Tithing, Temptation, and Calling on the Name of the Lord. I usually don’t try to force together three obviously unrelated passages, but all scripture must be read in context of the whole and these just may have more to do with each other than a quick first read might indicate.
So, let’s begin with the Gospel and Temptation. Jesus has just been baptized. The Holy Spirit descended up on and filled him. The Holy Father has affectively patted Jesus on the shoulder and said, “You’ve done well, my son, I’m proud of you.”
Luke stops here to give you a long foot note that traces Jesus’ genealogy, not just back to King David, but back to Adam. Luke is telling us that Jesus is not just the Jewish Messiah; he is humanity’s second chance. This is what we were and are supposed to be like.
After his baptism, the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus, through the influence of the Holy Spirit felt compelled to begin his ministry by separating himself from society and by fasting for 40 days and nights. This is one of those numbers of significance that seems to indicate a long time, a time of purification, a time of completion. It rained on Noah for 40 days and nights. The Israelites were in the wilderness 40 years. Forty days without water and we would be dead. Forty days without food, and most of us would be in pretty bad shape. Unlike today, fasting was a common form of piety in Jesus’ day, but most of us do not know how to engage in a long fast without injuring ourselves. There are many meaningful ways in which we can fast today that does not put one’s health at risk and is not a meaningless exercise in false piety. Fasting from broccoli doesn’t count. Fasting from chocolate might, depending upon how much control chocolate has on your life. Fasting from television, fasting from Facebook, or any number of other things could also be meaningful if you use the time you had been spending on those activities for prayer or bible study. Fasting from television only to spend that time on Facebook instead serves no purpose.
It is while Jesus is doing what he is supposed to be doing that Satan comes to tempt him. Have you ever noticed that it is only after you committed to an outreach project, a Bible study, or a leadership position such as vestry that everything begins to fall apart and you are tempted to say this is too hard, I can’t do it.
Satan picked temptations specific to the ministry to which Jesus had been called. He starts with an easy one. Jesus will refer to himself as the bread of life. He will multiply bread to feed the hungry, but right now, Jesus is hungry. Satan tempts him to use the gifts God has given him for ministry for his own personal gain. Satan does the same thing to each of us. Now Jesus’ use of his gifts is a little clearer cut than ours may be. Most people are not called into full time ministry, but whether our gifts are music, art, business skills, carpentry or something else we should give a portion in thanksgiving for what God has given us. Here’s where our Old Testament lesson comes in. The Israelites were commanded to bring their first fruits, not their leftovers as an offering for God in remembrance of the salvation granted to their ancestors fulfilled in their own generation. We are called to remember all God has done for the generations before us which have allowed us the life we now live. I often hear complaints that the current generation feels entitled, but perhaps we have not taught them well. Perhaps they have no memory of the struggles of their ancestors which has made their life as comfortable as it is. Jesus responded to Satan, “Man does not live by bread alone.” Jesus calls us to remember that physical comfort is not all there is to life.
Next Satan takes Jesus up to a high place and showing him the towns and villages below offers him the opportunity to be Roman Emperor or greater. He offers to give him “all the kingdoms of the world.” Political power is a great temptation. One need only look at the daily news to see this. People are being killed or displaced by wars, violence, and political maneuvering at an alarming rate. Lord Acton, a 19th century author and politician observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” [i] I’m not sure I completely agree with him. I think truly great men or women are the ones who accomplished great things with a minimum of collateral damage, but it is very difficult and time after time we see that powerful people often commit great sins in the process. Moses calls the people to remember Abraham and his faith as an example of how we are to live. There are many scriptural references to people who wrestled with power, some better than others. In the book of Daniel we are given examples of everyday people quietly, but confidently standing up to oppressive leaders. Remember Daniel in the lion’s den and Meshack, Shadrack, and Abednego and the fiery furnace. They did so by refusing to abandon their faith and the traditions of their ancestors when tempted with power, luxury and riches if they would worship Nebuchadnezzar. They held fast even in the face of death. When are you tempted to abandon your faith? Jesus’ response and one we can say to ourselves and to others is, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.
Finally, Satan tempts Jesus to prove that God really loves him. He attempts to place that kernel of doubt in Jesus’ mind that perhaps God didn’t mean what he told Jesus at his baptism. Does God the Father really love you? He also tempts Jesus to reveal himself as the Messiah without going through the crucifixion. He takes him to the pinnacle of the temple and tells him to throw himself down and let the angels catch him. On the cross, one of the taunts made to Jesus was, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt. 27:40). How tempting it must have been for Jesus to end his suffering prematurely, but that would have defeated God’s purpose. We are often tempted with self-doubt concerning God’s love and mercy and a desire to side-step the difficulties of this life by calling on God to fix everything. There are two caricatures of the Christian life that are both false and dangerous. The first one is the prosperity Gospel that says if you do exactly what God commands of you, often including a generous donation to a specific ministry, God will bless you with health, wealth and happiness all the time. Jesus healed a lot of people, and we are called to pray for healing, but we are mortal, and we will all die sometime, someway. There is much we can do to improve our health, but sometimes people who do not take care of themselves live to be one hundred and people who do all the right things get sick and die young. There is a certain amount of risk in being born. God has promised to take care of our daily needs, but he also uses us to help take care of the needs of those less fortunate. Neither wealth nor poverty is an indicator of God’s opinion about someone. Happiness is something we have some control over. How we respond to any situation, good or bad can affect our outlook on life, but there are things that are not within our control that also impact our daily life. I recently read Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Tragedy is not limited to the wicked, but how we respond to that tragedy has an impact on ourselves and those around us. The other caricature of the Christian life is that Christians are always serious, don’t ever have any fun, and look down at others over the top of our Bible. Medieval Christians often sought suffering for the sake of suffering, and today too often people are told to submit to abuse because it is the Christian thing to do. Suffering is never a good thing. God can use our suffering to help us grow, but seeking or allowing unnecessary suffering is not what Christians are called to do. The true disciples of Christ find joy in a number of activities, including studying the Bible, but not to the exclusion of all else and not for the purpose of looking down at others. Jesus’s response to Satan was “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” You may recall Job sitting on the ash pile and God basically saying, “I am God and you are not.” Seek to follow God, but do not seek to manipulate God, that is what the pagans do.
Paul tells us to call upon God. We need only to confess that Jesus is Lord and “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” Moses reminds us religious education is our weapon against temptation and oppression. Temptations are out there. They are as many and varied as creation, but look to Jesus to help you through them.