The scenario troubles many of us. Is God cool with tempting? If the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil,” does that put the devil in God’s employ? Those are honest questions, but may not be about what the text is addressing. The word “tempt” in English can have good, bad, or neutral ends. A tempting offer may prove worthwhile. A dessert may tempt you. You may be tempted to harm or cheat someone. The Greek word also has a range of meanings, from the bad “entice someone to do something wrong,” to the neutral “try out something,” or “test something to see how it works.” You test drive a car before buying it. You get a new gadget and you try it to see what it can do. The range of meanings helps us interpret this scene, because that Greek word for test, try, and tempt, is describing two simultaneous things. God is trying Jesus, and the devil is tempting Jesus. This scene occurs right after Jesus is baptized. God has just declared, “This is my Son.” Jesus is what Saint Anselm would call the “god-human.” It’s as if God says, Hey, the new god-human is here, man, let’s go try him out. We’ll do it alone, in the wilderness, because he’s mine and I’m trying him first. And right there alongside God is the devil, saying to Jesus, “Since you’re the Son of God, you can do this, right?” With each action, with each move, God tries the god-human to see what he can do, and the Devil tempts the god-human.
God and the devil, faith and sin follow the same path. They are side-by-side. Our tendency is to think of a good-evil continuum. On one end is God, on the other is the devil. Whenever someone who was on the good end does something awful, we call it their fall from grace, and we marvel at how quickly they moved from the God end of the continuum to the devil end. When really, they didn’t have far to go, because God and the devil, faith and sin are always close. The greater the capacity for good, the greater the capacity for evil. Census data can tell a society where its weak spots are that need shoring up, or census data can tell you where the undesirables are and how you can marginalize or hurt them. Globalization can make the abundance of the world available to everyone, everywhere, or globalization can bleed the wealth of billions and ease the spread of disease. Our religion—God is revealed in Jesus Christ—can free people from helplessness, doubt, and oppression, or our religion can imprison people in helplessness, doubt, and oppression. It is not far from God to the devil. It is not far from faith to sin. The shift from faith to sin is a simple matter of not trusting God.
That’s how things unravel in the Garden of Eden: the people stop treating God as God. When we read this story in Bible Study in January, we noted that the word “sin” does not occur in it. I think that helps us with interpreting the story. We don’t have the baggage attached to the word “sin”. We must find our own words for what transpires. In the story, the man and woman are completely dependent upon God and okay with that. It seems. Except the serpent asks the people about the dietary restrictions, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Immediately, something’s wrong: Eve says she is not allowed to touch the fruit. That was not one of God’s rules. God only said not to eat. Eve’s already not trusting that God will protect her from the dangerous fruit. She also sets herself up for more trouble because once she touches the fruit and does not die, it seems to confirm her suspicions that God is lying. It takes practically no effort to convince Adam and Eve that God is not to be trusted. The people stop treating God as God. In the universe, there is God and there are creatures. Creatures are created ones, things that exist because of God. People are creatures. God is God. But people don’t treat God as God. You could say that the root sin, the first sin, is that humans reject their creatureliness.
A scene like Genesis 3 is set to play out in Matthew 4. Jesus the human—the god-human, yes, but human, a creature—is being tried out by God and tempted by the devil. The devil’s temptations don’t quite match those of Genesis 3. They’re closer to the temptations of Israel in the wilderness, following the Exodus. But those, too, are about trusting God. First, Jesus is hungry. The devil says, “Since you’re Son of God, you can make rocks into bread.” When Israel left Egypt, they promptly blamed God for their hunger. They did not trust God to provide. Jesus does. He knows the point of the story, according to Deuteronomy, is “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Or, “Trust God.” Second, the devil says, “Since you’re Son of God, if you fall from a height the angels have to catch you.” When Israel wandered, they “tested” God and said “prove you’re god and give us water.” They didn’t trust God. Jesus does. And he knows the point of that story, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Third, the devil says, “I’ll give you all the kingdoms of the world if you worship me.” When Israel wandered, and Moses went up Mt. Sinai, the Israelites got antsy and made an idol to worship. They didn’t trust God. Jesus does. Jesus gets that he’s a creature. Jesus is the most perfectly human ever because he knows he is a creature. His response to the devil is, God’s got this, God’s got this, and, finally, Get lost, God’s got this. Jesus’ humanity is the point.
Jesus’ humanity saves us. Jesus’ humanity—the same humanity you and I have—saves us. Saint Paul says to the Romans that God has given us a “free gift”. Paul says that Adam—of Adam and Eve notoriety—“is a type of the one who is to come,” or, Adam is like Jesus. Paul’s not saying Adam has divinity; Paul is saying they share humanity. Only Adam’s humanity was a humanity that does not trust God. Jesus’ humanity trusts God. That, Paul says, is God’s “free gift” to us. God gives us—in Christ—humanity that trusts God. We Lutherans have the phrases from Romans worked into our bones: “the righteousness of God through the faith of Jesus Christ for all who believe,” and, “God justifies the one who has the faith of Jesus Christ.” It’s Christ’s humanity trusting God.
And I think that’s scary. At least it is to me. It’s scary that God’s gift to us is a really creaturely human. God does not hit us with more divinity. God does not see people failing to trust God and say, “You know what they need? Divinity. Let’s blast them with unapproachable light, awe them with majesty.” God’s approach to our failure to be creatures is to give us creatureliness again in Jesus. Jesus is a creature even to the point of death. His creatureliness challenges us: will you be creatures? And that gets at the root of it, the first sin, Adam and Eve not trusting God, refusing to be creatures. Trusting God is scary. I wonder if why we think this story in Matthew is about whether God employs Satan, or ask if Jesus really was tempted, is all just to avoid the scary reality that God challenges us to trust God. That Jesus Christ is for us a living question, “Will you be a creature?” When we hear or read Jesus’ words in our own lives, when we splash with the water of the font, when we take the bread and the wine, when we confess and are forgiven, when we gather as a community in Christ’s name, Jesus Christ is alive, a perfectly creaturely human, asking us, “Will you be a creature?”
And, of course, you are one. You are what Jesus challenges you to be. You are a creature because God makes you that. What we have, we have from God. What we are, we are from God. Though we do not naturally accept this, it is the way things are. God deals with us not trusting that what we have, we have from God, by giving us what we have anew in Christ. God deals with us not trusting that what we are, we are from God, by giving us what we are anew in Christ. We are creatures. We have what we have from God.
That may not sound like a lot in the face of the world’s troubles. Heck, it might sound like justification for making things worse. Every oppressor is happy to say they have their position because God has given them what they have. But what we have from God is creatureliness. Oppressing people won’t get you anywhere. You depend on God. Using census data to find the undesirables and hurt them, that’s trying to secure your existence (as though you can), when in truth you exist because of God. Using global trade to bleed the wealth of billions and then turning tail when disease strikes, that’s trying to secure your existence with cash and safe havens, when in truth you only exist because of God. Using the faith to bind people, to shame people, to make sure someone is less than you, that’s trying to secure your existence (as though you can), when in truth you exist because of God. What God gives us in Jesus defeating the devil’s temptations is a humanity that does not need to doubt, or shame, or fear, or hurt others; a humanity that exists because of God, and that trusts God to be God.