The Temptations’ Greatest Hits
First Week of Lent 2023
On the first Sunday of Lent, we hear the story of how Jesus was tempted by the devil after his 40 days and 40 nights of fasting in the wilderness.
Remember Flip Wilson, the Black stand-up comic who had a sketch comedy TV show TV in the 1960’s and 70’s? The show included a recurring character named Geraldine Jones, played by Flip Wilson himself, in drag, wearing designer psychedelic mini dresses, high heels, and a bouffant flip wig. Geraldine had attitude that just wouldn’t quit (not to mention her legs!) and she was so famous that some of her best one-liners became part of American culture—including her most famous catch phrase: “The devil made me do it!”
Turns out, Geraldine was a pretty good theologian. When it comes to temptation, the bible agrees with Geraldine—the devil is usually the one behind it. In fact, one of the biblical words for “devil” can be translated “tempter.”
When you hear people talking about “temptation” or “being tempted” it’s usually when the dessert cart comes rolling by in a restaurant or when those same folks are telling their Weight Watchers meeting about some delicious food they managed to resist eating last week. In fact, on Amazon right now, you can actually buy a Keto diet journal for men with the title, “Lead me not into temptation—except tacos, that’s still cool.” Amazon also offers a t-shirt, sweatshirt and (oddly) a dish towel (?) that read, “Lead me not into temptation. Oh, who am I kidding? Follow me, I know a shortcut.”
Great writers have made some memorable quips about temptation, too. Rita Mae Brown wrote, “Lead me not into temptation—I can find the way myself.” And Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist anything except temptation.”
Biblical writers, on the other hand, don’t make jokes about temptation—and biblical stories about temptation are never about something as frivolous as an ice cream sundae or a cigarette smoked in secret.
But whether it’s food or fornication, if Geraldine is right and it’s “the devil” who makes us do it, who tempts us—why on earth did Jesus, who himself was tempted by the devil in the desert, teach us that when we pray we should ask God not to lead us into temptation? God?! Is it God who tempts us? I, for one, hope not! Right now, I’m rooting for Geraldine’s philosophy over Jesus’—I’d rather it be the devil who’s up to no good, than God cooking up tests and tribulations to try our souls.
Apparently, I’m in good company. Pope Francis himself has worked to change the official Vatican translation of the Lord’s prayer to “Do not let us fall into temptation.” He got at least one vote of confidence from a parish priest in Paris who said the old version of the Lord’s Prayer “makes some people think God throws banana peels in front of us to see if we will slip and fall, but that is absolutely not the biblical view of God.”
I won’t bore you with all the scholarly arguments about how this phrase should be translated—if I did, you’d probably start praying “lead us not into translation!” All you need to know is that after the phrase goes from Aramaic to Greek to English—in the end, the most accurate literal translation actually is “lead us not into temptation.”
So… is it the devil who tempts us, like Geraldine and the Pope say it is, or is it God, like Jesus seems to be saying? Let’s go to the videotape, shall we?
The gospels tell us that Jesus experienced temptation immediately after he was baptized by John, when the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness “to be tempted.” The Holy Spirit, aka God, aka the One who had just said, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased”—that’s who led him! But once God led Jesus out there into the desert, who actually did the tempting? The devil, says Matthew (and Mark and Luke, too).
I suppose it makes sense, then, that Jesus’ signature prayer includes, “lead us not into temptation” since that’s precisely what God did to him and it wasn’t something he’d wish on anyone, to play that kind of game of chicken with the devil himself, and on an empty stomach, no less!
What a showdown it was: “If you are the Son of God,” the tempter says again and again to Jesus, “IF you are, then turn these stones to bread, jump from this tower, take control over this whole land before you. IF you are who you say you are.” Rather than take the dare, Jesus speaks the truth: “I don’t just live by bread, but by God’s Word. I won’t put God to the test. Get out of my face because I will only worship and serve the Lord.” Game, set and match, Jesus.
But we’re not Jesus (to state the obvious). And we couldn’t possibly do as well as he did if confronted by that wily tempter. So why, on earth, would God ever lead us into temptation?
The fact is, as Rita Mae Brown put it, we don’t need God (or anyone else) to lead us into temptation—we already know the way. As that weird dish towel points out, we even know a shortcut. That’s because temptation is simply a fact of life, it is the reality of our human existence. We can’t avoid temptation; it’s not an exception to God’s world—it is inherent within it. Which is one of the reasons God led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted—so that he could be fully human, knowing firsthand that all-too-human experience.
It’s no coincidence Jesus’ temptation came immediately after his baptism, immediately after the moment when God confirmed to him and to the world who and whose he was. After Jesus’ baptism, the temptations he encounters are aimed at making him question that identity. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber explains it this way:
Identity. It’s always God’s first move. Before we do anything wrong and before we do anything right, God has named and claimed us as God’s own. But almost immediately other things try to tell us who we are, to whom we belong: capitalism, the weight-loss industrial complex, our parents, kids at school—they all have a go at telling us who we are. But only God can do that. Everything else is temptation. Maybe demons are defined as anything other than God that tries to tell us who we are… if God’s first move is to give us our identity, then the devil’s first move is to throw that identity into question. [from Pastrix, Jericho Books, 2013]
Just like Jesus, when we affirm that we belong to God, we accept a calling to live by a set of principles that go beyond the satisfaction of our own needs and we open the door to temptation. We inevitably face a host of choices that will be hard to make, temptations, forks in the road, that require us to choose which values and principles will govern our lives. Each of those choices either leads us toward the person God calls us to become—or farther away from it.
The greatest temptation we will ever face is the very same one Jesus faced: to believe that we are the ones with the answers, that we decide what matters, that we are the ones in control. Author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor sums it up this way: “We tend to think that these scriptures are all about the temptation not to be a good human being. But what they are really about is the temptation not to be a human being at all.” What Jesus was (and we are) tempted by is the chance to stop trusting God and start playing God.
Of course, the only person to ever resist temptation 100% was Jesus. The rest of us? We fail early and often. But even when we do, God never fails us. God doesn’t use those temptations as a test in order to have an excuse to abandon us. God remains faithful even when we stumble down those familiar shortcuts to temptation. Temptations aren’t tests we have to pass to earn God’s love or win a place in heaven when we die. They are nothing more than opportunities to practice, over and over, remembering our own identity as beloved children of a merciful God, and then living like we believe it.
So, Geraldine… it turns out the devil didn’t make you do anything. The devil can tempt you, but you still get to choose. Sometimes you will choose well and resist the temptation to forget who and whose you are. Sometimes you will fail. The amazing good news is that when you do fail (and you will, we all will), God has the grace not to expect us to be perfect, and God forgives and loves us, delivering us from evil, for God’s is the kin-dom and the power and the glory forever.
A prayer for the first week of Lent…
Gracious God, Lead us. Lead us into the 40 days and 40 nights of Lent’s wilderness. Don’t let us fall into temptation but draw us ever closer to You with every choice and decision we make, as we remember and give thanks for who and whose we are. Amen.