Tempt Me. Please. (Luke 4:1-13)

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Lectionary This Week: February 14

In Luke 4:1-13, we find Jesus in the wilderness — vulnerable, alone and tempted. It’s a familiar passage and one that feels appropriate for the first week of Lent. But when you set aside what you think you know about the passage and look at it with fresh eyes, temptation stops feeling like a cage match between good and evil, and starts feeling like a doorway to new things.

The Passage: Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

Tempt Me. Please.

From the time we were old enough to walk, we’ve been taught that temptation is something to be avoided. If we couldn’t resist the cookie jar, mom just put it on a shelf we were too short to reach. Problem solved, right?

Not exactly. Because that’s how some of us continued to deal with temptation when the stakes got more serious than pre-dinner pastries. Rather than confronting our temptations head on, we constructed our lives (sometimes in elaborate and irrational ways) to avoid temptation altogether.

In theory, it’s a great plan. But in practice? Not so much.

When we refuse to confront our temptations, we stifle our spiritual growth.

In fact, the refusal to face temptation often results in false morality, hypocrisy and a failure to take responsibility for our own shortcomings.

Take the early church, for example. In the third century, the desert fathers forbade women from entering their presence as a way to avoid sexual temptation. The result was that it reinforced a thread of misogyny and sexism that has permeated the fabric of Christianity for more than 1,700 years.

In this week’s gospel reading, Jesus goes to the wilderness not to escape temptation, but to confront it. Instead of avoiding temptation, Jesus shows us that temptation can be an opportunity to make an active choice.

Jesus shows us that temptation transforms us by forcing us to make a positive affirmation of the beliefs and commitments that define our identities, our values and our lives.

It’s important to recognize that prayer and contemplation lay the groundwork for this transformational view of temptation. Forty days in the desert. Full of the Holy Spirit. Luke 4:1-13 makes it clear that no small amount of contemplative activity went into preparing Jesus for his spiritual encounter with temptation.

But what the passage doesn’t mention is the payoff. In the next two verses (Luke 4:14-15), we see the launch of Jesus’ earthly ministry. In just two sentences, Jesus goes from temptation to teaching.

The lesson? You can’t escape temptation and that’s okay because temptation can be a good thing. By mustering the courage to face your temptations, you lay the groundwork for spiritual transformation through the positive affirmation of your identity and values — a spiritual transformation that prepares you for whatever comes next.