Shortly after the Gulf War in 1991, I heard a radio interview with Jim Wallis, the founder of “Sojourners”. Wallis had had some reservations about how the USA resolved that particular situation, especially about the scope of its military action and the number of deaths that resulted. He had made his protest public. This particular interview was not very sympathetic to towards his view, nor towards him.
At one stage, the interviewer said something to this effect: “This time you and the others who protested the war have to admit that you were wrong. Look at how the people as a whole overwhelmingly endorsed the USA action!” Wallis’ response: “We weren’t wrong. We just lost! There’s a difference between losing and being wrong. Morality isn’t about winning or success. It’s about fidelity.”
He is right. Morality is about fidelity not success.
Both in his words and in his life, Jesus taught this. In fact, the three temptations he faces, at least in Luke’s Gospel, centre precisely on this. The devil tempts him to choose success over fidelity. How so?
In Luke’s Gospel the temptations are set up in this way: Before going into the desert to fast and pray, Jesus lets himself be baptized by John in the Jordan. When he comes out of the water, after his baptism, the heavens open and a voice from heaven says: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.”
At his baptism, Jesus hears his father’s voice telling him that he is blessed, loved, precious to God. It is precisely from this voice and from that message that the devil will, as we will see, tempt Jesus to stray. What is the devil’s ploy?
After being baptized, Jesus goes into the desert where he fasts for 40 days. After that time, scripture says, he is hungry. Part of what is meant here is obvious, he is hungry physically, pure and simple. But there is a subtler meaning to this hunger as well: At this point in his life, Jesus is empty, not just hungry, he is empty, with an emptiness which makes him vulnerable.
It is in the context of this emptiness and vulnerability that the devil says to him: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” Jesus answers: “One does not live by bread alone.”
What, in essence, is contained in this exchange? Simply put, the devil is telling Jesus: “You believe that you are specially loved by God? How can you be God’s loved one and yet be empty? How can you be loved, yet hungry? How can you be God’s beloved, if you are unfulfilled? And Jesus answers: “I can be loved and still hungry; blessed and still empty; precious to God and still unfulfilled.”
In Jesus’ mind, there is no incompatibility between being blessed yet empty, between experiencing oneself as loved by God and yet being hungry and unfulfilled.
The devil’s second temptation works the same motif: He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and tells him that these will all be given to him if he agrees to worship satan. In brief, he is challenging Jesus: “How can you believe that you are blessed, God’s loved one, if you do not have the glories of the world?” Jesus’ reply, when distilled from it original language, in effect says: “I can be precious to God and deeply blessed and not have the glories of the world! Absence of earthly glory and God’s blessing are not incompatible.”
Finally the devil plays a last card: “If you are God’s special one, throw yourself off of the temple and force God to catch you. If God considers you special, let him prove it, let him treat you as special!” Gerald Vann, the great spiritual author, once paraphrased Jesus response to this challenge in words similar to these: “Why should I ask God to treat me specially. I’m a human being … I can walk down like everyone else! I am not looking for separation from ordinary humanity.”
We have not been as successful as Jesus in resisting the temptation to identify fidelity to God with success in the eyes of the world. In a culture which too easily identifies morality with winning it is becoming ever harder for us to believe that we are special and loved by God – even when we are hungry, empty, unfulfilled and losing in the eyes of the world.