First Sunday of Lent
This Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent, and our Gospel reading is Luke’s account of the temptation of Jesus in the desert (Luke 4:1-13). Luke tells us that the devil offers three temptations to Jesus. For me, these temptations all have something in common. They are temptations to control. The first temptation has to do with control of creation. The devil says to Jesus: "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread." Jesus, hungry from fasting, is tempted to make the stone something it’s not in order to satisfy His desires. Very often, we look at creation as something to satisfy our desires. We may not think in those terms, but it sure is easy to act in those terms. It can be easy to not think of how our everyday choices affect the environment. After all, we want what we want, when we want it.
The second temptation has to do with control of others. The devil shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and says,"I shall give to you all this power and glory…if you worship me." I always wonder how tempting this might have been to Jesus. To think He could make everyone do the right thing without suffering and death could have been very seductive. At least it would have been for me. Do we not find ourselves frustrated at how others, at home or at work or at school or in office (or at the parish) do not do things the way we think they should (which really means our way)? Too many times in human history have there been attempts of one group to dominate another. The desire to control others is where relationships, either between individuals or communities or nations, break down.
The third temptation has to do with control of God. Here the devil takes Jesus to the parapet of the temple, and says, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’" The devil is tempting Jesus to force His Father’s hand. This, too, is a great temptation for us, and the tragic thing is that it shouldn’t be. But we can have so much trouble trusting that God knows what we need that we feel that we have to try to manipulate God somehow into taking care of us, or answering our prayers. But that is the least thing we need to do! In our first reading from Deuteronomy (26:4-10) Moses tells the people to offer their first fruits to God. They are to acknowledge what God has done for them, saying among other things: "He brought us out of Egypt with his strong hand and outstretched arm, with terrifying power, with signs and wonders; and bringing us into this country, he gave us this land flowing with milk and honey." God has freed us from slavery to sin in Jesus Christ! True, we may not feel that we have arrived at the Promised Land, but that is not an indication that God has stopped loving us, or that we need to make sure God knows what we need. God knows what we need more than we do! He doesn’t always give us what we want, because what we want can be the worst thing for us.
We need not try so hard to control things. We are called to do what we can, with the gifts God has given us. But at the same time, trying to control abuses our relationships, with creation, with others, and with God. Instead, we can put our trust in God, and follow Jesus. Jesus did not tell us to "control one another," but to "love one another." I think the thing I admire most about Pope Benedict’s stepping down is that he showed humility and trust in God and let go of control.
When the temptations to control come upon us, we need to come to God and surrender to His will. As the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the desert, but then out of it again to begin His ministry, so will the Holy Spirit guide us. May we not try to build the kingdom according to our plans, but to seek the kingdom according to God’s.
Fr. Phil Paxton, C.P. is the director of St. Paul of the Cross Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.