by Br Julian McDonald
After being baptized, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert where he was tempted by the devil. Matthew 4, 1-11
One thing I learned this last week was from an article I read about Elvis Presley. Despite his wealth, his celebrity status and his reputation for being drug-dependent, Elvis, like the rest of us, was on a search for God. As a youngster, he regularly attended a Pentecostal church in which his father and some of his uncles were deacons. Moreover, his love for gospel music came from his mother who carried him on her back as she worked picking cotton during his early childhood. Later, he left the church in which he had grown up because of what he regarded as its racial prejudice and oppressive fundamentalism.
Many of us have sat in hairdressers’ salons and listened to the homespun wisdom of the man or woman cutting our hair. Unable to escape, we have endured everything from political propaganda, to criticism of our nation’s leaders and even recipes for curing common colds. Elvis’ long-time hairdresser, Larry Geller, was interested in philosophy and religion and introduced him to books on Hinduism, Buddhism, the Jewish religion, transcendental meditation and yoga. When Elvis died, he was well into a book on the Shroud of Turin. Clearly, he connected comfortably with Larry Geller and from time to time confided to him that he really wanted to find God. He revealed to Geller that he was repeatedly drawn to something Matthew, in his Gospel, attributes to Jesus: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 19, 24).
Elvis had grown up in poverty, so when success, fame and wealth came his way, he was mesmerised by them. Still, he kept returning to that verse in Matthew. He wanted God, but could not let God find him. Yet he knew that he needed to share his wealth and he became a legend, not just for his singing but also for his generosity.
(Note: Elvis is an anglicised version of the Irish ailbe. St Ailbe is the patron of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cashel & Emly. Legend has it that St Ailbe (the name in Irish means living rock) baptized St David, the patron of Wales. There still exists a parish of St Elvis, in Pembrokeshire, Wales).
I suggest that looking at the life of Elvis Presley is an appropriate way to start Lent, for it is like looking into the mirror. Looking at Elvis is really looking at ourselves. There is something/someone for whom we, too, are searching but we cannot quite let go of what within us is holding us back. Though neither the writer nor the readers of these weekly reflections are wealthy celebrities, we all have something of “the rich young man” in us. There is something in all of us which we are reluctant to relinquish. Lent is an invitation to each of us to look within ourselves, to identify what is blocking us from letting into our lives the only One who can set us free. Still, we hesitate to let Jesus get too close to us, afraid that he might ask for more than we are prepared to give.
If we prefer to focus on Matthew’s story of Jesus being tempted by the devil in the desert, we will risk having our comfort disturbed in a different way. That’s because every story we encounter in the Gospels is an invitation to participate. They shake us out of the comfort of being mere spectators. So today’s account of the tussle between Jesus and the devil draws us into a reflection on the limitations of our own humanity, as it highlights the fact that one of the consequences of Jesus being like us in everything except sin was that he, too, had to struggle with temptation. In the process, Matthew shows how, in responding to the devil, Jesus relied on his deep knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures. All three of his responses to the challenges put to him can be found in Deuteronomy:
* God humbled you, made you feel hunger, and then fed you with manna which neither you nor your ancestors had ever known, to make you understand that human beings live not on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Deut. 8, 3).
* Do not put your God to the test as you tested him at Massa (Deut. 6, 16).
* Your God is the one you must fear, him alone you must serve, his is the name by which you must swear (Deut. 6, 13).
If today’s readings do nothing else, they reflect to us our inclinations to try to make ourselves look better than we actually are. While the first reading puts the focus on Adam and Eve, it reveals how we, too, so easily resort to pretence, to blaming others and to papering over our personal weaknesses. We all want to look good in public, yet we can be house devils and street angels. What’s more, the world of advertising encourages us to put on facades. A Nike advertisement, for example, once asserted: “Good clothes won’t laugh at us behind our backs.”
I believe that the key to understanding Matthew’s story of Jesus being tempted in the desert is to be found in the first reading from Genesis. While Adam and Eve had just about everything one could wish for, they succumbed to the urges that have plagued human beings for as long as they have been in existence. While the devil gets the blame for being the seducer, they rebelled against the fact that they were dependent on the God who had loved them into life. They wanted to go it alone. They deluded themselves into thinking that more and better were within their reach. They experienced the urge to have what every human being after them has craved: power, possessions and independence. They ended up thinking that they could gratify their own desires. They didn’t want to have the limitations of being human.
In stark comparison, Jesus resisted the temptation to go it alone. The incarnation meant that he was flesh and blood like all of us, experiencing the same urges and desires for gratification, yet he accepted all the limitations of being human and dependent on God.
In today’s second reading from Romans, Paul brings it all together very neatly by pointing out that sin found a place in our world through the action of one man who deluded himself into thinking he could be self-sufficient. Adam rejected the limitation of being human and dependent. In contrast, Jesus embraced the limitations of being human and resisted every urge for self-gratification. He knew that, as a man, he depended totally on God.
The world in which we live rewards us for what we achieve, how we perform in public, how successful we are in our careers, how wealthy we are. Yet, whatever our status, whatever we produce or whatever we earn, we know that we can be driven by our urges for power, independence, status and possessions. Lent is a time to look into the mirror of our lives, to decide whether we are choosing what our world rewards or what God asks of us. As the prophet Micah reminds us: “This is what God asks of you: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6, 8).
A pretty good way to venture into Lent!