Why was Jesus tempted in the wilderness? My adult Sunday school class wrestled with this question last week. Why did Jesus have to go to the wilderness ? Wasn’t he the Son of God? That’s what the devil was thinking too. In the dialogues of Matthew and Luke the devil says,
“IF you are the Son of God turn this stone into bread.” The devil was tempting Jesus to prove his identity.
Jesus didn’t fall for it and answered, “Man doesn’t live by bread alone.” Jesus was being bullied in the wilderness. The man was hungry from fasting, tired and worn out and the devil offered him a chance to solve his problem and be fed. If Jesus had turned the stone into bread, he would have proven his identity and satisfied his hunger. An easy fix—case closed. Jesus took the highroad by not performing at the devil’s bidding. It was the right thing to do. Later in his ministry he did not hesitate to have compassion on 5,000 hungry people on a hillside. After he blessed five loaves and two fish everyone had enough to eat with the leftover scraps filling 12 baskets. This, too, was the right thing to do.
The temptation story takes place right after Jesus is baptized. The heavens open up, the Spirit of God descends and a voice says, “This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Anyone would think after such a spectacular event it would be clear sailing from there. But, no. It turns out the same Spirit that glorified him led him into the wilderness to be tempted for 40 days. This just doesn’t seem right. It is a scriptural version of, “be careful what you pray for,” or the proverbial, “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Why must the Son of God be tortured even before his ministry begins?
Parker Palmer suggests the temptations are “portals through which Jesus must pass to gain access to the world of right action, the crucible in which he is refined so that he can undertake an active life” (From ‘The Active Life,’ page 101). Jesus’ ministry begins with testing. I think God provides portals similar to birth canals and the human process is messy and laborious. Tough times. Torturous times. We have all been there. The Sunday school class admitted not all temptations are bad, but our decisions and responses to life challenges are risky. We are not always sure which way God wants us to go. We can only hope we are doing the right thing and trust God is with us no matter what. Through right action we grow into the people God is calling us to be.
I have a friend who had prostrate surgery three years ago. Forty radiation treatments followed, which led to serious bladder bleeding. He’s cancer free, but living with the side effects of radiation. Now he is undergoing hyperbaric treatments five days a week. He still goes to work every day and sails with his wife on weekends. The pressure chamber which emulates being under the ocean promotes healing for internal wounds, as well as amputated limbs. It holds about 12 people. Chamber mates have conversations or read during their two hours of treatment together. Then the door opens and people are returned to their prosthetic limbs, wheel chairs,and care givers. My friend feels grateful to get in his car and drive to work. At any juncture he could have been tempted to quit and say, “no thanks.” This is a portal he’s chosen to go through to return to an active life. It’s the right thing to do.
Rev. Patricia Stout is president of the Delaware Ministerial Association and serves as part-time pastor at Iberia Presbyterian Church, Iberia, OH.