by algorithms, also known as artificial intelligence. More and more decisions are also being made on the basis of incomplete computer models. Much cheaper and faster than real research, but also with high risks. In recent years, several thinkers have called these algorithms our new gods! Many of them approve of this swap. In fact, according to some, we would have no choice but to obey these new gods. Because they are said know us better than we know ourselves.
So people are trying to outdo god. After all, the Bible says “Thou only knowest the heart of all the children of men” (1 Kings 8:39). And even if computers would know all our preferences, that doesn’t mean we should be guided by them. After all, our preferences can also, precisely because of all the temptations, be aimed at completely wrong things. Unfortunately, such thinkers do have a major influence on the organization of our society and on our investments.
Now I am the last to reject all kinds of inventions in advance. I also enjoy playing with ChatGPT. But if it is said that we actually have no choice, all alarm bells should go off. Because God has given us free will. We have not always used it well, but Christ has set us free again. In Galatians 5 we read that we should not have another yoke of slavery imposed on us. But that is what we are in danger of doing if we follow a creation of our own hands. The Bible is clear about it and calls it idolatry. Fortunately, Christ saw through the devil’s suggestions, all of which were distortions of God’s word, and did not follow them.
Repair or replace
The third temptation was perhaps the most difficult one. Jesus had come to establish the kingdom of God. And wasn’t that exactly what the devil offered him? How could Jesus refuse this? And so also the governments and counselors in our time regularly present us with all sorts of solutions that do not bring real peace, do not really fight poverty and do not really allow people to flourish, as they could in principle. And all this often without much input from those involved.
Then it came down to principles and it still does. Most people consider themselves to have enough principles. But it’s also about priorities. For example, if you want to save the earth by making food unaffordable, something is going wrong somewhere. The same if you want to bring peace using escalation, or connection using an attitude of moral superiority. It’s not going to work. Or, as the Bible puts it, you cannot serve two masters.
Supposing Christ had allowed himself to be bribed with existing kingdoms, steeped in evil, he would not have had to worship the devil once, but would have had to make concessions all the time. If He had not used His freedom to refuse this, no one in His kingdom would have been free either. The most crucial part of Jesus’ answer, therefore, was “Worship the Lord your God, and Him alone shall you serve,” that is, “do not be subject to anyone else. Take your own responsibility and take His wisdom to heart. He has no other agenda than love, love both for you and for your neighbor”.
Refrain from coercion as a basis
And after he had thus corrected Satan, the angels came to Jesus to minister to him, after all. The angels who had not been compelled to come to his aid at the second temptation now came voluntarily. Again we see the importance of freedom. Here we see the kingdom of God in miniature. This is how it can be between people, also, if we do not allow ourselves to be tempted by all kinds of artificial incentives, false promises and caricatures of supposed enemies.
This was only the beginning of Christ’s ministry on earth, but it was a necessary preparation for other trials that were to follow. We, too, I fear, are facing a difficult few years ahead. For that reason is important for us, as well, to choose clearly who we are going to follow. Christ may be our great example in this respect. And if we do not immediately see through all the wiles of the evil one, all is still not lost. As long as we keep putting our trust exclusively in the Son of God, He who conquered with love even the last enemy, which is death. Amen.
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