Sin. It’s an ugly word that we rarely want to confront…especially when it has to do with us. As a particularly religious term, some like to avoid it entirely. Talk about ethics, though, or matters of right and wrong, and a lot more people are on the same page. Mention hubris or flawed human nature and pretty much everyone else is with you.
Lapses in judgment, moral failures, humanitarian wrongs, and deep betrayals are all part of our shared human history. While we might not accept that we ourselves are necessarily caught up in “sin,” acknowledging this about the rest of the world is rather easier. Further, though we may not all agree what constitutes right or wrong, that there are such things is near universally acknowledged.
Knowing that sin–or whatever we call it–exists means that its corollary (temptation) must also be recognized. After all, each of us are faced with decision points at which we might consider the wrong choice or path. To hurt or heal. To love or hate. To sin or not.
None of us are immune to these moments–not even Christ Himself. In Matthew 4, He is thrice tempted by the Devil. Three times He is strongly encouraged to contravene the commands of God and go against the right He knew He had to do. As the ordeal progresses, he is tempted to do something that he feels he needs (bread). He is tempted to do something he can get away with (jumping from great heights knowing there are angels to protect him). He is tempted to do something in order to get what He might want (all the kingdoms of the world without having to go through that nasty crucifixion business).
While I’m probably reading more into this story than is intended, these three ideas: perceived need, entitlement, and desire form a nice troika in the psychology of temptation. At least in my life. I’ve been tempted–and sometimes failed–so many times. I know the pattern will continue to repeat. I don’t say this happily or proudly, but simply as a matter of fact. To live means to make decisions, and as long as our decisions can move in the wrong direction, we will face the temptation to do so. More specifically, I face the temptation to do so.
The fact that God Incarnate faced such temptations is comforting for many. It is for me. But then of course He never gave in. He never gave up. That isn’t my story. And the assumption is, of course, that after this episode in Matthew 4 he was never tempted again. How different this is than our lives, we say. But then I’m not sure this is the case. I think that Christ was continually tempted even after this period. If you had the potential of all the power in the universe and were facing the seemingly inevitable reality of your own public execution, wouldn’t you be?
For me, Matthew 4 is not so much about Jesus’ only three temptations, but perhaps just those at the beginning of his ministry. Though the text doesn’t specifically say that, it makes some sense. Because I am sorely tempted from time to time. Tempted to do what I shouldn’t. And I sometimes give in. The temptation won’t stop. Not for me, and not for any of us. Though God is there for us in the midst of our struggles and can help us in these places, Christ reminds us just a little later in the book of Matthew that temptation and sin are continual realities in our lives and consistent matters about which to pray. Why else would the Lord’s Prayer speak of daily bread, forgiveness of sins, and avoidance of temptation all in the same breath? A healthy reminder, surely…and a confirmation of sorts of one of Luther’s most famous maxims: that the Christian is simul justus et peccator (at the same time righteous and a sinner).