18 Feb 2018
1st Sunday of Lent, Year B
In December (6,2017) Pope Francis suggested that a line in the Our Father should be retranslated, the line we read as: “Lead us not into temptation.” And, of course, that set off a storm of both praise and criticism. The Pope said, “I am the one who falls. It’s not [God] pushing me into temptation to then see how I have fallen. A father doesn’t do that, a father helps you to get up immediately. It’s Satan who leads us into temptation, that’s his department.”
And I think we’d all agree that God does not tempt us. Saint James says as much in his letter when he writes, “No one experiencing temptation should say, ‘I am being tempted by God’;
for God is not subject to temptation to evil, and he himself tempts no one.” God doesn’t push us over a cliff and then watch to see if we’re going to learn how to fly. He doesn’t entice us to watch us fall. Obviously, that’s not who our God is.
On a side note, if that were actually who our God is, then he wouldn’t be God. And it would be a waste of our time to worship him. Happily, though, that’s not who God is. God does not tempt us. Pope Francis is absolutely right about that.
And yet, we see in the gospel that the Holy Spirit “drove” Jesus into the desert. Jesus was anointed by the Spirit, sent by God the Father, in a lovely baptismal scene. But then Jesus was immediately driven out into a place of temptation, into the desert. Jesus wasn’t only “lead into temptation,” he was “thrown out” into it, right into the lion’s den to be tempted and tested. Satan did the actual tempting. But Jesus didn’t just wander into that place…he was put there on purpose.
And we see that same thing happen to many of God’s chosen ones. Take, Abraham, for example: put to the test by being told to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Or take Job: put to the test and tempted to resent and deny God because of all his misfortunes in life. Think about Peter: put to the test when Jesus was being arrested, tempted to deny having anything to do with Jesus.
God does not tempt us, as Pope Francis says. But God certainly puts us in situations where we’re probably going to be tempted and tested. And he doesn’t do it for kicks; he does it so that we can prove ourselves and our love for him; so we can be built up and made strong in faith, hope, and love. God is like a coach who loves his players, but who also pushes us, who makes us face our limitations so that we can overcome them. It’s one of the ways God loves us.
Of course, sometimes we wish that God would love us more in the other ways he does. You know, with compassion, gentleness, joy of heart, and so on. Even Jesus wished for that. At the Agony in the Garden when he was coming up against his ultimate test—the Cross—he prayed, “Father, let this cup pass from me.” In other words, “Father, I’d rather not do this, I’d rather not face the Cross, but let your Will be done.”
“Lead us not into temptation,” “do not put us to the test,” but still, may your Will be done God—because we know his Will has a good purpose. And that good purpose is: our being made holy, our becoming who we’re made to be, our flourishing as his sons and daughters. Pope Benedict XVI wrote that this is why Jesus had to be tempted; to answer the question, “What must the Savior of the world do or not do?” What does it mean to be the Savior? Temptation is ultimately a question about our identity, especially our identity in relation to God. Am I going to be a child of God, or not? Am I going to let God be God in this situation, or am I going to take over? Am I going to trust God, or am I going to live in fear? These are some of the questions we face when we’re tempted, and they all get down to a question of identity. Who am I?
You know, one of the joys of my own life is public speaking. I love getting up in front of a crowd of people, having hundreds of eyeballs staring at me. It’s wonderful! (Not really.) Actually, it’s probably the hardest thing for me to do. Give me tragedy and mayhem, I can handle it. But a crowd of people…. So you can imagine what a test it is to get up and preside at the Mass. I enjoy it; I love the Mass, but it can definitely be a time of temptation.
And the temptation is, as I mentioned, a question of identity. It’s very easy to feel judged when you have a bunch of people looking at you. But the question that comes with that situation is: am I going to be at peace being the child of God that I am, a child of a God who’s already judged me worthy of his love; or am I going to be a fearful slave to what others think, to how others judge? The temptation is to be fearful. The test is to be that peaceful child of God in that situation.
And this is a temptation that, I imagine, most of us can relate to on some level: the temptation to give more weight to what others think, and less weight to what God thinks. We do it in our relationships, in our friendships, in the parish, in politics, at work, at school…pretty much everywhere.
You have your peers, your teammates, classmates, friends, neighbors; you have your parents or other authority figures; you have God and Church; and somewhere in the mix you have yourself. Where does your allegiance lay? Are friends more important than personal integrity? Or does personal integrity win friends? Is getting along with everybody more important than being true to your faith? Or does faith influence how you get along with others? Am I a child of God, or am I a slave to what others think? Of course, most of us are probably a mix of the two.
When finances get tight, or life takes you on a strange path, the temptation is to worry too much, to despair. The test, though, is to keep our head screwed on right, to trust the providence of God, and to just go with it. When I was in college in Milwaukee it never failed: the last couple months of summer I’d be dead broke. I was like a kid getting all excited about finding a dime, or a quarter…”Alright, I can buy a loaf of bread this week!”
As Jesus says, “Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matt 6:26,33). I may have been scraping the bottom of the financial barrel there in college, but I made it; God got me through. I passed the test; I didn’t despair.
The Book of Wisdom tells us, “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living.” God does not tempt us. But he puts us in situations where we might be tempted. Like a good coach, a loving teacher he stretches and pushes us to mold us into who and what we’re made to be: sons and daughters of God. The temptation is to recoil back from that. The test is to stay true to God and to ourselves.
“Lead us not into temptation,” we pray, “but still…may your Will be done.” Make us instruments of your peace, instruments strong enough to be nailed to a cross.