Saturday, February 24, 2007

Temptation

This Sunday's readings include a Gospel reading that can be the subject of many ponderings. I'm not a trained theologian, so I'll leave the really deep thoughts to them. But what strikes me, reading over this account from the Gospel of St. Luke telling of Our Lord's temptation by the devil in the desert, is the order in which the temptations occur.

Usually, we speak of the sources of our temptations in this order: the world, the flesh, the devil. It almost seems as though they are ranked in order from least to greatest in this listing, and if that's the case, then we have more to fear from the devil we do know then from the one we'll elect to public office in a little less than two years.

But in this Gospel account, Jesus is offered the temptation to the flesh first of all. He doesn't fall for it, of course. But we do. Oh, do we ever. I speak as one who on occasion has convinced herself by the end of Lent that Pop-Tarts aren't really dessert.

It's easy to fall when tempted by the flesh. But this is also the easiest temptation to learn to overcome, and for which to seek forgiveness when we do fall. We know we're only human, and that we need help in overcoming the sins of the flesh, like gluttony or lust or drunkenness. We turn in shame away from these petty little sins, and seek our merciful Father, just as the Prodigal Son did.

Next in the Gospel, Satan presents the temptation to the world. That is, he promises Our Lord all the kingdoms of the earth, in exchange for a trifle called worship. Again, as we know, the Son of God refuses to fall. We aren't always this strong.

The world crowds in, even in the life of a serious Christian. We have a horror of standing apart, and sometimes we go along with things we really don't value to gain things we do: friendship, camraderie, understanding, and that sense of 'fitting in' which seems so desirable. I think this part of the Gospel reading shows us that all temptations to act according to the values of the world, in accordance with worldly desires, require us to turn our back on God and join leagues with the devil. We attend the second, non-Catholic wedding of a divorced Catholic friend; we fail to mention to our radical aunt that we disagree with her on the subject of female ordination; we laugh along with our co-workers at some anti-Catholic humor rather than mention the fact that we're Catholic.

It can be harder to seek forgiveness for going along with the world, in part because it can be hard to see when we may, in prudence, keep silent in the presence of the world, as Our Lord did when He faced Pilate. If our boss says something about the Democrat he wants to see in the White House, it may not be necessary to give him a twenty-minute lecture on why that candidate's position on abortion makes him unfit for the office of D.C. dogcatcher; on the other hand, attending a fundraiser for that candidate in the hopes of securing a promotion most likely crosses the line. If we sincerely seek to advance the only Kingdom that matters, though, we'll be able to distinguish between prudent silence and sinful cooperation; and if our policy is, when in doubt, ask my confessor, we'll find ourselves able to turn from the sins of the world as well.

It might seem like Our Lord was being tempted by the devil as well as the world in that last one, since the devil offers the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship. But the real temptation to the devil is seen in the final temptation. The devil takes Our Lord to the parapet of the Temple, and challenges Him to throw Himself down, since God will surely protect Him. Our Lord responds with a rebuke: "You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test." But we don't always rebuke the devil when the sin of pride, the devil's favorite sin, worms its way into our souls.

Pride is the chief of the devil's tools. Pride makes us sit in judgment on our fellow men from the lofty heights of our own arrogance. Pride makes us magnify the faults of others while excusing and minimizing our own; we are forever looking backward through the telescope of truth. Pride makes us think we know better, when we don't know at all. Pride makes us put ourselves at the center of everything, crowding out the One Who actually belongs there. We seek to make God serve us, instead of the other way around; and we become quite annoyed when He fails to get the message.

How do we overcome pride? How do we seek the will of God before our own fallible wills? How do we show others the charity we demand for ourselves, and accept with humility their judgments of us, however erroneous?

On our own, we can never do this. On our own, we fail. But our God Who refused to turn stones into bread to assuage His own hunger, turns our bread into His Body to nourish us in grace. He, Who was ministered to by angels after His forty days and His temptation, ministers to us Himself, during our forty days, during our endless temptations. He takes joy in the smallest of our victories over sin, and refuses to despair over our biggest failures. In His example and by His Divine help, we will conquer the devilish pride that seeks to tear us from our eternal home.

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