True freedom resides in unselfish concern for our neighbour

In a world of constant distraction, we are encouraged to let ourselves be deceived by the false "gods" of the age in which we live,  the Rev Dr James Harding writes.

Perhaps the most severe temptation is the temptation to do good.

When I was a child, I was given a Ladybird Bible Book entitled The Life of Jesus. I no longer remember who gave me the book, or when, but I still treasure it. Although we rarely went to church, I must have looked at it often enough for the beautiful illustrations and gentle narrative to become fixed in my memory, because this book, more than any other, shaped the picture of Jesus that I grew up with.

Early on in the book, there is a picture of Jesus standing quite alone in a stark and forbidding wilderness, looking up to heaven. The scene comes from just before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when, according to three of the Gospels (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13), Jesus was driven by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tested, or tempted, by the devil. Jesus was in the wilderness, we are told, for 40 days, and there he fasted.

In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, there are three tests, or temptations, that Jesus has to face during his time in the wilderness. According to the order in Matthew’s Gospel, the first temptation is to turn stones into bread. The second is to throw himself off a pinnacle of the Jerusalem Temple so that God’s angels would have to rescue Him. The third temptation is to receive authority over all the kingdoms of the world, in return for offering worship to the devil.

I sometimes think that it is the third of these temptations that must have been the most severe. After all, if Jesus were to accept from the devil authority over all the kingdoms of the world, surely He could use His extraordinary gifts to do good. Instead of descending further into corruption, violence and war, surely the kingdoms of the world could be made into places of harmony and peace.

As in the case of the first temptation, Jesus is being tempted to use His divine power to do something extraordinary, something that, moreover, seems to be good. Yet in each case, this would mean turning His attention away from His Heavenly Father. It would mean using His power not for the healing and salvation of those who were physically and spiritually ill, but for ends that were ultimately selfish, however plausible they may have seemed. Turning stones into bread: surely Jesus needed to eat, did He not? Ruling all the kingdoms of the world: surely Jesus would make them places of justice and righteousness, would He not?

Jesus responds by quoting Scripture in the devil’s face. In each case, Jesus quotes the Book of Deuteronomy. More than any other book of the Bible, the Book of Deuteronomy is about wholehearted devotion to the one God, who graciously provides for His people and asks them to love and trust Him.

The Christian churches observe the 40 days prior to Easter as the season of Lent. This season is meant to be a time of deep soul-searching and repentance. Traditionally, this involves disciplines of prayer, abstinence and acts of generosity. We remember the period of 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, and, with the help of God, try to face down the temptations that confront us.

The world we live in is a world of constant distraction. We are constantly being encouraged to place ourselves at the mercy

of our appetites and passions. We are encouraged to be dissatisfied with our lives, and to long for what we do not have, or even need. We are encouraged to be absorbed in ourselves and our fleeting desires, to be endlessly anxious about our identity, and about our place in the world. We are encouraged to manipulate the world around us, to bend it to our will. We are encouraged, in other words, to let ourselves be deceived by the false "gods" of the age in which we live.

There is little, if any, space here for God.

The Christian life, following the example of Jesus, suggests something quite different. Our lives are to be turned not inwards on to ourselves, but outwards, in love towards God, and in love towards those among whom we find ourselves living, whoever they may be (Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:17-18; Luke 10:25-28). Any desire we have to do good must always be shaped by our prior love for God, and by a genuinely unselfish concern for the wellbeing of our neighbour. In learning to live like this, we will surely discover what true freedom is (John 8:32).

 - The Rev Dr James Harding is a senior lecturer in Hebrew Bible-Old Testament studies at the University of Otago, and a priest in the Anglican Diocese of Dunedin.


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