I love Pope Benedict! I love his books on Jesus of Nazareth. It is in my reading of His first book in the series (from the baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration) that I have based this reflection on, and the quotes were taken from that book.
On the First Sunday of Lent we read in the Gospel of Luke of how Jesus was led into the desert for forty days to be tempted by the devil.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they were over he was hungry. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live on bread alone’.” Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant. The devil said to him, “I shall give to you all this power and glory; for it has been handed over to me and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if you worship me.” Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written: ‘You shall worship the Lord, you God, and him alone shall you serve.’” Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said 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 guard you’, and: ‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” When the devil had finished every temptation he departed from him for a time.” Luke 4:1-13
What is the central temptation here? Pope Benedict XVI states that it is the temptation to “push God aside as secondary, if not actually superfluous and annoying, in comparison with all the apparently far more urgent matters that fill our lives.”(pg. 28) We are tempted to see the realities of our world as more real than our relationship with God. And this puts all of our actions on a shaky foundation, disordering even out best intentions.
With this in mind I remember a time when I was driving home from church with my son Stephen and we ended up behind someone with the bumper sticker: Coexist. Nice, it sounds good and accepting…except in my opinion, it is one of the most disingenuous bumper stickers out there. It is a devilish trick indeed to appeal to our natural desire for unity, and to do it by making faith take a back seat to the goal of unity. The other bumper sticker on this young lady’s car proved my sense to be true. It said: “While you are at church, I am out doing good things.” So, in fact, Coexist is not some statement about being kind and accepting of different creeds, but a statement that religion, in general, and Christianity specifically, is just one big childish distraction that needs the “real world” grownups to admonish them to all play nice and get along so that good things can be done.
The feeling that faith in God is superfluous to serving mankind is a growing attitude. And even among practicing Christians the temptation to pull bits of Scripture out of the Bible and separate it from its source (GOD!) is strong. (And to be fair to Coexist, her philosophy becomes all the more acceptable because of this.) However, this undermines the strength of our faith and thus the strength of our compassion. If you think that keeping the lines about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked from the Bible is fine, but don’t care if we lose those passages about loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength, especially when loving God is equated with following His commands, you are not terribly far off from Coexist’s take that faith and worship undermine good works. Is this not the temptation to push aside faith and worship for more “real” concerns?
The reality is quite the opposite, as we see with Jesus in His temptations. When Jesus goes into the desert He does so in obedience to the Spirit, in a continuation of His baptism. He enters into a time of intensive prayer and fasting in which He seeks to draw His strength and His love from the Father. Now He enters into our temptations to push God away. These temptations to push God away crop up for a number of reasons; because we can’t fix everything, because we suffer and others also suffer, because we desire to be in control of our own destinies and be assured that all will be well. Jesus endures His temptation under great physical stress, He shares, in a way, our weaknesses. He is showing me that my only hope in resisting “the delusions of false philosophies” is to recognize that we do not live by bread alone, “but first and foremost by obedience to God’s word.” (pg. 34) An obedience that leads to the love of God abiding in me. “Whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him.” 1 Jn 2:5
I can imagine very good reasons for giving into the temptations that are presented to Jesus; taking care of bodily needs is good, having a just man in power is good, being able to have faith in the Lord’s protection is good. But in all these actions the devil is tempting Jesus (and me, every day in some way) to become my own god, to decide for myself what God would do, and to demand that He do it. The devil does not want me to submit my desires and actions to prayer and to the commandments first. He does not want me to grow trust in Him through times of suffering. He does not want me to learn to know the Lord, through prayer, though His living word and through obedience to His commands. He wants me to relativize His word, so it is abstract, distant and His commandments are malleable.
If we do not really take to heart what Christ is doing when He refuses to turn a stone into bread to feed what must have been a profound hunger, when He refuses to assume earthly political power, or when He refuses to put God to the test, we also are at risk for allowing the reality of God, and of His Son recede into the abstract. And with our faith simply an idea or a concept, we are susceptible to the tyranny of moral relativism, which saps our moral strength. And when we lose our moral strength the good that we seek to do becomes perverted into something that in the end is so much more harmful. This is where we become enslaved to “compassionate solutions” like abortion for unwanted pregnancies….because we do not have the moral fortitude to teach virtue. Because we do not have the enduring love of God in us to help us to suffer with and through these situations, which are often messy and painful all the way around.
We cannot love and serve or even coexist with others with the supernatural strength it takes in this world without the love of God in our hearts. And it is in prayerful listening and obeying God's commands that leads to a relationship with him which places His love in our hearts. When we can act with that foundation of love, we can truly serve the “urgent matters” that present themselves with true integrity and authentic compassion. It is not easy to resist the temptation to push God to the side, let us all pray for one another to keep God at the center of all that we do.
Peace and Grace of Christ to all!