We are in Lent. Last Tuesday we ate, drank, and were merry. (Were we ever! The Cathedral’s Shrove Tuesday pancake supper was great fun, with a capacity crowd.) On Wednesday we remembered our mortality and our dependence upon God for all things, including the very fact of our existence. We imposed ashes and said, once again, that we are but dust. And now we are in the midst of the forty days. The duration of Lent mirrors the length of days that Jesus of Nazareth spent in the wilderness immediately following his baptism. While there, as Mark’s Gospel tells us today, Jesus was “tempted by Satan.”
Some classical images depict the temptation of Jesus as though tantalizing things are put before him, which he stiff-arms dramatically and without pause, all the while gazing forward in an angelic expression. Those depictions are, frankly, heretical. Whatever else we mean by the humanity of Jesus, we must mean that his temptation was real, and temptation is only real if it’s something with which we struggle, if it’s a path we consider taking—really consider taking—before, hopefully, choosing a better way.
In other words, Jesus considered—he had to have considered—what the Devil had to offer. Jesus struggled with that offer as we would struggle. And, it’s safe to assume that the Devil presented Jesus with the very things hardest for Jesus to resist. What were they?
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t tell us, which leaves the question open to our imaginations. Part of me prefers that. It allows me to think that Jesus may have been tempted by the very things against which you or I most often struggle in this life. If, for instance, our fevered temptations—the things that almost, and sometimes do, overcome us—are addiction, or crass materialism, or carnal things, or narcissism, or apathy toward the world around us, then maybe these were Jesus’ temptations, too. Maybe these were the things he was offered by the Devil and considered embracing during those forty days. Maybe he almost gave in. And if so, then Jesus’ perseverance and his solidarity with you and with me can make all the difference in our own struggles. In Mark’s telling, Jesus can become our fellow traveler against the temptations in our lives.
That’s the way Mark presents this story. The other two Gospels in which it appears, Matthew and Luke, fill in the gaps. There, Satan’s temptings are specific. He offers Jesus 1.) abundant bread, 2.) sovereignty, and 3.) preservation from pain and loss. Most importantly, the Devil offers these things now. Why is that crucial?
It is because, as we know, each of these promises already belongs to Jesus. Jesus will become abundant bread, the bread of life, in fact. Jesus will become sovereign over not only peoples and nations but over the very cosmos. And through resurrection, Jesus will be restored on the other side of all pain and loss. But each of these promises will be realized for Jesus only through the coming years on the road, years in which Jesus will be manhandled by crowds, castigated by his own family, betrayed and abandoned by his friends, stripped of his dignity, and crucified by those in power.
The Devil only offers Jesus what already belongs to Jesus. The difference is that the Devil offers it now, without Jesus first having to experience a life.
Author Philip Simmons, whose book Learning to Fall the Friday morning Men’s Group is reading, talks about life in rural New Hampshire, where at the time of writing Simmons and his wife, along with all their neighbors, own old clapboard farmhouses and indulge in the lifelong process of restoring them.[i] In every house, Simmons says, there’s always something—or many somethings—yet to be done. His house and the houses of all his neighbors are forever unfinished. There’s always some exposed wiring, or unpainted drywall, or plywood subfloor awaiting hardwood. When he pauses to consider this, Simmons says, “On our bad days, in our dark moments, we see in our unfinished houses the surest sign of calamity.”
What troubles Simmons and his neighbors is that the unfinished nature of their houses, their haphazard incompleteness, seems to reflect something about the state of their lives. Simmons says, “Fact is most of us make do, with our duct tape, and blue tarps, our patched and cobbled houses giving physical form to all that remains unfinished and imperfect in our own cramped and needful selves…Most of us most of the time, and all of us some of the time, live in houses that remind us of the many ways in which life has turned out to be not quite what we had in mind.”
Simmons is talking about four walls and a roof, but he’s also talking about psyches, about souls. And he’s not only speaking to himself and his neighbors. He’s speaking to us.
Simmons finds alluring the temptation to move into a finished house, to sell his ramshackle work in progress and purchase something complete, something shiny and new with multi-zone heating and well-caulked windows. And he really means that he is tempted by the notion of fast-forwarding somehow into a finished and tidy life, the promise of an instant wholeness. He says, “In the journey to the elsewhere of our fond imagining we wish ourselves far from here, far from the suffering of our lives, far from our unfinished houses and our unfinished selves.”
But Philip Simmons resists the temptation. He concludes that forced completeness before its time is, ultimately, a pretending. It is an empty promise. He says, “To be too settled in this life is…to die while still living, to live a sort of death-in-life. Only so far as we are unsettled is there any hope for us.”
In other words, there is no shortcut to finishing our house. There is no shortcut to wholeness, to finishing a life, to defining who and what we are in our souls and in relation to one another and to God.
This is the Gospel truth in the story of Jesus’ own temptation. Even for Jesus, the shortcut to wholeness was the Devil’s doing. Truly to realize the promises before him, Jesus had to decide first to live his life, to undertake and fully experience the labor, the disappointment, the pain, the loss, and the joy in order to become abundant bread for us, and the lord of our lives, and the hope of our resurrection. And only when he resolved these things, the Gospel tells us, angels attended him.
Philip Simmons was no armchair philosopher. He did not take his ease as he wrote words about work and struggle. He wrote as a forty year old man who was slowly but surely dying of Lou Gerhig’s Disease. He knew, immediately and for real, that for us common folk, too, it is in the living—in the labor, the sweat, the pain, the loss, the joy—that we build our lives. We live, this very day as we sit here, in unfinished houses. And Simmons knew that with each hammered nail, each temptation, each word of indictment or grace, we determine what kind of house we’re building. Simmons says, “Each day, I work to make my home among the people I find about me…[And] I do know that whatever communion with the Divine I may have when this life is done will surely be prepared for by my seeking always to dwell in the Divine as I find it here, in this life, in this very moment.”
We are in the forty days of Lent. There are temptations, and none so great as the temptation to bypass the unfinished life for the one that is instantly complete and whole, well put together and without blemish. There are plenty of tempters in our world, both secular and religious, who will peddle that false promise. But we, like the Jesus we follow, will only find ourselves and our God—we will only discover the fulfillment of God’s promises—in the living. And when we commit our hearts to this unfinished life, we may find that we are attended by angels.
[i] Simmons, Philip. Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, pp. 38-49.