Reflection 3/8: Temptation in the Wilderness
Dear Beloved Community of St. John’s,
Jesus’ time spent in the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil is often depicted as if it’s a “Defenders of the Universe” blockbuster movie, full of loud explosions and just-in-time rescues. As a child, I saw this story as being a place where a lot of tense shouting took place between Jesus and the devil. Today, I’m ever more convinced that the conflict took place within the mind of the Son of God alone. If we had been standing watching Jesus in the badlands of Israel, we would have seen and heard nothing. The temptation is about the interior journey of Jesus’ girding himself for what would be a long, shifting, painful, deathly ministry.
The truth is that most of us experience moments of existential wrangling with dark, even demonic, forces inside of us. At crucial times in our lives, there are instances when our lives could have gone up or down, good or bad, right or wrong—and it was up to us to make awesome decisions. Yet, the stakes of those decisions may not be revealed fully to us until later. Our hindsight is indeed clearer and wiser.
Jesus’ realization of his singular status and sacred vocation seems to have come to him more clearly after his baptism when he heard God’s voice identifying him as “God’s beloved.” Jesus’ journey into the wilderness was accompanied by these portentous words. Jesus may have had an uncertain inkling of his specialness before his baptism, but the riveting impact of his existential reality occurred to him fully only as he came up out of the waters of the Jordan river.
Jesus was then compelled to pursue what is sometimes called a “vision quest” of fasting, deep meditation, emotional sifting, and abject solitude for almost six weeks. During that time, his mind was alive with visions, possibilities, opportunities, dangers, eventualities, roadblocks, and incipient miracles. He came to understand with clarity his vocation, power, and the horrific outcome that awaited him. God was not insistent; rather, God let Jesus do the choosing. By the time Jesus re-entered society to begin his ministry, Jesus’ chosen path had been determined by his own assent.
The “temptation” Jesus faced is the one we all face, over and over in our lives. That temptation is to say “no” to God. Indeed, wrestling with our demons are the most fearsome experiences we have in life. Jesus’ teaching is that we can make the right choices.