Balance Right Genesis 2:15-17;3:1-7 Matthew 4:1-11
There is a great deal of anxiety about the comments made by the Archbishop
in his lecture on Thursday about the law. I do not necessarily feel the
need to defend him whilst being loyal. But I do think we need to rise
above the angry complaints in the media and try to understand what Rowan
Williams was actually saying. Part of his leadership as archbishop is
to raise difficult questions. I believe, on an initial reading of his
lecture (which is available online), that he is asking a question about
balance. Bearing in mind that there are significant religious minorities
who are part of British society, like Moslems or orthodox Jews, how can
we frame the law in such a way that it avoids forcing a choice in loyalties?
How can we get the balance right between loyalty to the law of the land
and loyalty to your religion when there might be a clash, say in marriage
or personal morals? It is actually a question that some Christians have
had to ask themselves, too. We are being asked to face up to the reality
of our present society, and to be grown up in how we grapple with the
need to change in order that we may live peaceably, securely and with
proper freedom. We begin to do that by looking closely at the foundations
of religious law and the foundations of British law.
Our Bible readings today, whilst not giving us a direct answer to these
complex questions, can also be seen as a search for balance. Jesus was
driven, after his baptism, into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.
On one level it is a story about the way Jesus withstands temptation as
a preparation for his mission. But in order for it to mean something to
us, we need to work a little at interpreting it. I suggest that we may
look at it in terms of getting the balance right. Balance is not a bland
thing – in order for an aeroplane to take off, a careful balance
between air pressure either side of the wing enables flight. We all know
the importance of a balanced diet in nourishing our bodies properly.
Jesus prepared for his mission by working out the right balance in the
questions which would face him during his life and work over the three
short years that led to the cross. So let us look at each of the temptations
in more detail.
general comment about all the temptations: the devil uses something that
is rightly a part of human nature and tries to twist it to his own purposes.
The three things are appetite, affirmation and ambition. I may be forcing
it a little, but it helps us remember if all three begin with the same
Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness. In this Matthew
means us to recall Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness as they wandered
about, going without a home, in order to learn God’s will for them,
preparing to enter and settle in the Promised Land. But where so often
Israel failed in God’s plan for them Jesus succeeds. There may be
nothing wrong in offering a starving man something to eat. Like any other
human, Jesus had an appetite. But the point is that Jesus must end his
fast in his own way, at the right time, under his own control, rather
than giving in to the suggestion that he could use his miraculous powers
to satisfy his own craving. To give in to his appetite on this one occasion
would open him up to giving in every time his appetite cried out for satisfaction
during his ministry and when he hung on the cross at the end.
Jesus gave was a quotation from Scripture. We are dependent on physical
food, but we also need to feed our spiritual nature with the word of God.
In resisting the temptation Jesus maintains a right balance. So often
we starve the spiritual need for nourishment because we are so busy giving
in to the demands of the physical appetite – whether it is food,
intimacy or comfort. It was a balance that Eve and Adam forgot to maintain
as they saw how appealing the forbidden fruit was and forgot that there
was plenty of other food in the garden. If they were to maintain their
communion with God, walking with him every evening, they would need to
obey his command not to eat the fruit of that tree.
Every human needs affirmation or love. Jesus had just received his heavenly
Father’s affirmation at his baptism in the form of the words from
heaven: “You are my beloved son in whom I am well pleased!”
But the devil’s temptations take the form of questioning that affirmation
with three “ifs”: if you are the Son of God then do this or
that. Again, just at a weak point the devil comes to a man who has been
on his own for 6weeks, and offers him a way of gaining affirmation from
admiring crowds. Create a spectacle! Jump from a high place and land safely
because God will send his angels to protect you! After all, you are God’s
scriptural response is that God is not to be tested. If God has said something,
he means it, and it does not need to be tried out. Whilst Jesus needed
love just as much as any other human, and whilst affirmation would have
been part of his healthy development as a child and a young person, trying
to force popularity and adulation from the crowds was not necessary to
fulfil his mission. Whilst Jesus called people to accept him, he already
knew that his heavenly Father affirmed him. The need for human acceptance
was balanced by divine affirmation. If he gave in to the temptation to
make a spectacle to gain a following now, then every time a miracle was
called for during his ministry, he would never be sure of performing it
for the right reason.
A great deal of education in the modern world is about providing each
individual with the means to achieve their full potential, to so teach
a child that she or he may do what they are capable of, whether it be
less or more, physical skill or intellectual ability. Every person needs
to know that they can achieve something worthwhile, to make their life
fulfilling and meaningful. In some senses, there is nothing wrong with
ambition – the desire to do well and push the limits in order to
achieve your full potential. But again, the devil hits Jesus’ at
a weak point. Just as Jesus is wrestling with the way to fulfil his mission,
the devil offers him all the kingdoms of the world. In other words, the
devil offers Jesus power by acquiring the splendour of political rule.
In the days when the religion of a king or emperor determined the religion
of those he ruled, this will have made more sense than it does to us in
the modern world.
there is a cost involved: the devil wants the Son of God to hand over
allegiance to him: bow down and worship me and then I’ll give you
the power to achieve your mission on earth! It is as if the devil finally
blows it – he has tried too hard. Of course Jesus wants to achieve
his mission, to complete that for which his heavenly Father had sent him
into the world. But what the devil offers is only an illusion. Did the
devil really have all the kingdoms of the world to offer as his own? In
fact, did he really have the affirmation and the fulfilment of appetite
to offer in the previous two temptations? The devil is actually lost in
his own world of illusions – he lives in delusion, and that is all
he has to offer: illusions. His greatest delusion comes from his desire
to be God when he is not. He cannot accept his lesser state and therefore
he rebels and tries to persuade all others to rebel against who they are.
But Jesus knows who he is and accepts his role and mission. He keeps the
balance between achieving his mission and remaining in the worship and
service of God.
Keeping your balance is a lifelong challenge. (And for some that may be
literally true!) Today’s scriptures and our society calls us to
renew that search for balance. Without constant adjustment, we fail to
go forward or stay upright. As with the need for society to maintain its
balance between many competing interests, so also we need to maintain
our balance in those three aspects of being human: appetite, affirmation
and achievement. May the Spirit so help and guide us to be who we are:
fully human created by God!
© Rev Paul Smith