Temptation, Good & Evil: The Desert and the Shire

  Deacon Rick Bauer

Gospel Luke 4: 1-13

Filled with the holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan and
was led by the Spirit into the desert 
for forty days, to be tempted
by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and when they
were over he was hungry.

  The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this
stone to become bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One
does not live by bread alone.’”
  Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the
world in a single instant. The devil said to him, “I shall give to
you all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to
me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if
you worship me.”

    8 Jesus said to him in reply, “It is written:

You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve.’”
   Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet
of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw
yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you,
to guard you,’

With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”
Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the
Lord, your God, to the test.’”
   When the devil had finished every temptation, he departed
from him for a time.

Jesus' going into the desert is in many ways the perfect picture for us to prepare for the Lenten season. The desert is sparse, needs are primal, there is no excess baggage. The brutal heat and barren landscape have been the solace of many of the church’s greatest saints and theologians. The Desert Fathers, they were called, for they preserved the church from the mixed blessing of the legitimization of Christianity by the Roman Empire. While the persecution and martyrdom of the first three centuries was not an endearing way to begin the Christian religion, it turned out that having the government recognize the church was not always the best thing, either. The temptation to use earthly power for divine ends was powerful; the desert experience of these men and women constantly called the church back to here piety, to her purity, and to her real source of power.

Jesus' temptation in the desert teaches us what sin is disobeying God and refusing to embrace his will because we don't trust him. In many ways, this encounter shows us the heart of the nature of sin and temptation. At the beginning of Lent, we need to rediscover our sense of fallenness, so we can appreciate the power and strength—and most of all forgiveness—that Christ offers us. Christ comes—as John the Baptist, the forerunner did—with the challenge that begins with “Repent and believe the gospel.” Our world today says, is a self-affirmation of the innate power to do good, that if we just try a little better, that if we each cooperate a little bit more, and if Washington DC could just get the law and the policy right—it’s going to be OK. Jesus says repent and trust, our slogans are all pretty much a form of “Be all you can be.”

Each of the devil's temptations tries to get Jesus to stop trusting his Father and so veer off the path of his Father's will.

Lack of trust is the first great sin. It leads to pride and rebellion and fear. Of this we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):

397 Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness

1707 “Man, enticed by the Evil One, abused his freedom at the very beginning of history.” He succumbed to temptation and did what was evil. He still desires the good, but his nature bears the wound of original sin. He is now inclined to evil and subject to error.

Gaudium et Spes, that powerful document from Vatican II, says “Man is divided in himself. As a result, the whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness.”

We have lost the sense of magnificence and awe in this battle between the Tempter and Jesus. We have become so inured by the Tempter’s wiles that they do not even pull against us. Good versus evil—for some it seems so quaint. We often need to look at things differently to see just how brutal living for self and for sin can be. So thought a young man, deployed overseas in one of the bigger wars of the 20th century. And so in his letters home to his son, he created a world where good and evil were given free rein, and the characters were challenged to live by these codes. And those letters of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien described a world we simply know now as “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. We see that great conflict between good and evil in this world, strangely more clearly than in our own, and perhaps that’s why it arrests the imagination of countless millions—it is as if we were born to understand it and appreciate it and to live it in our own lives. The conflict between the good and evil—often portrayed as an overpowering and overwhelming force that is unstoppable until it brings death to all—is the same dramatic conflict we see in the desert wilderness between Christ and the Tempter. 

The Ring, the one Ring that is at the heart of the story, at once symbolizes and personifies Evil, presents all those who are confronted with it with the essential ingredients of Temptation and Fall. It is a primal reality, in the story, in the wilderness we read about this morning, and in our own lives, if we are awake and aware to the conflict. The Ring tempts, subverts and finally, if taken, dominates the individual in the same way as Sauron wishes to dominate and control the world. Promising power and liberation, and the lure of “one ring to rule them all”, the Ring paradoxically removes choice and conquers free will. It is always the nature of Good to allow this to happen, for at all times Good permits the free person to elect whether or not to follow the Good or Evil path, and in this way Good relies upon the inherent goodness that exists within an individual to make the correct choice. We ask, “how could God allow this senseless slaughter of innocent children in Connecticut to happen? It is the design of this world that humanity, as free moral agents, are in play with a world and with each other—some for unspeakable evil, others—often unknown and unsung—for the cause of good. Likely as not, most are unaware of the struggle. Most are comfortably numb. For many of us hobbits, we are simply going about our lives, cleaning our homes and enjoying the blessings of this wonderful creation, oblivious to the larger picture of life.

But for some, they are brought into this conflict by contact with the one Ring of Power. The Ring is a source of temptation.

First,It tempts those who do not have it to seek and obtain it. It was that tempting power that tempted the sons of Lord Denethor, first Boromir, and then even Faromir, to take the Ring in order to do good. It is the nature of the first temptation of Christ. “If you are the Christ, turn these stones to bread.” The tempter tries to seduce Jesus into thinking “I don’t trust that God can feed me.” “I must take care of myself.” I must try to work out life’s battle for good with my own wisdom, my own thinking, my own way.” Don’t you trust that you can be delivered by the destruction of the Ring? Use trust in power—even malevolent power—instead of trust in the good, to win the day. It is a seduction that goes on every day in our world. In our places of business, the temptation to cheat, to inflate, to play the politics, to be Saruman, allied with evil though thinking himself above it—finding out too late that you can become so controlled by Sauron that only in the end do you realize it.

But others in Tolkien’s world are seduced by the Ring, this source of temptation, we read of Boromir’s vision of what the Ring could provide: “The Ring would give me the power of Command. How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner.”

Boromir strode up and down, speaking ever more loudly. Almost he seemed to have forgotten Frodo, while his talk dwelt on walls and weapons, and the mustering of men; and he drew plans for great alliances and glorious victories to be; and he cast down Mordor, and became himself a mighty king, benevolent and wise.”

Don’t we hear the words of the Tempter there?

Then he took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the
world in a single instant. The devil said to him, “I shall give to
you all this power and their glory; for it has been handed over to
me, and I may give it to whomever I wish. All this will be yours, if
you worship me.”

Yet we see the other side, too, for Boromir is redeemed, in that he acknowledges to himself his wrongdoing. Yet his is a tragic realization, for his wrong choice has been manifested in destructive action which cannot be undone. It is only by his death that he can wipe the slate clean, and in dying the heroic death can he say confidently that he has paid for his sin, and the payment is complete and redemption may follow.

The Ring also tempts those who have it to use it—it was the temptation that Frodo faces when he is threated at Rivertop and by the Nazgul—it is the final temptation in Mt. Doom—appropriately named by Tolkien—in Mordor.

We also see this in the temptation of Christ:

Then he led him to Jerusalem, made him stand on the parapet
of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw
yourself down from here,
      for it is written:

      He will command his angels concerning you,
      to guard you,’
      and:‘With their hands they will support you, lest you dash
your foot against a stone.’”
     Jesus said to him in reply, “It also says, ‘You shall not put the
Lord, your God, to the test.”

This is the ultimate temptation: to lack trust—to not see a way that God can redeem our situation, and to use our freedom of choice to disobey what we have been taught in the hope on not suffering in this life.

The Ring also tempts those who have had it to recover it as a key to happiness, and that pursuit only disfigures our lives, our families, our culture, and our world. It is the temptation of Gollum. The ring is liberation at first, but it them becomes control and destruction.

The essential morality that rules Middle-earth, and indeed which is the basic indicator of freedom in our world, and the choices that Jesus faced in the desert, and the ones we face every day, is the freedom to choose. All have the freedom of choice, and this is an essential attribute of Good. As we have seen of the Tempter in the Desert, Evil seeks domination, rule and control. The forces of Good allow for free will and free choice, even although this may lead to a disastrous end.

The whole Tale of the Ring, especially from Frodo's point of view, is a story of choice and the exercise of free will. Frodo chooses to take the Road to the Fire at the Council of Elrond. In making that choice, he is not only exposing himself to a path fraught with extraordinary danger, but also he is making a choice to expose himself to the continued temptation and challenges of choice that the Ring presents to him.

Certainly, that is life for us. We wish at times that we did not have this terrible freedom of choice, but there can be no love without freedom, and God certainly wants us to love Him, to trust Him, and to experience the freedom that comes—not from having all our choices taken away—but in experiencing the complete freedom to do both good and evil, and finding the reinforcement and the grace to endure during the most difficult of times. We do not see these characters perfect in any dimension—both Boromir and Faromir and even Frodo all succumb to the power of the Ring—just as we succumb to the temptations in our lives—but in each way there is redemption, there is learning, there is grace, there is forgiveness.

What are the take-aways from these lessons, and how can we be fortified for the Lenten Journey?

1. To resist temptation, we need to strengthen our trust-we do that as Jesus did, by feeding our souls on God's Word (Jesus quotes Scripture to combat the devil.). Three times he is able to defeat the Tempter by the words “it is written.”

2. To resist temptation, we need to tap into Christ's own strength, the strength he provides to us in the sacraments. The Sacrament of Reconciliation, good Confession, allows us to tap into Christ's strength and so resist temptation in the future. You see that every time that Frodo confesses his weakness and inability to fulfill his mission, he is provided strength for that journey. “Man does not live by bread alone” Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel this morning, and he provides a living bread, illustrated in the Elven Lembas Bread, miraculously nourishing far beyond its modest appearance to the eye, in the Holy Communion of which we will soon partake. We too feed ourselves at the table of Christ to receive viaticum, food for the journey, for it is a trying and dangerous world to which we return to this morning.

3. We need to see and expose the ways in which temptation comes into our lives. The Three P's—Pleasure, Power, and Popularity—are used by the Tempter in the desert, and this is where 3 times pierces through the allure of the temptation with the clarity of Divine Reality—and that can be a reality for us as well.